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#TBT: Local Adaptation in the Face of Economic Change

#TBT: Local Adaptation in the Face of Economic Change

This week’s New York Times article about a new federal report dealing with Detroit housing blight got us thinking about some friends we made a few years ago. As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), MDC was one of eight national and 30 local organizations to receive $150 million in grants from the USDOL’s Employment and Training Administration’s Pathways Out of Poverty program; this program helped low-income and disadvantaged populations attain economic self-sufficiency through good jobs in energy efficiency and renewable energy industries.

While MDC’s Career Pathways for a Green South program worked with just four community colleges in North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia, we met Pathways Out of Poverty grantees from across the country that, despite representing communities in very different regions and economies, were facing some common challenges—and working on similar innovations. ARRA was created in response to the economic downturn, but many of the communities that received funding have been struggling for decades to connect people with economic opportunity. MDC was struck by the parallels in how one of our Pathways sites, North Charleston, SC, and one of the other Pathways grantees, Southwest Solutions (SWS) in Detroit, MI, responded to this disconnection. 

In Detroit, the disconnection was between demolition and deconstruction. With tens of thousands of homes abandoned, the city’s response to the resultant blight has been demolition—tear down the houses and make way for something new, or at least remove the structures that are bringing down property values. Southwest Solutions a community development organization established in 1970, is part of a partnership called Detroit GreenWorks Solutions (DGWS) that trains people in southwest Detroit for jobs in green industries. According to DGWS, thousands of the 70,000 blighted homes in Detroit would be candidates for deconstruction. If they can create a shift from demolition as the only option to a mix of demolition and deconstruction, they could have a huge impact on boosting employment and reducing waste in the city. Deconstruction involves taking a home apart to salvage materials for recycling and reuse, with a goal of minimal waste. Through Detroit GreenWorks Solutions, Southwest Solutions is incorporating deconstruction skills into existing weatherization training in partnership with EcoWorks (formerly WARM Training Center), Henry Ford Community College, The Greening of Detroit (landscape training for end use), and Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation (formerly Detroit Workforce Development Department). As a way of removing blight with minimal waste while creating jobs and preserving the environment, deconstruction is an investment in the community; demolition is not.

Charleston, SC, faced a different market problem, but responded with a similarly local solution. Trident Technical College (TTC) partnered with the Sustainability Institute (SI), a Charleston-based nonprofit that promotes environmentally sustainable practices in the greater Charleston area on a short-term job training program for residential energy efficiency retrofitting. TTC trained program participants in basic construction safety and weatherization skills, and the Sustainability Institute took the lead on recruitment and job placement. The Department of Energy’s Weatherization Assistance Program funneled funding for weatherization for the homes of low-income families through the local community action agency, but prior to TTC’s training few people in the community had the skill set to perform these jobs. When Career Pathways for a Green South began, the WAP funds were an ideal way to find employment for program graduates. As funds for WAP decreased in the Charleston area, TTC and SI had to consider additional markets for the skills of their graduates. They turned to Charleston’s renowned historic homes. While most American homes are in need of energy efficiency retrofitting, the style of Charleston’s historic homes makes them particularly inefficient. Built to provide ventilation on the hottest and most humid days of the South Carolina summer, the homes are intentionally full of air leaks. With the introduction of modern conveniences like central air conditioning and heating, a once necessary model of construction has become enormously wasteful. However, with strict historic home codes in Charleston, most homeowners assume that retrofitting is not an option for them. The Sustainability Institute has pioneered methods for energy efficient retrofitting that do not violate the historic home requirements, and TTC trained program participants to do it.

The stories of Southwest Solutions in Detroit and of Trident Tech and the Sustainability Institute in Charleston illustrate the necessity of resilience and adaptation to create and sustain a local economic engine that works toward universal opportunity. In both cases, the organizations found innovative job creation ideas by examining their own context. They turned problems unique to their communities into opportunities unique to their communities. For both, that didn’t just mean reacting to local demand. It meant generating it. In both situations, these organizations aren’t just making the economic argument or the values argument. They are making the case for a triple bottom line: good for the local economy, good for the environment, and good for equity.