GO! for green-collar jobs

It’s no surprise that GO!, the acronym for Asheville’s budding green-jobs training initiative, has an urgent ring to it. The Asheville Green Opportunity Corps pilot program was created as a local response to two pressing issues: climate change and a dearth of desirable jobs for disadvantaged youth. By opening doors to green jobs, the program aims to promote sustainability and social justice at the same time.

Since the Sept. 2008 inception of its pilot program, GO! has been preparing eight young adults for careers in the budding environmental sector. The corps members—many of them public-housing residents who did not possess high-school diplomas when they started—are paid to participate in the program, which covers everything from basic interviewing skills to GED preparation to environmental education. After 15 weeks of environmental service projects, life-skills training, community-college coursework and one-on-one support, corps members go onto a 20-week paid apprenticeship in the green-career pathway of their choice.

The experience will help them gain access to jobs that—aside from being a boon to the environment—offer living wages, benefits and opportunities for advancement. The program is deeply interconnected with Asheville’s green-business community, which stands to gain from the specialized workforce created through the program. GO! works closely with green businesses and nonprofits that agree to host apprentices, and the companies benefit from the extra publicity.

GO! was created by ecologist/educator Dan Leroy and artist/activist DeWayne Barton. (The program was administered by the Clean Air Community Trust initially, but is working toward its own nonprofit status.) A chief objective, according to its cofounders, is to get corps members to invest energy into their own communities during their immersion in service learning. Toward that end, corps members have completed 14 diverse projects in the first three-month period, from installing green roofs, solar panels and compact fluorescent light bulbs, to building energy-efficient affordable housing, growing local food and removing invasive species. They’re now transitioning to the apprenticeship phase of the program.

Corps members say the program has given them new perspectives on the environment, green business and their own futures. “I love it,” says corps member Nicole Brow, who is interested in apprenticing at a biofuels outfit. The GO! program, she adds, has helped her to develop a deeper appreciation of nature, and she’s concerned about energy issues.

D. Franklin, another corps member, says the program has fueled his desire to start his own green-construction business. Franklin says he tells his friends to “shoot for the stars. If you’re down, you don’t have to stay down—cause there’s always opportunity.”

GO! is part of a growing green-collar jobs movement seeking to inextricably link economic prosperity and justice with environmental progress. Van Jones, founder of Oakland-based Green for All, articulates his vision for a prosperous green future in The Green Collar Economy (Harper Collins, 2008). In the book, he describes what he considers to be a new era of environmentalism: “This new wave has the potential to be infinitely more expansive and inclusive than previous environmental upsurges,” he writes. “The reason for hope has to do with the very nature of the present wave: because it is centered on investment and solutions, it is a qualitatively different phenomenon.”

He continues: “Once the green economy is no longer just a place for the affluent to spend money, [and] once it becomes a place for ordinary people to earn and save money—nothing will stop it.”

The concept appears to have won support in some very high places. After a Dec. 9, 2008, meeting with former Vice President Al Gore, then-president-elect Barack Obama sounded a similar note on climate change. “This is a matter of urgency and national security, [but] it is not only a problem, it is also an opportunity,” Obama said in a statement. “We have the opportunity now to create jobs all across this country in all 50 states to re-power America, to redesign how we use energy and think about how we are increasing efficiency to make our economy stronger, make us more safe, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and make us competitive for decades to come—even as we save the planet.”

If GO! sees the work necessary to fight climate change as a golden opportunity, they’re not alone. And while the endeavor may have a way to go before saving the planet, it seems to be getting under way at just the right time.

To learn more about how you can support GO! as an Apprentice Host or Business Partner, contact Dan Leroy at (828) 318-9916 or at info@greenopportunities.org.

Rebecca Bowe, formerly contributing editor at Mountain Xpress, is now based in San Francisco. She can be reached at rebecca.bowe@gmail.com.