On Power

On Community Advocacy

"It’s been a primary mission of the organization to attack poverty through creating investment and opportunity for folks who don’t have that." Miquela Craytor, Underdome Interview

Sustainable South Bronx runs a green jobs training program called the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST).  Begun in 2003 with a focus on horticulture, landscape contracting, and bioremediation, BEST extended in 2008 to cover the growing energy efficiency sector. It is a 16 to 17 week program free to participants. Sheila Somashekhar, Greenway and Green Building Coordinator at Sustainable South Bronx explains: 

Trainees get a combination of hands-on technical training, classroom training, and soft skills development to make people employable in a lot of different levels.  A lot of the folks who come into our program have very limited work history, if any work history. And a lot of the folks also have incarceration records. I think about 30% have incarceration records at this point. ... We provide a lot of different kinds of support so that at the end of the day folks are ready to interview, they have their résumés ready and they are ready to actually deal with the challenges that they have in their lives, and get and keep a job. 
 
“For the actual technical part of the training, we do a combination of things.... We don't want to track people into one particular career option, especially with the current state of the energy efficiency sector, as there are a lot of question marks as to where the jobs are and where they're going to be. So we do some basic carpentry training, where folks learn how to construct a wall. They actually do a hands-on wall construction project; putting in a window, putting in a door, putting in insulation.  So that's some of the basics... And then we do a week long weatherization training with AEA [Association for Energy Affordability].... We go into an actual home and get to practice some of those skills with caulking, pipe insulation and that kind of thing.  It's really important that folks get some industry recognized certifications so they get asbestos handling certification, lead awareness.... 
 
“It's full time, at no cost to the students. They get a metro card for transportation; they get a lunch stipend; and at the end of the program we have this amazing little graduation ceremony; and they actually get a small transitional stipend to help them with their transition into actually getting jobs.  We work with them afterwards; we have two job developers on staff who work with employers and with the students, try to connect the students with opportunities. And we stay with the students; we track them for at least 3 years. ” Sheila Somashekhar, Underdome Interview
 
SSBx is about empowering the community, Executive Director Miquela Craytor explains: “ For many of our students, this learning process creates the feeling of empowerment and a feeling that they have a choice to make. That they’re not always having to be reactive to all of the negative things thrown at them. They can be part of positive change that gives them the space feel, 'I can get back to my family. I have more pride about myself, instead of now thinking very negatively about my background, my history.  Now I actually have something, a positive direction.' It’s really amazing....
 
“What got me so excited, as I had an opportunity to help it and grow with the program, is that it is kind of the proof of the pudding of these theoretical ideas. You know, we talk about development and say, 'it-will-create jobs.' But most times planners and designers don’t spend enough time to think about, what’s actually going to make that happen. There are a lot of these barriers to overcome—institutional racism and the other -ism, that prevent these communities from actually gaining the real benefits of these projects. So unless we’re willing to face those- ism’s and recognize what is preventing a developer from hiring someone who doesn’t have a job—because of a history of job employment or someone who was formally incarcerated—unless we really face that and try to think about how to break down those barriers we will just have another big developer who comes in and hires people from some other place, and the folks here will still not bear the benefit.” Miquela Craytor, Underdome Interview
 

On Government Initiated Motivation

In its campaigns to cut down truck emissions in the South Bronx, SSBx takes advantage of government-led incentives but recognizes that the incentives for business owners are often market-based.  Environmental Policy Analyst Jaime Stein explains her experience with truck retrofits:  

“There was all this money with the Stimulus... for placing these incredibly expensive particulate filters on trucks. PM [Fine particulate matter] 2.5 or PM 10 and really small particulate matter that comes from combustion of diesel engines, which are mostly long-haul trucks, one of the main triggers or causes of asthma.... [P]eople who own fleets will not purchase those filters. If the government gives them money to put them on, it makes them feel better, they'll do it. But maintenance and operation of them is not something that they're going to spend any money on.

"As we looked further into that, it became clear to us that the answer is not these cost-prohibitive technologies that the government pays for, that an owner would only put on if they were forced to, or if they were given them, because it might make them feel a little bit better.  What we found is that it wasn't highly accepted. 
 
"A lot of what SSBx does is we engage the business community, because we’re situated in a space that is highly industrial and highly polluted. We engage because we believe that keeping the industry and greening it could retain jobs, could retain that sort of community resilience that comes with having economic safety or security, but also improve the air quality by helping that business to green. So, the idea is to engage fleet owners and work with them to do a retrofit that's cost-beneficial. So it's about finding what that is and convincing them to do that.
 
"We know what the incentive is.  'Is it going to save gas money? Is it going to save maintenance money?' Yes.  ... So, it’s about going to the really small fleet owners, seeing how they’re operating, and seeing if we can’t retrofit the refrigeration unit, so that they can, in a more fuel-efficient way, keep the cargo and the cabin cool, like for air conditioning. … To me, that’s a real, direct impact of the free market, which is how I would term it, because hopefully we can create a little business around folks doing cabin heaters or reefer retrofits. The people that get them save money, and then that can sustain itself, rather than the government coming in, putting something on, and then it doesn’t go further than that." Underdome Interview, Jaime Stein
 

On Citizen Litigation

“The organization never fit in the traditional lens of environmental justice, because we’ve always been operating from a very proactive space.” Miquela Craytor, Underdome Interview

Whereas a traditional Environmental Justice organizations focuses on litigation strategies to enforce the equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits, SSBx Executive Director Miquela Craytor explains.  “The organization never fit in the traditional lens of environmental justice, because we’ve always been operating from a very proactive space—wanting to fight for things, as opposed to dealing with regulation and things like that.  And so while we work on the issues that create environmental justice communities, we’re not operating from your traditional toolbox of what an EJ group has been thought to be.  

“We are all trying to make the world a better place, right? And the problem is if we start to look at people of power and what they listen to, we can try to hit them over the head a long time, but if they're not gonna change, why do we keep doing that? And our organization was created out of a place in which hitting people over the head hasn’t worked yet, so let’s try some other tactics. And those other tactics are being proactive. And sometimes it means we’re working alongside folks we’re traditionally would be picketing. I mean a few examples; we bought shares of stock in a really nasty company [New York Organic Fertilizer] that’s in the neighborhood as a means to do a shareholder resolution to find out what they were putting in their smoke stack and to make them accountable.” Miquela Craytor, Underdome Interview
 

On Territory

On Expanded Infrastructures

Power infrastructures are changing.  Centralized power cycling capabilities are on the horizon, Con Ed is now in the business of transmission and distribution rather than production, and profits are being decoupled from power production.  Jaime Stein, Environmental Policy Analyst at SSBx explains these potentials:

“One of the, I think, the most exciting things is to organize energy users to use well-designed appliances. Imagine if twenty blocks in Brooklyn all had these air conditioners that could cycle on and off.  So whether or not people are in the house it can be comfortable if you run it for five minutes, take off for five minutes, run for five minutes, and shut off for five minutes. It would be controlled by the utilities, which is a little strange when they can cycle on and off all your appliances. They’re only allowed to do it with that intermittent cycling.  But your refrigerator, which is a huge consumer of energy, is on for five minutes and off for five minutes. On those really, really hot days when peak demand is out of control and they're burning the dirtiest power plants, it would be amazing if you could organize that data and control it in that way. You wouldn't have to run some of the dirtiest plants.  I like that concept.  
 
“Con Edison is ripe to do it in some ways, but is also not willing to do it in other ways. Right now all they have is basically transmission and distribution---they don’t do any generation---so, they want to keep that under lock and key.  And a lot of people, especially with all this energy efficiency and weatherization stuff going on, want baseline data. Organized groups want baseline data. They want to know, “if we do a block-by-block retrofit, what did the block start out at and what are we  now?”  They want simple before-and-after retrofit data, which Con Edison has. But now they're sitting on it, because so many people are asking them for the data that they're not sure how they want to charge for it and make it a business in the future, or what they can give away and what they can't give away. So it's a really interesting thing right now.
 
“But probably the most fascinating policy to come out in the past five years is that we have begun to decouple the dollar from the electron. What I mean is that now power producers and utility companies are getting money for energy efficiency. So it's no longer “the more electrons you sell, the more money you make.” That has gone away.  So what you find is that groups like Con Edison, NYSERDA, and the independent power producers are all fighting to get their energy efficiency programs approved and funded, but they're not really doing much. We haven't quite gotten to the point yet where we're actually saving electrons. We’re talking about saving electrons and getting funding for it. I think we’re moving toward actually saving electrons.” Jaime Stein, Underdome Interview
 

On Lifestyle

On Non-Traditional Households

“People who are undocumented.. have to actually come forth and sign off on paperwork that's going to go to the federal government.” Sheila Somashekhar, Underdome Interview

Greenway and Green Building Coordinator Sheila Somashekhar explains how city and state energy initiatives work with South Bronx residents.  “In a neighborhood like Hunts Point there are a lot of things that are informal... Even when you're talking about a small home—a one to four unit home, that is technically eligible for all these different programs—systems are set up to require certain kinds of documentation and information from the home owners and the people who live in the building that make it difficult or even impossible to enroll in these programs. 

“We had a to do some outreach for the weatherization assistance program as part of our job training program.  They required income documentation for each of the tenants in the building, which means that they have to get a formal paycheck, or get a notarized statement that they have X income. It means that people who are undocumented and living in these buildings have to actually come forth and sign off on paperwork that's going to go to the federal government.  Sometimes you don't want to provide your social security card number, or you don't want to provide all this other information that's really not relevant in a lot of ways.” Sheila Somashekhar, Underdome Interview
 

On Tenancy

When asked how varying ownership structures in urban and rural areas operate, Miquela Craytor responded: “I think that's one of the largest challenges to the work of transforming our built environment for energy efficiency.  If your current electricity bill doesn't account for heating, you as a tenant don't really care what happens to the building. The building owner is experiencing it. And it's the building owner who has to put up some money, and if they receive a benefit if they reduce the energy cost, then that's great. But if the tenant is paying for it, and the building owner has to make the decision if something happens, then there's a mismatch. The challenge is: who's really paying for it, where is that cost embodied, and who would have to take care of it if there's a change to the building? And it varies between building and city and tax codes and building codes and the utilities. It's not one-size-fits-all.” Miquela Craytor, Underdome Interview

On Risk

On Prioritize Human Health and Equity

“What is going to get really interesting is how we integrate health impacts and social benefit into their cost curves.” Jaime Stein, Underdome Interview

SSBx brought the health impacts of power plants to the fore at state level task forces such as the New York State Climate Action Council, and at Public Service Commission sessions on peaking power plants.  Jaime Stein, Environmental Policy Analyst, explains the peaking power efforts: “About two years ago we were asked to participate in the Public Service Commission, which is the State Agency that oversees all utilities... The majority of our energy is through in-city generation. We're a densely populated urban space that has generation happening right next door to residences. So, that generation is owned and operated and profited from by an aggregate of generators called the Independent Power Producers of New York.  So with Con Edison, the Public Service Commission, DEC, NYSERDA, and the Independent Power Producers of New York, we participated in this effort around peaking power plants.... This is a perfect example of where [grassroots and top-down thinking] come together: the grassroots folks that exist are the environmental justice communities. ...

“And when you're present in these discussions, you're blown away at the reaction to you saying, "Oh, well, actually the dirtiest peaking power plant is right next door to a school, and hey, one out of three kids has asthma." It is just amazing that the people that own and operate this type of equipment -- and I'm not going to get too negative -- don't really think about the burden that what they're doing puts on the local community. …  You constantly have to say, "No, your emissions are directly linked to triggering asthma. And yes, there are all these other emissions, but we have to start somewhere, and you're highly regulated, and that's why we're talking to you." Jaime Stein, Underdome Interview
 
SSBx brings to the table a critique of the way cost-benefit analysis (CBA) weighs 'social cost.'  Stein explains this process in the Climate action Plan (http://nyclimatechange.us/): “The Climate Action Plan is still relatively new. We're at the stage now when we're weighing every single possible policy... to decrease emissions. Everything is in there from the most egregious carbon capture and storage policy, like pumping it into the Gowanus Canal or something like that, to the very sunshiny solar panels everywhere.... It’s an interesting process right now because over the next month we have to start to prioritize and do cost-benefit analysis around each of those policies. 
 
“And this is another very interesting thing because “cost-benefit analysis” means something very different to an independent power producer than to somebody that represents the community. Just yesterday... they said, "Well, this is the societal cost." I said, "No, it's not. This is the taxpayers' money. That's what we're saying here. Let's not mix those terms." Somebody from environmental justice, or somebody from a community, an everyday person, when they hear “societal costs,” they don't think “Well, it costs 26 million dollars to capture a ton of C02 in tanks.”  No, what if that gets released? What are we talking about then? So, what is going to get really interesting is how we integrate health impacts, social benefits, and all those things into their cost curves, which I see as a huge challenge." Jaime Stein, Underdome Interview
 
How can these 'costs' be accounted for? “You can quantify health care and health care costs, and you can also quantify early childhood education and incarceration costs, like how one dollar spent on early childhood education can save three dollars in incarceration. There are groups that are starting to think about how to speak in the terms that cost benefit analysis people speak in.”  Jaime Stein, Underdome Interview
 

On Mutual Benefit

SSBx takes a holistic approach to connecting environmental issues to social concerns.  “Many reasons why I love the work that we do is—you know, I remember when I grew up in Oregon the timber industry was really in a place where it was, 'owls versus trees', it was one or the other. Certain things will always die if it’s only one way or the other. And the south Bronx has suffered for a very long time because it went from intense manufacturing to industrialization that doesn’t employ a lot of people. Meanwhile health has suffered.  So if we can really transfer that space and transition to an economy based on looking holistically, then the real efforts of sustainability can be achieved.  Its about trying to always question our efforts and check in to see is it hitting the mark for the jobs? Is it hitting the mark for the environment? Is it hitting the mark for the business side” Miquela Craytor, Underdome Interview

Individuals' interests are brought into account: “When you bring community members to the table and you talk about things like trees, there has to be a clear link to things that are immediate priorities in their lives: things like jobs, and putting food on the table, and health, and asthma, and all of the economic development.” Sheila Somashekhar, Underdome Interview
 
And adapting business models to create change: “I think it's really about this idea of a shift from a pollution based economy to a green economy... We have a green earth installation company that is a model for what we would like to see our economy look like in a lot of ways. We install and maintain green roofs throughout the city, and we hire graduates from our job training program to do that work. It's one idea, but the idea is you can translate that to any kind of business, and that you can turn a profit while still thinking about sustainability and social justice.  And I guess the hope too is that folks graduating from our job training program, or other programs like it, could lead the charge in creating those businesses--getting into those jobs, but also creating those businesses and shifting just the way we do things and the way that capitalism works.” Sheila Somashekhar, Underdome Interview

Background

Sustainable South Bronx is a non-profit environmental justice ally founded by Majora Carter in 2001. SSBx “works with the South Bronx and other underserved urban communities as they transform themselves into great sustainable places to live. We do this by providing a collaborative model that addresses environmental, economic and social concerns through policy change, green job training, environmental education, and community greening programs.” (ssbx.org)

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