Black and green

Young African-American men meet green the economy

Green Tech student Ricky Lewis: climate hero of the future?

Green Tech student Ricky Lewis: climate hero of the future?

Photo by Cole Allen

Ricky Lewis sat front and center in the classroom, raising his hand to answer a question so often, his teacher had to occasionally ignore him and call on someone else.

Lewis, 22, attends a once-monthly class called Green Technological Education and Employment, which provides academic and technical training to young African-American men in Sacramento. The program also advises these students on how to find a role in the burgeoning green-collar workforce. Green Tech is a collaboration between the California Black Chamber of Commerce and the Alpha Academy, which is part of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity of college-educated, professional black men.

“I like the opportunity it’s giving young black males,” Lewis said. “I like the education and how it’s opening our eyes to the new society. It’s giving us tools for the future.”

The nonprofit partnership began as a way to engage high-school students and young adults ages 14 to 23 from economically disadvantaged communities. The goal: Lower the high rates of school dropout and incarceration of African-American men, and close the achievement gap by assisting them to become self-sufficient adults.

On a chilly Saturday morning in December, about 18 young men gathered in a Cosumnes River College classroom for Green Tech. The program’s executive director and instructor, Simeon Gant, said he usually has about 10 kids in class, although 45 students are enrolled. Students attend class when they please—there are tests and homework, but no grades, no transferable course credit and no pressure.

The Green Tech program covers the four umbrella topics of ecosystem, construction, transportation and manufacturing. Within these categories, coursework addresses alternative fuels, green building, solar technology, lighting efficiency, sustainable landscapes, water management and more.

“You know anything about fuel-cell [technology], Ricky?” asked Gant. A few weeks earlier, the students toured the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento, which develops hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles.

“The cars we use now with fossil fuels make the atmosphere hotter, so they’re trying to use fuel cells,” Lewis said.

Soon, the conversation transitioned to green building. Ultimately, the purpose of the course is to encourage students to pursue employment in the green economy, whether it be finding a job in construction, science or engineering. For example, Gant explained, there’s a need for auditors who visit customers’ houses to determine energy waste—maybe through leaky windows or outdated HVAC systems—and recommend improvements.

“Our students have to know that this is where the jobs are,” Gant said.

Green Tech started last April after Gant approached the Alpha Academy, which agreed to collaborate and refer youth to the program. The academy started in 1962 to serve African-American youth, but over the last few years, members realized that young men were resistant to getting involved, said president John Taylor.

“We said, ‘Well, we got to get them interested.’ So we created this opportunity. Our mission is to increase their academic success and enhance their social responsibility,” Taylor said.

During class, Gant asked if any students could name who they’d previously identified as “climate hero No. 2.” One student said Van Jones. “He was climate hero No. 1. Our climate hero No. 2 is [U.S. Energy Secretary] Dr. Steven Chu,” Gant said. But he explained how Jones formerly served as special adviser for green jobs, enterprise and innovation in President Barack Obama’s administration. Before that, Jones founded Green for All, an organization focused on keeping African-American youth out of prison and off the streets.

“He talked about how green tech can create jobs for people. This is a pathway out of poverty,” said Gant, looking briefly at a student sitting in the front row. “Maybe, one day, Ricky will be one of our climate heroes as well.”