by Anne Pyburn Craig
Fifteen young Poughkeepsie residents working toward their GEDs through a Youthbuild/Americorp program have helped make Poughkeepsie a greener and more resilient community. Through their involvement in a fledgling green jobs pipeline, these teens are treading a path to a promising future—not just for their own lives but for the Hudson Valley and the planet as a whole.
The program involves a collaboration between two Hudson Valley do-good powerhouses: Nubian Directions II, a 21-year-old Poughkeepsie workforce development agency, and Clearwater, through their Green Cities Initiative. The program strives to offer the students a complete tool kit: a grounding in the theory behind watershed awareness and green stormwater infrastructure, hands-on construction experience, community engagement via design consultations at neighborhood homes and businesses, and an apprenticeship program paid for by on-the-job-training funds that will lead to green jobs.
A Youthbuild participant hand digs the silt trap that will connect
a a bio-filter to the conduit pipe. Photo courtesy of Clearwater.
Students worked with professionals from Newburgh-based Greenway Environmental Services, a husband-and-wife business team who specialize in zero-waste and permaculture, to master the ins and outs of proper stormwater management. “We built a training center for storm water management and trained the Youthbuild students, who then went out and evaluated 15 properties,” says Shabazz Jackson of Greenway. “They were the technicians—they gathered the information, took the measurements, analyzed where a property’s stormwater was going, and developed site plans and recommendations, and wrote up reports for the EPA, which funded the program.”
It’s a perfect fit, he says, with YouthBuild’s focus on serving up a nourishing blend of self-esteem and marketable skills to kids who fail to thrive in a traditional classroom setting. Shabazz was involved in bringing Youthbuild to Dutchess County through his work on the board of Cornell’s Cooperative Extension. “Part of it is getting their GED and driver’s license. Beyond that, we use the construction trades because whether a person ultimately chooses that as a career path or not, it teaches a lot and at the end of the day you can see what you did. Knowing that you accomplished something is a serious self-esteem builder.” Along with the GED program and the construction skills offered through YouthBuild, Nubian Directions II provides computer and workforce readiness training and testing leading to a wide range of certifications to the Poughkeepsie community.
“I haven’t been this inspired in a long time,” says lifelong activist Manna Jo Greene, Clearwater’s environmental action director. “It’s been a wonderful experience to watch these young people learning the theory, doing the practical hands-on work, and going into the community and teaching people what they have learned by doing design consultations.”
The young people honed their skills by designing a stormwater reclamation project for a former IBM building now owned by Nubian Directions as part of a still-larger eco-initiative. “We took the water that comes off the roof of a 22,000-square-foot former warehouse, separated the stormwater from the sewer, built a biofilter, and ran the water to a nursery we built,” Shabazz explains. “The nursery has turned out to be a great success. We trained the same group in planting and growing, in how to develop a growing system and make soils, and do biofiltration in order to grow food in an urban environment. It’s a challenge, learning all that’s involved in getting food to grow in a parking lot. We also built a big garden at a Seventh Day Adventist camp, Camp Victory Lake, so they have that experience in a community garden setting too. They’re fairly well trained in growing food.”
Imparting green skills to urban youth is an endeavor that’s gaining ground nationwide. In the Chesapeake Bay region, high school and college students worked as part of the READY (Restoring the Environment And Developing Youth) project to build much-needed rain gardens. In Chicago and Philadelphia, an alliance between the Student Conservation Association and the Exelon Corporation provided green starter jobs for 250 individuals. A 14-year-old program in the San Francisco Bay area grew from providing jobs for 15 youths and serving 300 homes to about 100 youths going into 3,000 homes and doing “green house calls,” evaluating water and energy efficiency and helping homeowners make needed improvements. A project called “Sustainable South Bronx” trains individuals aged 18 to 40 in green building skills through the BEST (Bronx Environmental Stewardship) Academy.
And at last April’s “Good Jobs, Green Jobs” conference in Washington, DC—sponsored by the BlueGreen Alliance and drawing both Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren—the message was clear: the future belongs to those able to form allegiances that bring business, environmentalists, and labor interests to the same table. Climate change may still be a debatable hot button for some, but the smart money is on smart growth, resilient infrastructure, and stakeholder engagement.
Manna Jo Greene says the students excelled at engaging the surrounding community, and the community responded in kind. “The neighbors wanted to help the students. We had a community forum and explained the basics, and asked for volunteers to let students come and practice what they had learned. The mentors went along and monitored their work, but they did great jobs. Now we’re seeking funding to build 10 of the 15 projects identified. The step that completes the project is that we now have a very well-respected stormwater business interested in setting up an apprenticeship and seeking funds for that. The chances are good that two out of the class of fifteen may end up with real jobs in the field. And 14 of 15 of them passed their GED exams on the first try.”
Besides green building and agriculture, Shabazz says there’s a third prong of the training that the youth are getting. “This week we’re finalizing a grant from Vassar to build three dome-shaped greenhouses, two on Nubian Directions’s property and one on nearby residential property,” he says. “We focus on propagating plants for sale and also selling fine soil and gardening systems for urban growing. We’re putting together a big order of topsoil at the moment. The students get retail and business experience for their resumes; it’s another foothold on employment besides construction. It’s also another source of income for Nubian Directions.”
Nubian Directions, meanwhile, has still other sustainable projects underway as part of its New Directions Youthbuild/Americorps initiative. “NDI’s green building component completed an amazing green retrofit of a two-story house catty-corner to their training center on Winnikee Avenue in Poughkeepsie,” says Manna Jo, “which is now an apartment building providing much-needed clean, safe, energy-efficient housing for two families. They’ve just acquired another building on Hooker Avenue to keep the green building training moving forward, and they’d like to add a renewable energy component. We’d all like to expand and replicate this model to include a direct pipeline to green jobs and a parallel path for certification through area community colleges, who are already teaching GBR classes for urban youth and un- and under-employed people.”
“The youth are out there adding value to the neighborhood every day” says Shabazz, “having buildings looking so good, having property values increase, and knowing that the community’s own youth did this with the help of Nubian Directions and various contractors. And the point is, it got done. No excuses, it’s done. And everybody knows how hard getting something done can be.”
For those wishing to take on the continuing education Manna Jo talks about, the jobs will be there. Watershed management has emerged as a key element of sustainability. A quick glance at industry networking site Stormwaterjobs.com reveals seven dense pages of job opportunities. New York’s DEC regulations now require that every construction crew contain a stormwater expert, who must be present when soil is being disturbed and create and implement a pollution prevention plan.
“It’s an opportunity for our business to do something meaningful in the community, to us and to them, and we get to see the results of our efforts,” says Shabazz. “In turn, other companies benefit, and it lifts us all.”
“These projects, building by building, yard by yard, are improving the community,” says Manna Jo. “And we’re going to find a way to keep doing this. It’s what the region needs, and it’s what the world needs, and the Hudson Valley can be a model. I would like to see projects like this implemented in all of the river towns. We tried for more EPA or state funding and it didn’t fit, but we’ve been talking with Steven Gruber of Renewage and he’s very interested. The City of Newburgh already has a green stormwater report completed by eDesign with Clearwater and the Quassaick Creek Watershed Alliance that could provide a wonderful initial project to implement a green jobs pipeline. The stormwater and construction components are ready to go once we secure funding.”
Manna Jo reflects, “Toward the end of his life Pete Seeger would come up to the office and talk with me about the future of Clearwater. He said ‘we’ve got to increase diversity, both within the organization and the work we do.’ Everything he said pointed to something like this. He loved youth and it’s such an honor to begin to manifest this vision he was very specifically talking about.”