Community Ownership, Leadership, and Inclusion Required in the Green Economy

Over the past twenty years, the U.S. has seen devastating racial inequities in income, wealth, criminal justice, and health.  Income insecurity has disproportionately risen during the economic recovery.  The number of African Americans earning minimum wage increased by 16.6% and Latinos by 15.8% compared to 5.2% for White Americans.  Wealth disparities are at record highs with White median wealth being 20 times greater than Black median wealth and 18 times greater than Latino median wealth. Disparities in the justice system include African Americans composing 40% of the prison population yet only 13% of the general population.  Health inequities in heart disease, asthma, and HIV/AIDS further restrict economic opportunities and wealth creation by draining time, energy, and resources in communities of color.  These racial inequalities are interconnected. They help define local and regional economic opportunities and determine the human, financial, and social capital available to create sustainable economies.

To combat these disparities and expand the possibilities for work, ownership, well-being, and justice, we must advance economic models that value and enhance democratic participation, individual and community assets, local knowledge and capacity, shared wealth creation, and good jobs with living wages, retirement security, and upward mobility.  Community-owned utilities and worker cooperatives are two models to further these equity goals. 

As the green economy continues to grow and spur cleaner forms of energy cultivation and distribution, community-owned utilities will be central to a “green revolution.”  Community-owned utilities include communities cooperatively financing, owning and/or operating utilities.  This model of cooperative economic development is growing in communities exploring solar, wind, and geothermal businesses. From an urban center in Oakland, California to a suburban community in Greenbelt, Maryland to a rural area of Philippi, West Virginia, best practices and replicable models of community-owned utilities exist throughout the United States.  These community-owned enterprises provide viable options for job training, local hiring, inclusive contracting, asset building, lower utility prices, local control, and direct environmental benefits. 

In addition to community-owned utilities, worker cooperatives are another vehicle for sustainable and equitable community economic development.  Unlike the worker vs. owner structure of most workplaces, a worker cooperative model is a worker-owner model, in which those who own the enterprise and determine its actions are those who are the enterprise’s workers.  Worker cooperatives in the green economy take multiple forms from businesses weatherizing homes and commercial facilities to those producing locally grown produce or manufacturing and distributing green household cleaning products.

Community-owned utilities and worker cooperatives hold out the possibility for communities of color to determine the answers to critical community economic development questions:

• Who benefits from job and wealth creation? 
• Who bears the human and environmental costs of development?
• What types of jobs are created (low-wage vs. living-wage jobs)?
• Where does development happen?
• Where are jobs located?
• How are job creation decisions made and job retention incentives distributed?
• How do communities most impacted by business development gain more jobs, greater wealth, and enhanced well-being throughout the life of a business?

The who, what, where, and how of job creation and retention often determine the roles local communities play in controlling their own economic development, and ultimately, their economic destiny.  For communities of color to benefit from the green economy we must answer these critical economic justice questions by advocating for good jobs and building community-owned and controlled green enterprises that affirm shared prosperity, greater inclusion, and justice for all.

In the 50th anniversary year of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom during which Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared his dream for America, we must remember that jobs and freedom, prosperity and justice, well-being and inclusion are not mutually exclusive, but fundamentally linked.  The future of communities of color, and in fact, the nation, requires nothing less than our collective action to make this dream an American reality.  The growing frontier of the green economy presents many opportunities for all of us to create this reality together.

The NAACP invites you to join us at Bridging the Gap: Connecting Black Communities to the Green Economy on Monday, April 15th to continue the dialogue and action needed to create an economy in which there is truly “liberty and justice for all.”