Urban America Forward | “Sustainability Diversity and the Green Economy”

“We are the decision makers. We come from these communities. We need to decide environmental or equitable siting.” – Lisa Garcia, Earthjustice

“What is this fossil fuel economy doing to income inequality? What is it doing to the environment, and what is it doing for social equity?” – Denise Fairchild, Emerald Cities Collaborative

“In the Navajo Nation, we have no running water. We haul water on a daily basis, and only when we have transportation.” – Krishel Augustine, Navajo singer and songwriter

“Investing in infrastructure has the profound impact of advancing equity, national prosperity, and environmental sustainability.” – Kalima Rose, PolicyLink

“We can find precedent in FDR’s vision of a Works Progress Administration that links full employment to infrastructure investment. That program employed 8.5 million people, including people of color.” – Kalima Rose, PolicyLink

“Our legal and policy remedies need to take into account community perspectives and the role of implicit bias.” – Anita Earls, Southern Coalition for Social Justice  

The green economy is an engine for employment, wealth creation, and healthier communities. An Urban Civil Rights Agenda must move away from a polluting and extractive economy and toward an inclusive green and clean economy.

  • Low-income communities of color suffer disproportionately from the effects of power plant emissions. Coal power plants are disproportionately located in low-income communities and in communities of color.[1]
  • African Americans compose 12 percent of the U.S. labor force, yet in 2015, they constituted just 5.2 of the solar workforce. In contrast, Asian Americans and Latinos constituted 8.7 percent and 11.3 percent of the solar workforce, respectively.[2]
  • Despite increasing racial diversity in the United States, the racial composition in environmental organizations and agencies has not broken the “green ceiling,” or the invisible threshold beyond which environmental organizations have failed to diversify.[3]

Below are the overarching themes and the corresponding policy recommendations that emerged during the Roundtable Series. 


Overarching Themes

We need to diversify the environmental movement as well as the green and clean energy economy.  The consequences of climate change will have a disproportionate effect on the world’s poor, both internationally and domestically. This slow-growing crisis presents us with an opportunity for leadership, as well as a chance to add momentum to our work through collaboration with the sustainability movement.

Local advocacy groups should demand accountable and socially responsible energy production. As the renewable energy industry emerges as a political and economic force to be reckoned with, we have the opportunity to organize our communities around both its consumption and production.

Policy Recommendations

Craft federal and state legislative vehicles to require community benefits agreements. Legislation should require companies that are building in communities disproportionately affected by pollution to develop community benefits agreements, including local hiring and energy efficient and clean facility requirements.

Expand Department of Energy funding for energy efficiency and weatherization assistance programs, which improve energy efficiency for low-income communities, and include local hire requirements.

Require state carbon reduction plans to include mandatory engagement of low-income communities of color. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan required meaningful engagement of community groups in strategies to address climate pollution and in providing input on possible impacts to low-income, minority, and tribal communities.

Models and Tactics

Emerald Cities is a collaboration of labor, businesses, community groups, and government working in seven cities to build coalitions to ensure that the green economy is inclusive, sustainable, and just. They target energy efficiency retrofit work in the large commercial and municipal, university, school, and hospital markets, as well as multifamily and affordable housing. Emerald Cities also brokers partnerships to ensure that local residents—particularly those historically excluded such as low-income residents, immigrants, and communities of color—directly benefit from the energy efficiency work.[4]


[1] NAACP, Indigenous Environmental Network, and Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, “Coal Blooded: Putting Profits before People” (Washington, DC: NAACP, October 2012), p. 3 http://action.naacp.org/page/-/Climate/Coal_Blooded_Executive_Summary_Update.pdf.

[2] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Labor Force Characteristics by Race and Ethnicity,” BLS Reports, August 2014, http://www.bls.gov/opub/reports/cps/race_ethnicity_2013.pdf; and The Solar Foundation,  “National Solar Jobs Census 2015” (Washington, DC: Solar Foundation and GW Solar Institute, January 2016), p. 18, http://www.thesolarfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/TSF-2015-National-Solar-Jobs-Census.pdf

[3] The green ceiling is a threshold of 12–16 percent diverse composition of environmental organizations, despite that people of color are 36 percent of the U.S. population and compose 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce. See Green 2.0, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations: Mainstream NGOs, Foundations & Government Agencies,” (Washington, DC: Green 2.0, n.d.), http://www.diversegreen.org/the-challenge/.

[4] See Emerald Cities Collaborative, “Strategies” (website), http://emeraldcities.org/about/strategies.