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Chicago’s Economic Transformation

January 20, 2009

Green-Collar Economy Taking Root in Chicago

Efforts aim to marry environment, enterprise

by Ted Gregory

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.


Growing Home, Inc.)]Growing Home, Inc.’s urban farm in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. (photo: Growing Home, Inc.)

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.

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