Two days after President Obama signed the stimulus package into law, DeWayne Barton and Dan Leroy were in D.C. for the “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” conference. But the two men—co-founders of the Asheville Green Opportunity Corps—were not content with merely attending the event and eyeing the new funding possibilities. With help from Barton’s D.C. brother and nephews, they hauled tires, bicycles, TVs, beer bottles, discarded toys and other trash out of a neglected section of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
Such community projects are the heart and soul of Asheville GO’s mission. “We should walk our talk,” Barton maintains. “We’re trying to prepare young people coming from low-income backgrounds for [green-collar] jobs. [And] we want to build up the whole community.”
To date, the nonprofit has mostly focused on one of Asheville’s poorer neighborhoods: Burton Street. Besides providing a chance to broaden their scope, the D.C. project also demonstrated that unlike many of the conference’s 2,500 other attendees, they have a program that’s in place and ready for expansion, the two men explain.
“We’re doing it, not just talking about it,” notes Leroy.
When Barton visited D.C. in January for Obama’s inauguration, he noticed the litter, pondered Douglass’ status as one of the pre-eminent African-Americans of the 19th century, and realized that much of the trash appeared to have come from an adjacent low-income neighborhood. That made it a good project for GO, which combines on-the-job training with community service.
Last year, for example, GO Corps members helped build a cob oven at the Burton Street Community Peace Garden. They also worked on weatherizing elderly residents’ homes, notes Leroy (see “A Green Light for Jobs,” Sept. 24, 2008, Xpress).
Participants get on-the-job training that prepares them for green-collar jobs; the community gets help with practical projects that improve the neighborhood while demonstrating what being green is all about. During the D.C. cleanup, for instance, some neighborhood kids got curious about what they were doing and joined in the effort, the two men note.
That’s how you start to get community buy-in; that’s how you effect change, they emphasize. “It seems as if the environmental movement went over the heads of the poor at first, when we can all be involved,” adds Barton.
Showing a community you care triggers a subtle shift in attitudes that can turn it and its residents around, says Leroy. “This is about opportunities and about what we all share on this earth.”
Their efforts are paying off. Two of GO’s first eight corps members have completed their GEDs, another has been hired as an electrician’s assistant, and others have earned apprenticeships with local green businesses, Barton notes with pride, adding, “You don’t realize what their life was like before and where they are now—or how hard they’ve worked and what they’ve sacrificed.”
Barton and Leroy have come a long way, too. Less than two years ago, they had similar but separate ideas and no way to accomplish their goals. Barton—a visual artist and community activist—was looking for job opportunities for young adults who’ve dropped out of school and might be “getting in trouble.” But when he asked a local contractor where they could get trained to install solar-energy systems, for example, the answer was “Raleigh.”
Leroy, meanwhile, was working for another local nonprofit, the Clean Air Community Trust. He had an idea for a green-jobs program targeting high-school graduates who were on their way to college. But with numerous college-level programs already in place, Leroy was debating how to proceed.
After meeting Barton through a common contact at the Western North Carolina Green Building Council, however, Leroy realized, “What’s really needed is to engage young people who’ve been written off.” The connecting thread between social justice and environmental activism, he concluded, is jobs.
Working through the community trust, the two men launched Asheville GO. They plan to engage 12 corps members in the next nine-month program, and another dozen soon after.
The D.C. conference was Barton’s third such event. “In Pittsburgh, I knew I wanted to get into this,” he explains. “In Memphis, which targeted minorities, I said, ‘I’m going to do this.’ After D.C., I said, ‘We need to work harder to get this done.’”
Barton, meanwhile, says: “The pathway is there. We’re doing right, and we need to keep doing it.”
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