Tonight marks the end of an epic summer spent in Washington, D.C., where I’ve been employed as a supervisor for a municipal green jobs program for local youth. I’ve been meaning to write about my experience for so long that the weight of all there is to process is terrifying. So like any reasonable adult, I called my mama. “Camilita,” she reasoned, “why don’t you just responder a unas preguntas muy simples: Why did you want to go to D.C.? What’s been the hardest part? What’s been the best, and the most surprising? And what are your hopes for the future?” I will attempt to answer the first of these questions here, focusing on the job experience in order to give the exhilaration of youth politics in Obamaland the separate post it deserves. I’ve created this blog with hopes that you will pick up the conversation where I finish. So please, share your thoughts!
Why I came here:
1. Learning, challenge, adventure, new perspectives, diversity, and…
In blunt terms—I’m a white, West-coast girl with big dreams, few hard knocks, and a traveled but often starry-eyed view of environmental problems and human nature. An idyllic upbringing in Ashland, OR, a summer spent working in Portland, and student life at a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, WA, don’t exactly make for a balanced view of American reality. I knew that of any place that could help me along my path to become a more effective leader and social entrepreneur, D.C. was up for the task. The hard knocks came, the stars spangled across my vision, and the East is booting me back home thicker-skinned and more determined than ever.
2. Youth + Green Economy = Hope & Hard Work
My official title this summer was “Team Leader” for the Energy project of the Mayor’s Green Summer Job Corps. Green Summer is a new, nationally acclaimed program of the District Department of the Environment that serves 800 local youth aged 14 to 21. That seemed like an unmanageable number of kids, until I staffed orientation for the 20,000 youth in its parent organization, the well-established Summer Youth Employment Program. Needless to say, such experiences lent me some insight into the potential of government and the pitfalls of beaurocracy.
Green Summer ran four projects: watershed restoration, urban tree care, park revitalization, and energy efficiency. Over the course of ten weeks, the youth under the direction of our Energy team distributed hundreds of weatherization kits and manually installed 5,600 CFL light bulbs in nearly 600 homes. I was part of an amazing team of eight supervisors hired to execute the vision of our project managers, two inspiring students from Brown who brought the model of their student-led program in Providence (read about Project 20/20 here) to D.C. government. Look out, Walla Walla–local offsets are coming your way!
3. The triple bottom line of sustainability
Over the 5-10 year life span of the CFLs, we prevented tons of greenhouse gas emissions from further polluting Northeastern air and worsening global climate change. The immediate benefits to everyday people is just as compelling: together with our grant partners–the Green Builders Council of DC and Cool Capitol–we awarded District residents a quarter million dollarsin savings on their utility bills. It’s impossible to measure how much (literal) blood, sweat, and tears our young and relatively inexperienced team poured into this endeavor. But doing good by people, profit, and planet is something to be proud of. It is my firm belief that at this critical moment in human and ecological history, we must insist that endeavors of every scale meet this triple bottom line of sustainability.
I must admit: the ambitious side of me got a bit antsy working in a sweaty green t-shirt, in the same city—yet a world apart—from the global hub of suit-and-tie politics. Sure, I got my fill of the latter after work at happy hours and conferences. Yet some days after battling McDonalds and online shoe-shopping for the attention of our employees,I wondered if I was making a drop of difference in the world. The immediate reality of the lives of these kids shoved climate change into the background of my mind (yeah yeah, I can hear your jaw drop from here), just as national polls show when the economy tanks. What can one person do to inspire a generation to live “green” in the face of parental negligence, political disenfranchisement, and the typical host of urban hurdles?
The daily chaos and steep cultural learning curve were draining, but worth it in the end. Through this project, teenage moms from drug-abuse pasts like Shameka—who might not get her GED, but now installs weather stripping and educates residents about mercury like a pro—were gainfully and meaningfully employed, now poised to step up the lengthening ladder of green jobs. Hilarious and poignant feedback like these words from our employees are also revealing:
“I think I had a green job because we had helped people in DC save money and energy… We gave people energy-saving lightbulbs and weatherization kits to help them. I guess so far my job has been enjoyable and I am (sort-of) proud of what I did for the environment. I might want to come back next year (if I feel like it). A lot of the time, I was kinda scared to go into people’s houses (especially the messy/dirty ones.) But it was all worth it. I hope people follow our example and try to save energy.” – Destiny
“I feel like Green Summer really helped me because I learned about the environment…and then we went out and helped people save money to let us stay on this Earth longer.” – Avon
“I think we changed a lot of people’s minds about savin the world.” — Anthony
Trying out metaphors for climate change:
“It’s the rate of change that’s scary, because getting used to a new situation all of a sudden is difficult.” What pertinent issue could I stretch to fit such an abstract idea? “Think about it like having a baby when you’re still in high school,” I reasoned. “It’s hard to manage everything when you have to grow up overnight, right? Plants, animals, and people also have to adapt to a changed environment more quickly than they’re used to, and lots won’t survive.” Judging by the millisecond of silence following the explanation—and no sucking of teeth or rolling of eyes—it just may have worked.
On stereotypes and street smarts:
Metro police undercover gang specialists gave us the lay of the land at the supervisor orientation in June. With gold badges dangling over oversized football jerseys, I learned about the differences between territorial “crews” and hierarchical gangs, the story behind shootings in the Trinidad neighborhood, and how to lay low in infamous areas of Southeast D.C. I was both repulsed and fascinated by the near-Hollywood drama of it all. Imagining life in the inner city, I wondered: What would it be like to grow up a child of endlessly laboring immigrant parents, entrapped by the promise of family through gangs, bound by tattooed signatures to payments for life? In utter innocence, I didn’t know which “expert” on city life to believe. Could city parks be both strewn with hypodermic needles, and vibrant centers of neighborhood culture?
Eventually, I outgrew blind stereotypes through experience and some luck. Our team made it through the summer intact and relatively sane…but not without some juicy stories! One afternoon while teaching our employees at a high school in the U St. district, a fire extinguisher came crashing through the glass ceiling, bounced off of a light fixture, and landed directly where the smiling girl in the photo above was sitting. Luck had it that I’d just released them for break, so no one was inadvertently killed by the disturbed student who’d launched the extinguisher at a classmate two floors up. All in all, the thefts, firings, dramatic charges of racism, and bloody basketball collisions to follow added a certain—dynamism, shall we say?—to a strong brew of lessons on culture and leadership that I’m glad to have tasted.
Grassroots or tall buildings?
Simply put, our capital is a very strange place. Power ebbs and flows through this planned city of multiple governments, seeping through the cracks of inequity just behind its marble facade. For the first month, the sheer intensity of contrasts was exhausting. By night, I frequented the 20-something pinstripe scene, where interns push business cards and drop names like an illicit drug. By day I directed my crew of young workers not to push any envelopes in the crowded apartments of Southeast, an area that boasts a view of the Washington monument and 40% unemployment rate. The strongest bridge between these worlds is Obama: the smiles of the First Family decorated every low-income home we visited with pride, just as the promise of his words buoyed the hopes of every young progressive in town.
The fact is that screwing in light bulbs is not glamorous, even if green is the new black. And the dedication, attention to detail, and sacrifice that made this program a success are qualities that my generation needs to gain in a hurry if we’re serious about our future. To my mind, the time is ripe (and the stimulus funds are flowing) for a culture shift toward sustainability. In the words of a Green Summer kid, let’s get working—TOGETHER—to “stay on this Earth longer.”
- East coast thunderstorms are sudden, soaking, veined by lightning, and serious. Portlanders beware: you really need an umbrella, the Patagucci jacket will not suffice. Oh, and don’t expect the humidity to condense and wash away with the storm, it just intensifies.
- A Western girl’s epiphany: childhood fairytales featuring bright red cardinals, toadstool-speckled lawns of blinking fireflies at dusk, and rowhouses of weathered bricks are based on reality. Magical.
- The East coast + Camila ≈ oil + water. Don’t get me wrong: I love public transportation, infinite networking opportunities, and free museums. But now I know that to maximize the “life” element in my future lifestyle, it must include cycling, space for spontaneity, and nature. Any tips on how to manage all of the above, or is that just greedy?
To my family, friends, and mentors: THANK YOU for being my raison d’être.
Enough for now, I’m off to Walla to finish college. Looking forward to hearing from you! Future plans forthcoming…