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Green Collar Jobs Give Richmond Residents Hope

on October 13, 2009

On a recent Friday afternoon, in a house converted into an office on a residential street in Richmond, two men paint the lobby walls green, while another unrolls strips of blue carpet to install in an adjoining room.  The tile on the floors is recently laid, and still damp from the clean-up mop.

These workers are graduates of a local training program, Richmond BUILD, financed by a public-private partnership.  They are among the 160 Richmond residents who have completed the program since it began in April 2007.  BUILD teaches students to weatherize houses and install solar panels in addition to giving training in the basic skills of construction, including carpentry, electrical work and plumbing.

Recent graduates said before beginning the program they didn’t have a steady job, much less a trade.  BUILD seems to have made a difference.

“I did a whole lot of everything, janitorial, cleaning up after dogs, a whole lot of stuff like that,” said life-long Richmond resident Mario Vasquez, 23. He graduated from the program in August, and is now looking for a job in carpentry as he works on the BUILD offices.

The program has a 90 percent job placement rate and an 85 percent retention rate, said Fred Lucero, project manager at Richmond BUILD.

Yet training isn’t the primary objective of the program, according to Lucero.  BUILD began as a violence-reduction program for Richmond.

“It’s not just about arresting people,” Lucero said, arguing that programs like BUILD decrease crime. “[It’s about] reeducating people, training people.”

“For a city that has 100,000 people, a lot of stuff happens here,” Lucero said.  Richmond is the third most violent city per capita in California, according to FBI crime statistics.

Students like Richard Ortega, 18, and Randy Mason, 29, said they see Richmond BUILD as a refuge from the violence of their city.

Ortega said that he had spent time in the juvenile justice system before beginning the training program.

“I started this whole thing because my probation officer made me,” Ortega said. “I never had nowhere to go.  This was the only thing ever showing me, go this way.  That’s why I wake up every morning and come here.”

Ortega was recently hired for a construction project in the Iron Triangle, where he also lives.

“When I got here in this program it’s kind of like the light at the end of the tunnel,” Mason, 29, said.  “They are helping us build our personal life at the same time they are helping us build our business life, which is helping us want to have a career.”

A focus on green collar jobs connects employment and environmentalism, while also serving as a crime reduction strategy, according to Emily Kirsch of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. The Ella Baker Center is a non-profit co-founded by Van Jones, former advisor on green jobs, enterprise and innovation in the Obama administration.

“People know they can make $20 an hour weatherizing a building,” said Kirsch, who is also the Bay Area Organizer for the Baker Center’s Green Collar Jobs Campaign.

“Given that opportunity, most people would take the higher road,” she said.

Green collar jobs pay a wage that can support a family of four, Kirsch said.  Unlike general green industry jobs, green collar jobs involve hands-on labor, explained Raquel Pinderhughes, the San Francisco State University professor of Urban Studies and Planning who coined the term.

Graduates are placed in construction jobs that pay on average more than $18 an hour as the result of collaboration between “unlikely allies” such as labor unions, environmentalists and businesses, Kirsch said.

Richmond BUILD’s job placement strategy depends on developing and maintaining these connections with businesses and unions as well as training students with green economy skills, Lucero said.

“We’ve been building relationships, sending them qualified candidates who will do well,” Lucero said.  “We are in the trenches working with people every day.”

Placing the last two graduating classes in jobs has been difficult given the slow-down in the construction industry, Lucero said.  He also said he thinks the program has had an impact on the community despite these difficulties.

The FBI recognized BUILD for taking steps to reduce violence and drug-related crime.  But 2009 has seen marked increases in homicides in the city. As of October, the homicide rate has reached 41, compared to 20 homicides all year in 2008, according to statistics released by the city of Richmond.

Graduates face challenges in finding employment in an economic downturn, and living in the same violent neighborhoods.  Some suggest that these difficulties make the lessons they learned at Richmond BUILD even more important.

“It’s like being here, I’m happy,” Mason said.  “This is where I am at peace.”

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Richmond Confidential is an online news service produced by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism for, and about, the people of Richmond, California. Our goal is to produce professional and engaging journalism that is useful for the citizens of the city.

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