Community Power Works Is Just Getting Started

Defending Seattle's green jobs program from straw-man attacks.
This post is part of the research project: Green-Collar Jobs
Courtesy Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Courtesy Ella Baker Center for Human Rights

Editor’s note: Van Jones defends Seattle’s green jobs program, which has been taking some fire in the media. He argues that building a sturdy foundation takes time.

All of us have had the experience of struggling early in a new area of interest, learning the right lessons and then later triumphing. We all know that a stumble at the start of a race does not doom the runner to defeat – as long as the runner does not give up. Nobody declares a football game over as soon as the other team scores its first goal.

So I read with raised eyebrows the recent cynical media assertions that Community Power Works is not going to deliver.

Oh, really? I wouldn’t be so quick to count out the City of Seattle’s neighborhood-based energy upgrade program.

The $20 million federal grant runs through 2013 – more than two years from now. The program aims to provide energy upgrades to more than 2,200 buildings, mostly single-family homes, in downtown, central, and southeast Seattle. The work will create or preserve significant numbers of good, green jobs over the life of the grant.

Seattle’s program is showing great promise. Four hospitals and 19 city buildings are already on the rolls for upgrades. Just four months into the Community Power Works for Home effort more than 350 homeowners have signed up for the program and momentum is building. Major projects scheduled for this fall will employ graduates from the Seattle Vocational Institute and South Seattle Community College.

In some ways, the media is faulting the program for trying to do this pioneering program the right way. Engaging with multiple stakeholders and setting high standards in various areas of performance takes time. And if creating a good energy upgrade program with decent wages were easy to do, someone would have done it already.

Someday soon, Americans will be able to “tune up” our homes to save energy, in much the same way that we “tune up” our cars. Our country is in the process of creating this capacity on a broad scale, with Seattle helping to lead the way.

Local leadership is making it possible. A dynamic group of people that included contractors, labor, training providers, community organizations, and public agencies, under the leadership of Mayor Mike McGinn, came together as partners to ensure Community Power Works is a paragon of triple bottom line thinking. Stakeholders agreed and promised that the program will measure its success according to impacts on people, the planet and the pocketbook.

That approach is in keeping with the City’s values. As Mayor McGinn said when the agreement was finalized, “This program will ensure that where the City invests public dollars in energy conservation, we are creating career pathways and producing high-quality work that saves residents money and follows our value of shared prosperity.”

All of the community leaders who are involved should be praised, not scolded, for endeavoring to create good jobs in important fields.

Green jobs are good jobs, often in manufacturing and other traditionally blue-collar employment. Median wages in the green economy are 13 percent higher that median U.S. wages. And there’s a role for government. Every $1 million invested in clean energy creates 16.7 jobs. Stimulus dollars steered into green investments created or saved one million jobs through 2010, according to the Political Economy Research Institute.

The people of Seattle know this work is important. You were going green before the rest of the country. Anything good and beautiful and lasting takes time to build. It takes heart, determination, patience, and perseverance. The little pig that built the house of straw was done way before the pig that built the brick house.

We could throw taxpayer money around and create straw jobs for a year or two. But we need a brick-house economy.

I hope you stick with it, Seattle. Ultimately, the final numbers will depend on homeowner interest in Community Power Works for Home. Keep getting the word out!

People will recognize the wisdom of making an investment in their homes that saves energy, increases their comfort, protects their health, and is good for workers and businesses in their communities. It’s a tough economy right now, but you’re taking your economic and ecological destiny into your own hands by creating a sustainable economic sector.

It will take hard work. But it will be worth it. Negative determinations about the outcome are premature. Don’t forget: the federal government did not even recognize the category of green jobs until 2007. The effort to build a green economy is just beginning.

Van Jones serves as president of Rebuild the Dream. He is the author of The Green Collar Economy and former green jobs advisor in the Obama White House.

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  1. Flax says:

    B.S. 350 home owners have not “signed up” for the program, that’s an outright lie. So far only 350 have expressed a preliminary “interest” in the program. $20 million and a year and a half and all this program ahs managed to create under Mayor McGinn’s stewardship is a dozen more positions within his beaucracy. He’s been a belligerant, illogical and populist irritant to the Seattle business and labor communities since he started his tenure in City Hall. If we fix the administration of th eprogram it might still be saved. Carrying water and providing cover for an already failed Mayor isn’t helping. Get on the ride side of this Van Jones and demand accountability for this mismanagement, even if it’s from a political ally.

    • Mike says:

      What is so misleading about the reports from Fox News, Glenn Beck, etc (i.e. “Seattle Green Jobs Program Gets $20M, Creates 14 Posts”) is the very clear implication that they have spent $20 million dollars. I guess you have chosen to ignore the title of this article.

      • Flax says:

        If by “Fox News” and “Glenn Beck” you mean the evil conservative spin machine, the Seattle P.I. then yeah. So where are the numbers? If the majority of the money hasn’t been spent how much is left? Where has the money already spent gone? The entire point isnt the idea that $20 million went up in smoke, it’s that with $20 million in the bank, a mandate from the White House and 18 months of time the McGinn administration has managed to accomplish nothing of significance and in the process undercut the legitimacy of the entire idea. The gross mismangement from City Hall and economically illiterate guidlines have made everyone involved or who supports the concept look like a fool.

  2. Ouchef says:

    Flax: Here’s a detailed accounting of where the money has gone:

    It says $6 million and change but actually it’s much less. $5.3 million or so is at the bank that will be doing the lending.

    They took far too long to get going (and launching in the summer was not such a great idea – just ask any insulation contractor) but 18 months may be overstating the amount of time they have had.

    • Flax says:

      That’s a great resource, thanks for the link. A quick glance at it would make me reiterate that it’s not just the money issue, it’s going no where issue. If there’s five and a half million sitting in the bank for upgrades why aren’t contractors and property owners tripping over each other to get at it. I can speculate that a large part of it is the, again, economically illiterate guildelines (i.e. price floors like insisting on contractors paying employees double the market rate for services and non-sensical racial quotas) and the poor effort out of City Hall to connect tax payer’s money with demand in the market. It also doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the money spent being tied to a lot of “consulting” work that’s being done by McGinn camapign contributors and political supporters.

  3. ECS says:

    @ Flax – It’s entirely untrue that “the McGinn administration has managed to accomplish nothing of significance”. They just haven’t gotten media attention for all the very notable accomplishments, because until now, the development of green jobs haven’t been a media-worthy story. The media, including the PI, would rather report on the Mayor’s perceived failures than his leadership on developing policies and programs that support social justice, responsible economic development, and clean energy.

    Only the media has undercut the legitimacy of the entire idea, plenty of us are still committed to working on it, but apparently need to work harder on making it sexy for the media and for those who are afraid of looking “like a fool”. If you support the concepts, then support our leadership. Mayor McGinn and the City of Seattle staff are working as hard or harder at overcoming the obstacles to a vibrant green economy as any other mayor or city in the country.

    • Flax says:

      Educate me on the notable accomplishments of this project.

      I’d assert that the idea that “green jobs” doesn’t get play in the media to be clearly untrue, it’s in fact a buzz word that gets pretty substantile play. I’d also assert that blindly supporting the “leadership” of a project regardless of the results they are producing to be the fastest way to undercut the legitimacy of a project. It’s accountability, not partisan loyalty, that gets results and earns the respect of the tax payer.

  4. Ken Lawson says:

    Well I hope you guys in Seattle get it right because in Vancouver BC especially the Olympic Village Region, many green ideas unproven ended up costing the owner and renters more in energy, water, electricty! Bike Lanes and City Budget will be a hot topic, Ridership numbers shown on the OpenData website are not consistent for the amount of money spent on them and does not include numbers that small business lost in the downtown core. So do not let small minority groups control your City. Our only just to recover from this mess is Nov 19,2011. Do you plant wheat on your city hall lawns our wing nut Vision Mayor does (Vision – NDP the same)I received this link to Van Jones from City in Vancouver but actually based out of Chicago

  5. Evelyn says:

    The contractors recommended to me by Community Power works charged thousands of dollars more for installing a heat pump than a local contractor, Alex’s Heating. I wasted two days of vacation (four appointments) meeting with their contractors. In one case, had I not looked at the contract closely, I would have had a heat pump for the living room and ugly wall units in the bedrooms (available at Lowe’s for $100.)for a price of $15,000. Alexander’s Heating is installing a heat pump for under $10,000.


  6. Kdc says:

    Thanks for the heads up about the contractors. I will check into it. I seriously don’t want to overpay as a new homeowner but admit I am up for paying for living wages. I do want to walk my talk.

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