By DON TERRY
Published: March 4, 2010
No one can accuse Naomi Davis of lacking ambition. She wants simultaneously to rebuild black America and save the planet – one neighborhood at a time. She knows she cannot do either alone. Her plan is to recruit and train an army. A green army.
That is why Ms. Davis, a petite, 54-year-old lawyer turned environmental evangelist, was squeezing her way through a crowded South Side nightclub Monday night, passing out energy-efficient light bulbs that resemble spiral soft-serve custard swirls to anyone who would sign her e-mail list. She has been collecting names from across the country for years, preparing for a war she is waging between the “old gray economy and the new green economy.” More than 10,000 names are on her list.
“Instead of waiting for the people to come to us, we go to them, wherever they are,” she said. “We’re going into the bars, the parks, the churches, the schools, the stores with this new green-economy education. We have to spread the word. Otherwise, people of color are going to be left behind.”
Ms. Davis is the founder and president of Blacks in Green, a three-year-old trade association and education and advocacy group based in Chicago that “teaches the benefits of the new green economy to communities of color through classes, programs, activities and enterprises.”
She is part of a new generation of black and Latino environmentalists who hope to revitalize their battered neighborhoods, struggling suburbs and rural towns with green-collar jobs and businesses.
Of the $787-billion federal stimulus package, about $80 billion was allotted for clean energy and other green initiatives. Ms. Davis said her goal was to ensure that black people “and other people of color have our share” of the money going to green jobs and businesses, ranging from solar energy projects and wind farms to the construction and renovation of office buildings and apartment towers to make them environmentally sound.
Ms. Davis also preaches do-for-self to go along with her gospel of green. “The move toward eco-friendly development, and the jobs it creates,” she said, “is an opportunity for blacks and other minorities to take more control of their destiny. In that sense, it is a way to move forward for communities that often feel left behind by economic opportunity.”
“What we reject is the ‘Help the Negro Industry,’ ” she said. “People coming into our community, thinking they know best, trying to save us. We can save ourselves.
“The ‘Help the Negro Industry’ is what allowed billions of dollars to come down for urban renewal, but the urban did not get renewed. We are absolutely committed that urban renewal not be repeated.”
Ms. Davis said she believed that minorities must educate and prepare themselves to take advantage of the changing, more environmentally attuned economy. It was just as important, she said, to educate people about the “economics of ecology” as it was to protest the dire environmental conditions in many black and Latino neighborhoods — including accusations by some that “environmental racism” contributes to the problem.
“There’s just a ton of work that going green can generate,” she said.
Then black people can rebuild their neighborhoods, she said, and make them “self-sustaining” — one of her favorite phrases. She calls it “building green villages,” meaning neighborhoods with grocery stores, clothing shops, pharmacies and other businesses, all within walking distance of people’s homes. It’s a far cry, she said, from what she sees today visiting many black or Latino neighborhoods haunted by knots of unemployed men, vacant lots, fast-food restaurants and shuttered businesses.
“The vision of Blacks In Green is self-sustaining black communities everywhere,” Ms. Davis said. “That’s our focus. To use the new green economy to achieve that is our strategy. We believe nothing trumps self-help.”
While she said she admired her fellow environmentalists who lay down in front of bulldozers or chained themselves to the gates of toxic-producing power plants, that is not her style. She is not a protester. She is, in effect, a town crier, spreading the word that blacks and Latinos should turn green.
Among those lauding Ms. Davis is Van Jones, a former green-jobs adviser to President Obama who resigned under fire after conservative critics asserted he had signed a petition accusing the Bush administration of deliberately allowing the Sept. 11 attacks, a claim he denies.
Ms. Davis has “been able to create an authentic, grass-roots urban expression of green politics,” said Mr. Jones, who is now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and teaches environmental policy and politics at Princeton University. “She’s playing almost a Paul Revere role for people who weren’t paying attention.”
Bart Schultz, director of the Civic Knowledge Project at the University of Chicago, recently worked with Ms. Davis to organize a panel focused on toxins in the South Side ecology.
“She puts in an enormous amount of energy into bringing people into the issue of sustainability, people who have not been involved before,” Mr. Schultz said.
Ms. Davis grew up in a black working-class neighborhood in Queens, N.Y.. Her father was a merchant seaman and was away from home for months at a time. Her mother, the daughter of Mississippi sharecroppers, was a public school teacher.
Ms. Davis majored in English and theater at Fisk University before moving to Chicago in 1976 to attend John Marshall Law School. When she was a student, she worked at the Palmer House hotel as a “gaslight girl.”
“It was the like the poor cousin of the Playboy bunnies,” she said. “I served cocktails, and every hour I got to sing three songs in a tiny costume.”
Since then, she has practiced law and run her own consulting firm. But it was not until 2001 that she began working toward her passion: preaching the power of green.
“I was suffering terribly, watching the disintegration of the black community,” she said. “Everywhere I looked, it was the same. It seemed that we had the worst of everything: health disparities, mis-education, dropouts, hyperincarceration, violence, unprepared parents, unemployment, misery.”
She started talking to people, reading, searching for solutions. The more she looked, the more convinced she became that the new green economy was the best way to rebuild black America. “It was back to the future,” she said. “It was back to the kind of self-sustaining neighborhood where I grew up.”
On Monday night, Ms. Davis took her gospel to the people.
Blacks in Green set up an information table at the entrance of the New Dating Game nightclub on South Stony Island Avenue. It was “stepper’s night” at the club. Stepping is a smooth, stylized dance, favored by twosomes of a certain age who performed many of the same steps in the 1970s.
Latoyia and Theodore Gilbert drove in from Gary, Ind., to help Ms. Davis staff the table, which was covered with the swirly light bulbs and eco-literature. Mrs. Gilbert, 33, is working on a master’s degree in environmental education and said that “being a good steward of our environment is part of our faith.”
The couple’s eldest daughter almost died of an asthma attack when she was 6, in 2006. Since then, Mr. Gilbert, 39, a social worker, has been dedicated to making Gary and the rest of the country green. “It’s personal with me,” he said.
Ms. Davis picked up an armful of bulbs and brochures and ventured deeper into the club.
“Have you ever heard of the new green economy?” Ms. Davis asked, struggling to be heard over the ear-splitting music.
“Not really,” a man replied.
“Take this,” she said, handing him the pamphlet, “Five Things Every Black Person Should Know About Sustainable Communities and the New Green Economy.”
Then she handed himtwo 60-watt energy-efficient bulbs.
“I love these bulbs,” he said. “They last a long time. I need to keep the lights on at my house for security.”
Ms. Davis said, “You’re also helping to secure the planet by using them.”
As Ms. Davis moved through the club, her sign-up sheet collected 35 names and e-mail addresses, and the disc jockey, Sam Chapman, announced, “We’re stepping for green, y’all.”
The environmental evangelist smiled. Her army was growing.
Blacks certainly cannot afford to be left behind where the green movement is concerned.
There are many ways to make their communities self-sustaining: if living in an apartment, grow your own herbs or plant dwarf citrus trees in containers on your patios; if living in a home, cultivate your own small garden vegetable plot; form a food cooperative, and bring to market foodstuffs you have grown to sell to your neighbors. In addition to creating their own community supported co-opt, denizens of Black neighborhoods can look into a community supported agricultural local harvest organization, many of which offer reduced prices for low-income people/neighborhoods.
The $80 billion from the stimulous plan and the burgeoning green-job market looms in the future, and Blacks cannot afford to be left behind.
In so many ways, big and small, one can contribute to one’s own family and community.
The present proliferation of toxins, hazardous solid waste sites, and environmental pollutants in so many Black neighborhoods have wreaked enough devastation on Blacks lives for far too long. Climate change, global warming and the ecology is not something that stops outside Black neighborhoods.
The creation of a green army starts in one’s own backyard, and making the neighborhood self-sustaining helps everyone in the long run.