Representative Ilhan Omar speaks at a rally for green jobs in south Minneapolis. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Dancers in bright plumage bounced and spun to the rhythm of pounding drums in a vacant lot at the corner of Lake Street and Chicago Avenue in south Minneapolis. 

The  Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue is a traditional Aztec dance group. Members performed the corn dance, which is about honoring the natural environment to kick off an Earth Day rally to bring green jobs to Lake Street and diverse communities across Minnesota. 

“Our organizations are right here on Lake Street and we have suffered forever,” said Susana De León, an immirgration attorney who has led the troupe for 28 years.  

Performers with the Aztec dance group Kalpulli KetzalCoatlicue perform at a rally for green jobs in south Minneapolis. Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Groups along Lake Street are striving to control the rebuilding of their neighborhoods following massive destruction from civil unrest after George Floyd was murdered. Many are stepping up to support improving Minneapolis and communities across the nation in a way that addresses climate change and provides good paying, union jobs to working class people and communities of color who experience the worst effects of a rapidly warming planet. 

“We recognize that we are in a moment of crisis as a result of extracting wealth from Black, Brown, and Indigenious communities,” Representative Ilhan Omar told a crowd of about 50. “As we rebuild Minneapolis, we are here to demand good jobs at a national and local level.”

Green jobs

More than 61,000 Minnesotans worked in clean energy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Clean Energy Economy Minnesota, a nonprofit organization that advocates for energy efficiency and clean energy in the businesses sector. Those jobs include energy efficiency work, construction to retrofit old buildings, building and developing cleaner vehicles and public transportation, and generating power from renewable sources like solar and wind. 

The clean energy workforce is more diverse than the state as a whole. About 73 percent of it is white, compared to 80 percent of the state’s population. The industry does fall short on female workers. Women account for just 27 percent of the clean energy workforce.

Green jobs are typically thought of as actively reducing pollution such as electrification of technologies that rely on forms of fossil fuels for power like heating systems and vehicles, renewable energy generation, water management, and reforestation. 

But any job that doesn’t pollute can be considered a green job, according to Ulla Nilsen, who works on the issue for the environmental nonprofit MN350. That can include teaching and mental health services, she said.

New government investments should create plenty of traditional green jobs, Nilsen said. The American Rescue Act included $4.5 billion for low-income energy assistance and weatherization programs. Congress is discussing a major infrastructure bill that activists hope will include large green energy and decarbonization spending that will create jobs. 

“It feels like a time when continuing to push is fruitful,” Nilsen said. 

President Joe Biden announced a new goal to cut emissions in half by 2030 last week. He called for the United States to reach net zero emissions by 2050. Cutting emissions from fossil fuels in half by 2030 is needed if the world is to meet the goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, a metric set by the United Nations. Scientists say anything over 2 degrees Celsius will result in devastating rises in sea level, heat waves, and catastrophic storms.

People listen to Robert Blake, a Native American solar leader and advocate, speak about the need for a just transition to a clean energy economy. Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Seeking a just transition

Ilhan is a vocal backer of the Green New Deal, a large infrastructure and climate resiliency plan that calls for adding 20 million new union jobs to decarbonize the United States economy within a decade. The fate of that legislation is unclear, but Ilhan noted she has authored other bills, including the Zero Waste Act  and the End Polluter Welfare Act, that aim to reduce pollution and close tax loopholes that benefit fossil fuel companies. 

She urged people to reject the notion that transitioning from fossil fuels to green energy will result in job loss and hardship for working-class people. 

“We have to break the fossil fuel industry’s monopoly on our energy grid and transition to a new and green economy,” Ilhan said. 

Direct investments for job training in diverse communities is necessary to ensure that transition is equitable, according to Unidos Minnesota co-founder Daniel Del Toro.

“We need to make sure we have training and certifications that are accessible, sustainable, and culturally competent so our communities can benefit from that transition,” Del Toro said. 

Unidos Minnesota is a nonprofit organization that advocates for immigrants. Today it is working with MN350 and labor groups like Service Employees International Union Local 26 and Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL) to bring a green jobs training center to the Lake Street corridor. 

Such projects could be financed by a green energy jobs translation fund, according to Robert Blake, the founder of the solar installation company Solar Bear and leader of the nonprofit Native Sun. 

That fund would invest in job training resources for people who work in coal and other fossil fuel industries today and provide dollars to financially stabilize those communities during the transition. 

Blake is an enrolled member of the Red Lake Nation and sits on the Governor’s Workforce Development Board. He believes state investment in a transition fund would help create economic opportunities for frontline communities being hit hardest by climate change. 

“This is a time of great change and we can do it,” Blake said. 

New green jobs should be union jobs, according to Javier Miranda, an electrical worker and member of the Democratic Socialists of America.

He said it’s time for Congress to pass the Protecting the Right to Organize (or PRO) Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize to ensure green jobs are good jobs. The PRO Act has passed through the House of Representatives and is supported by President Biden. 

Miranda said he works as a solar installer at a non-union shop where working conditions are poor and safety standards are low. Leaders of green energy companies can mistreat workers just like coal barons did, he said. 

Del Toro arrived in Minnesota as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. Today, he works in renewable energy and helps lead Unidos’ green worker’s table, a group that advocates for immigrant employment opportunities in clean energy. He wants to ensure communities of color benefit from a transition to a green economy. 

“Our community has been brought to its knees by the global pandemic and structural racism, but we have the opportunity to restore our balance and social contract to one that centers our people and our planet,” he said. 

Andrew Hazzard is a reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew returned...