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Solving two problems with one job


We hear a lot about green jobs these days – those in renewable energy like solar, or wind, or retrofitting houses so they stay warmer. President Obama, campaigning in 2008, promised that investing $150 billion in clean energy would generate five million jobs. But after $90 billion from the stimulus, only a fraction of that number have been created.

San Francisco is trying to be green. The city has committed to an aggressive Climate Action Plan that calls for reducing carbon emissions by a quarter by the year 2017 – and getting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. The city also awards millions of dollars in grants for environmental cleanup programs.

Two nonprofits are trying to make that vision work. In the Mission, Lead Free LLC is teaching people who work as janitors and home cleaners how to clean up houses contaminated with lead. And in SOMA, Asian Neighborhood Design trains hard-to-employ individuals, many of them with criminal backgrounds, to do skilled work installing solar panels.

Getting the skills to get green jobs

In recovery circles, it’s a cliché that you have to hit rock bottom before you can come up.

“I had 26 charges when I get arrested,” says Aaron Buchanan. “I already had like 12 here, ten up in Washington. I’m looking at 12 years in prison. For me this is it. If I can't make this work, then I'm gonna grow old in a prison cell.”

Altogether, Buchanan guesses he’s spent eight years of his life in jail – and many more addicted to meth and other drugs. He’s broken into people’s houses to steal their things. He’s broken his back jumping out of a third story window. Today, though, he’s been clean for 17 months. And he’s hoping he can break into a new trade.

“I'm doing this for me,” he says. “But I want to make my family proud. I don't want them worrying whether I'm laying dead in a ditch anymore.”

Buchanan is sitting in an industrial garage that’s been turned into a classroom. All around are carpentry projects in various stages of completion. In the middle of the room are two rows of desks, seating 19 men and women with stories a lot like Buchanan’s. They’re here today to begin a three and a half month training class offered by a non-profit called Asian Neighborhood Design. At the end of it they’ll have the skills to get green construction jobs – specifically, installing solar panels.

“Just because a kid has a rough background and tattoos doesn't mean he doesn't understand what 16 on center is,” says Jamie Brewster, site manager at Asian Neighborhood Design’s employment training center, upstairs from the classroom.

His office walls are decorated with pictures of his daughter, now seven years old. Right behind his desk, though, is very different kind of picture: a black and white photo of a young man, looking defiant.

“It’s my reminder,” he says. “Keeps me focused. Anytime I feel like I might be going backwards or slipping up, I just turn around and look at that, it’s a great reminder.”

Ask him what the picture is from, and he’ll tell you it’s his California Department of Corrections inmate ID card.

“That was the fifth and final time that I was incarcerated back in 1999,” he remembers. It was on his mom’s birthday.

Brewster says the problems involved drugs. Back then he was a promising amateur skateboarder, but he ended up going to prison five times.

“It’s important people understand that you can go here, and still end up where I’m at,” says Brewster.

He’s made it to the other side. He’s been sober over 10 years. Now he helps people like Aaron Buchanan turn their lives around. Solar is good business. It’s still small – about 120,000 Americans work in the industry – but it’s adding jobs at about six times the national rate. Solar jobs are also often non-union, which means lower wages, but also an easier and less complicated path to employment.

“No offense to the unions,” says Brewster, “but here in San Francisco, it’s a lot easier to get them into a non-union job, because there’s less hoops to jump through, pre-requisites are less, and often time employers are a little easier to deal with.”

Brewster’s been placing people in solar jobs for almost four years, and he says he usually finds work for about three quarters of each graduating class.  Last year he did better and placed 17 of 18 graduates in jobs paying about $15 per hour.

This is the kind of program people call a win-win. It’s a ladder up for people who’ve hit rock bottom, and it’s helping San Francisco reduce its carbon emissions. But carbon isn’t the only toxin San Francisco has to worry about. Residents are finding jobs battling all kinds of pollutants. A few miles from Asian Neighborhood Design, in the Mission, Myrna Melgar had another idea for turning an environmental hazard into economic opportunity.

“It was a double whammy,” Melgar says. She’s deputy director of Mission Economic Development Corporation, or MEDA. She also recently helped start another organization under MEDA’s umbrella: Lead Free, LLC. The double whammy she mentioned is Lead Free’s two-fold mission: first, to clean up the lead that’s poisoning children in some of San Francisco’s poorest communities, and second, to help low-income residents in the Mission District – many of them housekeepers and janitors – find good jobs doing it. Lead Free has only been up and running for a year – but so far it’s cleaned up about half a dozen homes, and helped about a dozen people begin the transition to lead cleanup jobs. 

“It seemed like a natural thing to address an environmental justice issue to folks who are low income who need jobs,” says Melgar.

We know lead dust is bad. In children it can create a whole host of developmental disabilities. Some research has even linked national crime trends to the amount of lead in the atmosphere.

Lead is present in almost any house built before 1978. That’s more than 90 percent of San Francisco’s homes. The Mayor’s Office of Housing administers federal grants to help clean up lead, and it’s partnered with Lead Free to handle emergency cases. There are also cleanup subsidies available to low-income families with children. They can hire whomever they want to do the work. But Lead Free is hoping they’ll hire them.

“One of the trainees that I have right now is a single mom of a little six year old girl and prior to this she cleaned houses whenever she could get one,” says Ginny Fontenot.

She’s worked as both a social worker and a lead remediation specialist, and she helps train people through Lead Free. Her trainees learn that the idea isn’t to get all the lead out of a house, but instead to make it safe. That can mean encasing lead beneath special barriers – that’s called encapsulating – or removing particularly toxic windows and doors. What works best depends on the situation. There’s a lot to learn. And most of them are still just getting started.

“We are going to be training them, sending them to state-certified… to get state certification and hopefully get them good jobs,” says Fontenot.

Trainees at Lead Free, just like the trainees at Asian Neighborhood Design, are headed for non-union jobs. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency offers a variety of certifications for lead cleanup – all the way up to supervisor. Earning all of them can take up to a year. But it’s worth it. Just like in solar, a trained lead cleanup worker makes about $15 per hour.

“That is the essence of why the program was created in the first place,” says Melgar. “Because wage differential between just cleaning houses and what someone can earn doing lead dust cleaning is quite significant.”

It’s a shame there isn’t a nicer way of saying “killing two birds with one stone,” but solving two problems with one job is a good start. 

Correction: This story originally stated that Jamie Brewster was a professional skateboarder before he went to prison. It has been corrected to state that he was an amateur at that time.


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