Recapping Our First #PowerUp Conversation—Long Term Jobs and Clean Energy

In September and October, we’ll be hosting a series of four #PowerUp community conversations, bringing together our community partners and residents from across the city to discuss priorities for Chicago’s energy transition. For information and to register for the upcoming conversations, click here.

We were thrilled to kick off our #PowerUp series on Monday evening with the first of our four conversations. We were joined by attendees from neighborhoods across Chicago. This first event was all about long-term jobs—as Kyra Woods, Chicago’s Ready for 100 Coordinator, emphasized in her opening remarks, the topic of economic recovery is everywhere in the local and national news right now, and we know that green jobs can be a huge part of that conversation. For this first session in our four-part series, we wanted to look at Chicago’s clean energy transition through the lens of jobs—specifically, how do we make them part of a just and equitable transition plan?

To help answer that question, we were first joined by Cheryl Johnson, executive director of People for Community Recovery (PCR), an environmental justice organization based in Altgeld Gardens on the far Southeast Side. Drawing on more than 40 years of environmental justice work, Cheryl quoted her mother Hazel Johnson, PCR’s founder, commonly considered to be the mother of the environmental justice movement. Cheryl explained that Hazel had envisioned the development of an environmental remediation workforce that would be based in the local area most impacted by environmental harms, and would be inclusive of technologies such as renewable energy. Cheryl spoke of the work that PCR has done over the years to train this new labor force since the organization’s inception, emphasizing that the creation of this labor force in affected communities is a key part of what a just energy transition looks like.

Next, we were joined by Kassie Beyer, Illinois Director for Jobs to Move America, an organization working to transform public spending to create benefits for communities and workers. Kassie explained that typical approaches to purchasing in cities like Chicago often are missing a focus on long-term jobs—on how many jobs will be created, who’s getting those jobs and receiving training, and how to create opportunities for historically marginalized groups. The connection to Chicago’s energy transition is clear: As the CTA electrifies its fleet of buses, Kassie explained, her organization is working to ensure the CTA’s transition creates good jobs that benefit both workers and communities.

A common theme highlighted by both speakers was the need for good metrics and the challenges in measuring success. Cheryl reminded us of the challenges we face: It’s not enough to simply provide training, because hiring discrimination and other inequities mean that we often see individuals go through training who end up without employment in the industry for which they’re trained. Kassie reiterated that training often happens without job placement and retention, and we need real metrics and tracking to make sure that people’s lives are being meaningfully impacted. Cheryl reminded us to “connect the dots” between the different elements needed to affect change, while keeping focused on the groundwork and on addressing the essential needs of those in the communities most impacted. 

These themes carried over into the second half of the evening, when the whole group got involved in brainstorming our own ideas for a list of priorities for the jobs transition. We asked ourselves, What will success look like? We talked in small groups about our priorities for our own neighborhoods, and it was pretty amazing to see that the poster-paper and Post-Its approach to collaboration and consensus-building that we have often used in person can actually work well over the internet too (thanks to the magic of Zoom and screen sharing). As we began to color-code and cluster our ideas based on commonalities, we saw some themes beginning to emerge. We’ll continue to build on these ideas as we hold sessions over the next three weeks.