Green for all: Q&A with Earth Day Conference speaker Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins

April 11, 2011

On April 20, hundreds will gather for the fifth annual Nelson Institute Earth Day Conference to discuss innovations in sustainability in buildings, energy and food systems.

Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, chief executive officer of Green For All, a national organization working to build a green economy that lifts people out of poverty, is among the conference's featured speakers. Green For All has become one of the country's leading advocates for a clean energy economy under Phaedra's leadership and an important voice on the intersection of economics and environment.

In this interview with the Nelson Institute, Phaedra offers a preview of the ideas she'll share in her plenary address and sheds some light on the broad spectrum of issues that inspire her work.

You will be speaking at the Earth Day Conference about building an inclusive green economy and innovating today to build a sustainable tomorrow. What are the elements of an inclusive green economy and what do you hope attendees will take away from your address?

We fully support the development of the clean energy sector, but, for us, that's not enough. We want to take it a step further by ensuring that all the jobs and opportunities created by this growth are equally available to all Americans.

It's really that simple, and, to make it happen, we work with policymakers, legislators, community-based organizations and other partners to create incentives, offer training programs, mentor entrepreneurs and raise awareness, among other goals. We want clean energy to be an equal opportunity sector.

So, whenever I talk about Green For All to audiences, I want them to leave feeling hopeful, inspired, informed and ready to take action.

Conference Details

"Pursuing a More Sustainable Wisconsin: Innovation in Buildings, Energy and Food Systems" will be held on April 20 at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery and the new Union South. To view the full conference agenda, please visit our Program page.

General registration is $25. College and high school students with valid student IDs may attend for free, however, registration is required. All attendees should preregister online by Friday, April 15.

What inspired your passion for improving economic, environmental and health conditions for vulnerable communities?

My interest is rooted in my own personal story and experiences; I grew up in Suisun, a little town in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was surrounded by refineries and industrial plants which made it a difficult place to grow up. I had asthma, as did so many of my friends and neighbors, yet, our parents couldn't remove us from that environment because they simply didn't have the money.

So, growing up, I always knew that vulnerable communities faced unique threats and I always wanted to do something about them, although I didn't call it "environmentalism" at the time. To me, it was just common sense.

I've always been eager to take on these challenges, and then I was offered this great opportunity to become CEO of Green For All in 2009. And, every day since, I've worked so that children don't have to grow up in the same conditions that I did.

Can you share a success story of someone who, through your organization's work and through an opportunity in green industry, has found a pathway out of poverty?

We are involved with a groundbreaking initiative called Clean Energy Works Portland, which provides help to low-income homeowners for energy efficiency projects. It's been an incredible success, cutting energy costs for residents, creating green jobs and spurring local economic development.

We just completed the pilot phase, and have retrofitted 500 homes, which is very exciting. For the project, we developed what we call a "High Roads Agreement," which basically provides opportunities for a diverse workforce to get their fair share of opportunities to work on this project. As a result of this agreement, people of color worked almost half of the hours.

One quick example is Albert Horsley, who actually was homeless in his early 20s; he had taken some community college courses and worked at some low-wage jobs but nothing lasted. Last year, he heard that a local union was teaching weatherization training courses, and he enrolled. Now, he is working fulltime at an energy company, making around $15 an hour. Success stories like that are why we get involved, and what keep us going.

Green For All works with the business, government, labor and grassroots communities—and directly with citizens. What are the keys to these collaborations and how are you most effective in working at these different levels?

The key to developing successful partnerships is to find the common ground. That's what we did in Portland. Mayor Sam Adams has an ambitious goal of reducing the city's greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.

Homeowners want to reduce energy costs to save money. Unions want to ensure working people have quality jobs and benefits. And, obviously people want to work. So, all of these different interests have found common ground through the clean energy economy—and when you identify the shared interests, great things can happen.

Your organization also has partnerships with several popular artists, such as the Black Eyed Peas and Wyclef Jean. Could you talk a bit more about these partnerships and how you're reaching new audiences about the benefits and opportunities of going green?

Green For All has always been creative in getting our messages across to different audiences, especially those that are harder to reach whether they be young people or underserved communities, and partnering with artists like the Black Eyed Peas and Drake helps us reach people who are often overlooked and ignored.

In fact, recently, on World Water Day, we launched the Keep It Fresh campaign with Wiz Khalifa as part of the Campus Consciousness Tour which is taking place right now. College students across the nation are going to these shows, having some fun and learning about the water crisis facing communities across the nation. So it's a win-win situation for everyone.

Here at the Nelson Institute, our Community Environmental Scholars Program trains undergraduates to work with community-based environmental organizations and explores the links between environmental studies and community service. What advice would you share with students in this program—or with anyone in the field—as they begin their career and charge ahead in confronting environmental and social problems?

First, I would say to always stay focused on your goal. As we've seen in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere, solving environmental problems isn't easy; there is a lot of resistance. But if you stay focused, especially in the difficult times, your passion and commitment will get you through.

Secondly, I would say to students that I'm sure they hear people talk all the time about how they are the future leaders, but I think they should be leaders now. There are a lot of causes that would benefit right now from their ideas, energy and creativity. Find them, and then do your best to be a part of the solution.