Greening Communities, Teaching Skills and Building Careers: Sustainable South Bronx

Written by Alvaro Sanchez Sanchez 

Senior Associate, Green For All

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In our recent report, Staying Green and Growing Jobs: Green Infrastructure Operations and Maintenance as Career Pathway Stepping Stones, we profile seven organizations that are linking members from disadvantaged communities to opportunities in the green sector. These groups are diverse with respect to the populations they serve, the skills they teach, and the types of work they perform, but all of them recognize that green infrastructure has the potential to transform communities. 

Based on interviews with social enterprises and workforce development organizations throughout the country, we identified twelve components that make their programs successful. To better describe these components, we created an infographic, below, highlighting the best features of each organization and providing details about the types of work they are involved in. Over the coming weeks we’ll profile innovative organizations that are advancing best practices in green infrastructure, here. This week, we profile New York’s Sustainable South Bronx.

Founded in 2003, the Bronx Environmental Stewardship Training (BEST) Academy is Sustainable South Bronx’s flagship program. BEST Academy is dedicated to preparing low-income New York City residents for jobs in the growing green collar sector and addressing both environmental and economic needs in the community. BEST prepares New Yorkers for full-time employment by teaching skills necessary to do work like restoring urban green spaces and upgrading local buildings to make them more efficient and sustainable.

BEST Academy operates two programs: BEST Ecology (BECO) and BEST for Buildings. The BECO program takes place over twelve weeks and offers training and certifications in landscaping, wetland restoration, soil science and hydrology, tree pruning, and green roof installation and maintenance.

Many of the participants in BEST receive public assistance, have been unemployed for long stretches of time, or have been incarcerated. After students graduate from the program, Sustainable South Bronx’s staff assists them in finding work opportunities with non-profits or businesses in the environmental field. Since the program’s creation in 2003, more than 400 people have graduated from BEST Academy.

BEST is exploring ways to increase the job training opportunities and access to work for their program participants. BEST identified red tape and obstacles that restrict their opportunities, including regulations that require work to be performed by certified contractors, and stiff competition for the available public sector work that is outsourced. BEST has tried to expand potential jobs by reaching out to other non-profits in need of trained workers, but this option has limited reach.

BEST is successfully training community members in green sector jobs. In the near future, Operations and Maintenance jobs are expected to rise in New York City. Annette Williams, Director of BEST Academy, believes that in order for her program graduates to access these and other opportunities, job qualifications and requirements should be modified to take into account the background of BEST program participants. Not only does requiring something as simple as a driver’s license disqualify many program participants, such requirements may be unnecessarily limiting when workers do not need to drive in order to perform their duties. Ms. Williams believes that direct partnerships between BEST and city employers will maximize both BEST’s and the city’s resources.

Sustainable South Bronx is one of a number of programs that are delivering the triple bottom line benefits that green infrastructure investments promise. Its work demonstrates successful private/public/nonprofit partnerships that protect the environment, increase access to economic opportunities, and improve the social conditions of disadvantaged groups. The company is cultivating a new generation of environmental stewards that come from communities most impacted by environmental and economic crises. Programs like these use operations and maintenance work to create on-ramps to career opportunities in a variety of professions. They also perform a critical task that creates real opportunity rather than dead-end, low-quality employment.

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Come back next week to learn about a program in Seattle with a twenty-seven year track record of helping homeless individuals find permanent housing while doing public work.

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