The lot where Isaac Wright Jr., ex-con, tends vegetables next to abandoned railroad tracks and across the street from a boarded-up house is the intersection of social justice, environmental righteousness and economic prosperity.
He is part foot soldier, part guinea pig in a movement that starts in the Englewood garden and may reach all the way to the Oval Office, although he may not fully appreciate it. "I'm not going to lie to you," Wright said one crisp morning while working a row of radishes in a greenhouse. "I needed a job. Long as I was plugged in somewhere, that was OK."
Wright works for Growing Home Inc., which offers "social business enterprise" job training for low-income people. It and he are part of the "green-collar economy," a movement toward an environmentally sound, robust economy with a vast array of jobs, some of which are rooted in withering small towns or decimated inner cities. And guess what metropolis experts say provides the most fertile environment for the green-collar economy? Chicago, Rust Belt capital and adopted hometown of the next president, whose New Energy for America plan calls for investing $150 billion over the next decade to create 5 million new "green jobs."
"I just think Chicago is the symbol of what a green-collar renaissance can look like," said one of the leading gurus of the movement, Van Jones, founder and president of Green for All, a national non-profit working to build "an inclusive, green economy" that would lift people from poverty. Jones wrote the book "The Green Collar Economy," which rose to The New York Times' best-seller list in October.
"If President Obama just takes the message of Chicago and makes it national, it could sweep the country," Jones said in a recent interview.
"When elected officials make decisions to incorporate green policies with economic development, good things happen," agreed Kevin Doyle, president of Green Economy, a Boston-based environmental sustainability firm.
The green-collar economy includes weatherizing and retrofitting buildings; manufacturing and maintaining wind turbines and hybrid vehicles; constructing and operating solar, wind and wave farms; and planting and caring for trees and organic food. It would require entry-level, hard-hat jobs and "middle-skill jobs" in water management, mass transit, materials reuse and recycling, among others. Biologists, agricultural scientists, engineers and lawyers also would be needed.
When Jones and other advocates frame it as a solution to an ailing economy, a tainted environment and social injustice, the green-collar economy can fan a near-frenzy of excitement. But even advocates concede that hope, fueled perhaps by desperation for a shred of optimism, has gotten a little carried away.
Skeptics say it's too costly for the benefits. Both sides agree that the green-collar economy needs a strong push from the federal government, an uncertain prospect in a deep recession. "There's a lot of hope attached to the green economy," Doyle said. "I'm not at all convinced that people will do what needs to be done."
Added Sadhu Johnston, Chicago's chief environmental officer: "My honest opinion is that it is not exploding the way that some people talk about it exploding, yet. We see that there will be opportunities and we want to be strategic in training and developing skills to move those efforts forward in the city."
For now, an October report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors estimates that about 750,000 jobs are related to the "green sector," in industries such as renewable power and fuels, agriculture and building retrofitting. Fueled by concern about global warming; the untapped potential of and growing demand for alternative energy; growth in "green" construction; and the current stock of energy-inefficient buildings, that number is expected to grow to more than 2.5 million by 2018, the report states.
"Elected officials at all levels of government and private markets are both gearing up for massive investments in new alternative-fuel technologies and in increased energy efficiency," the report states. "Market forces, legislation and local initiatives, or some combination thereof," will yield high growth among green-collar jobs.
Jones and others contend that Chicago has placed itself in an ideal position to reap the benefits if and when a green-jobs economy takes off. Advocates point to a number of initiatives, from the city's landscaping and job-training program, Greencorps Chicago, and its Green Business Strategy, which helps companies operate greener and develop green jobs. The city also has the Center for Green Technology, which promotes the cost-effectiveness and environmental benefits of green technologies for businesses and homeowners.
The Institute for Community Resource Development, which focuses on rebuilding the locally grown food network, and Growing Home, which is a planning incubator for urban farms and an urban agriculture district, are a couple of other notable efforts.
Wright, 46, of Chicago tenuously occupies one of those jobs, after four stints in the penitentiary between 2000 and 2007, all for drug possession or trafficking. He said he simply tired of that life, found God and decided it was time for an overhaul.
When he heard about the program, he applied to the organization's transitional job-training program and started in April. He graduated in October and is earning $8.50 an hour as a part-time seasonal employee. That job ended Dec. 20. He will receive help in finding a new one, but green jobs are in short supply.
Jones calls for a wave of measures-from cities setting targets for local food and promoting renewable energy to the federal government establishing a revolving loan program for energy efficiency and launching a Clean Energy Corps-to spark job creation.
Wright said he would be happy with one decent job. He's thinking about enrolling in computer classes at Malcolm X College. But if he can be part of the green-collar economy, all the better. "I can't see past today," Wright said. "But if I'm allowed to wake up tomorrow, I'm going to do everything I can to help out. If it means saving the Earth, why not? Because you only get one Earth, right? Like you only get one mama."