• Director Dispatches

Can getting people back to work save the planet?

Everyone’s talking about jobs—how to create new jobs, how to lift low-wage jobs or how to get jobs to depressed areas of the country—and the question I always come back to is, how do we make sure those jobs are good enough to sustain a life, or a family?

Green for All is an organization that marries environmental sustainability (the green economy) with new jobs (particularly “green-collar” jobs.)

The organization works to expand training programs and work opportunities for skills like installing clean technology, rehabbing buildings for energy efficiency, cutting steel for wind turbines and repairing electric engines. The types of jobs that can build a middle class.

The great community potential is that green jobs tend to be difficult to outsource. After all, you’re not going to “pick up a house, send it to China to have solar panels installed, and have it shipped back.” (Check out more examples on Green for All’s website.)

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, who runs the organization, describes it as creating a green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.

I had a great conversation with Phaedra about how to extend sustainability beyond the environmental movement and into economic stability and personal sustainability. Thought I'd share it with you.

Sara Horowitz: So what brought you to the environmental movement?

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins: Let me just say, I was not a traditional environmentalist. I came out of the labor movement, and I saw environmentalism as being mostly about parks and green space.

I came from a place of scarcity, where you had a choice: You either got good jobs, or you got a quality environment.I came from a place of scarcity, where you had a choice: You either got good jobs, or you got a quality environment. As a poor girl who grew up in a poor community, it never occurred to me that you could have both.

Sara: So when did your thinking change? What was your "A-ha" moment?

Phaedra: It happened in two parts. One was when I was with the South Bay Labor Council and we were doing work in San Jose around a general plan for the city.

We started to think about what communities needed. We had a position of influence, so we could afford to think of both, and I realized, "Wow, isn't it crazy that I thought we had to pick only one?"

The second thing was that I saw the green economy begin to grow in the same way we'd seen high-tech grow: in an exclusive way.

I represented people like the electrical workers who were trying to figure out solar, but we began to see people benefitting who were not our folks—just like the high-tech economy had not created opportunity for people of color or working white people, and all the folks who used to be in the middle of the economy were left out. I knew we needed to figure out a way so those folks didn't get left behind again. It never occurred to me that you could have both.

Sara: You know, one of the things that we talk about a lot is sustainability. When we started our insurance company, we said we have to make decisions for two generations out. That's what got us to launch our medical practice just for freelancers in New York City.

**As you're talking, it seems like so much of it is about sustainability and saying, "This is for us all. It's not just for the few." **

Phaedra: That's why I'm so impressed with the medical practice. And as a mom, my frame in the world has shifted. I think a lot more about the world that my daughter will inherit.

There's also something about personal sustainability, because I think, both as activists and just as people trying to survive in this world, we don't think about how to maintain work/life balance. As corny as that sounds, it's so important. Even just basic things like exercising and meditating.

The reality is that most of us, even if we appear to have it together, are really on a personal quest for sustainability.

Sara: I feel like that's the thing I'm really learning from freelancers. They really are the avant-garde, because they have to figure out how they're planning a day. Once you're no longer thinking, "Well, I just go to work. I start at 9:00. I finish at 5:00. This is what I do," then you start to say, "Wait a minute. What are my top priorities? What do I actually care about?" And then you end up ratcheting down your expenses.

In our medical practice, we set up a room for people to do tai chi and acupuncture and things like that, to integrate it and make the economics work. It drives me crazy how people think that the only people who should be meditating and doing yoga are yuppies.

Phaedra: That's so right—just like environmentalism.

Sara: If you go into any ethnic community and you go to the grandparents, I can guarantee they're doing something non-western for their health. It shouldn't be so “boutique”—it's not just environmentalism that's like that.

Phaedra: I always joke that the best environmentalist I know is actually my Nana, my father's mother. She has not met a paper towel that cannot be reused, and she was always saving jars of oil on the stove. In our quest to get more, we've kind of gotten less.

High-end communities are figuring out the shareable economy, but it's not in the places where people desperately need it.Sara: So true. For inspiration, I think about cooperatives and the old mutual aid model.

I worry that I talk too much about the sharing economy in this column, but this is the forefront of the economic changes that are going to affect people, and I wonder, how does the social sector play a role that's really meaningful?

I look at the Elances and the oDesks, and I think, why aren't we all harnessing those great ideas?

Phaedra: I so agree. What's so interesting is that a lot of high-end communities are figuring out the shareable economy, but it's not in the places where people desperately need it.

I've been trying to convince our team that we should be doing garage-sale-type exchanges in communities, like with kids' clothing. I am just obsessed with this issue because it's so painful to me. The sharing economy is among the most important stuff that's happening, if we could only figure out a way to get it to the people who need it the most.

Sara: What I've come to think is, let's say a big "Thank you" to the people and the venture capitalists who funded the early expeditions in the sharing economy. They laid the railroad track for the rest of us. Now we in the social sector have to take up this entrepreneurial challenge and be just as creative and interesting.

But I sometimes feel a lack of excitement from the nonprofit world, you know? It can be so dour and rule-bound. I just sense this bubbling up of new people and new ideas out there, and I just find them more compelling and interesting lately.

Phaedra: I totally agree. The good part is that the benefit coming out of Silicon Valley, and even the labor movement, is that you have this incredible respect for entrepreneurs at every level. That's going to be increasingly important.

Someone said to me the other day that people looking for jobs "are going to have to write their own job description." Think about that: In order to get a job in the future, you're going to have to define it. That type of fluidity, if structured in some way, could actually be amazing.

(NOTE: Transcipt was edited for clarity and length)

Sara Horowitz As the founder of Freelancers Union, Sara has been a voice for freelancers for over two decades.