Green Jobs – Emerald Cities

On Tuesday night I went to the famous Castro theater to see Sing-a-long The Wizard of Oz with Donna Hume from Friends of the Earth. Best experience of my life (only a small exaggeration)! Never let it be said that environmentalists are no fun. Oddly enough, that was the same day we went and met with the Oakland chapter of Emerald Cities. Here is what I learnt.

The background

  • Established in 2009, the Emerald Cities Collaborative (ECC) is a consortium of diverse organisations – businesses, unions, community organisations, development intermediaries, social justice advocates, research and technical assistance providers. Their creation was led by Policy Link, MIT, the trade unions and Green for All, amongst others.
  • They are based in Washington, and operate 10 affiliate offices across the country.
  • Their 3 goals are to “green our cities”, “build our communities” and “strengthen our democracy”.
  • They aim to reach these goals through promoting a large-scale reduction in CO2; healthy and sustainable communities; community, city and labor civic engagement; collective bargaining practice; and pathways to good jobs and lifetime careers.
  • ECC’s first project is the comprehensive retrofit of America’s urban building stock. It proposes to do this city by city, while realizing as many gains from joint and mutual assistance and learning as possible.
  • Watch their intro video here.

The local need

  • There is a 30% or higher unemployment rate in construction in Oakland. Only 8% of that construction sector is unionized.
  • In California, one in 4 high school students don’t graduate, yet most job training programmes and employers require a high school certificate and driver’s license, etc. Emerald Cities comes in to provide the bridge and support to take people into the workforce.
  • Low-income communities don’t believe they have access, or are invited to the green movement. This is an old assumption ECC aims to turn around.
  • Prop 209 in the late 90s in California scrapped all forms of affirmative action. Women went from being 6-7% of employees in the trades, to 3-4% in 10 years.

The programmes

  • Targeted energy-efficiency upgrades – focused on the MUSH market (municipals, universities, schools and hospitals) and providing dollar incentives for renters, moderate income homeowners, and businesses in neighborhoods of need.
  • New opportunities for minority- and women-owned businesses– helping with asset and wealth-building, and creating additional employment opportunity for minority, low-income communities for retrofit building and other sectors.
  • Partnerships to facilitate strategic, equitable growth of local green economies – leveraging environmental education projects with other capital investments to improve public housing and multi-family affordable housing etc. Creating multiple leadership and engagement opportunities for youth and residents.

The hope

  • They aim to train 160 young people over the next 3 years
  • AB32, California’s clean air act, means the demand for energy efficiency technologies should keep growing.
  • Obama’s Better Building Initiative is a tax credit for improving energy efficiency by 20% – this is now set to increase to 60%.

The challenges

  • The current economic climate is creating reluctance amongst communities and the city, to believe that the money and assistance will really be there to help them retrofit.
  • Focus and funding really needs to be placed on the root causes of these community problems – why are a quarter of high school students not graduating?
  • Making sure the jobs are “decent” jobs. Many employers would like to deskill “green” employment, so that they can complete basic training in 6 weeks and therefore pay employees the minimum wage. The challenge lies in ensuring people get substantial training, with wrap-around skills, and a potential career path.
  • It was easy at the beginning for all launch partners to see a benefit, but it will get tougher and tougher in the current economic climate as some partners benefit more than others.
  • There is a trade off between the public budget and the minimum wage – the more you pay employees, the less buildings you can retrofit, and vice versa.


  • Tara and the ECC blew me away with their strategy. I wish I could share her power point with you, but essentially it was filled with diagrams illustrating their method of system-building, their strategic framework, and the structure of their programmes. Theories of organizing and movement-building seem to be underpinning all their work.
  • The policy is a big area of their work, along with the grassroots work. This is a feature that I am seeing time and time again in these US organisations – policy and groundwork working together in a strategic way, under the same roof. I think we can definitely learn from this.
  • They have a lot of money, as do most of the orgs we’ve met with. It all seems to have come from Obama’s Recovery Act stimulus package and something called the public goods surcharge, which is a small charge on public utility bills and gets funnelled back into green energy projects.
  • I think there is definitely a space in the UK for an organisation like this. Anyone up for setting up Emerald Cities UK? Let me know!

Inspirational names, inspirational stories

  • I am getting name-envy, what with the Apollo Alliance on Monday, and now Emerald Cities! The director of the Oakland chapter, Tara Marchant, told us that the name conjured up Dorothy’s admission that “there’s no place like home”, and the idea that if we want to make change, we have to start with our own communities, and the assets in those communities. As the last scene goes…

Tin Woodsman: What have you learned, Dorothy?

Dorothy: Well, I – I think that it – it wasn’t enough to just want to see Uncle Henry and Auntie Em – and it’s that – if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?


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