Mar 5, 2024 - News

Workforce development goes green at nonprofit Green Door Initiative

Illustration of a leaf being inserted and punched by a time clock.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

More than 30 years ago, Detroiter Donele Wilkins began working to make "environmental justice" a local household phrase.

  • Now she leads the Green Door Initiative, a nonprofit focused on environmental protection while empowering residents to begin careers in the green economy.

Why it matters: In a city affected by environmental racism that's facing questions around equitably developing its workforce, Green Door's efforts provide a solution-focused example of how to connect those two threads.

What they're saying: "As we address climate change and huge weather events, like the big tornado that happened [recently], somebody has to bring that community back to life," Wilkins tells Axios. "And we just want to make certain that the people who have been the most impacted get to enjoy the benefits and not only the burden."

State of play: The nonprofit offers a free 12-week course with training and certifications for environmental-focused jobs including contamination clean-up, building weatherization, lead and asbestos remediation, and hazmat and energy auditing.

  • Wilkins says the program has grown to training 100 people per year — 1,500 total since it started — with a 92% job placement rate and around $22 hourly wage average. About half are people returning from incarceration.
  • It also runs a summer "citizen scientist" program for about 20 young people per year.

The latest: The city recently chose Green Door as a partner to help with its solar field program, in which neighborhoods host solar farms in exchange for resident benefits including park improvements and home repair funding.

  • Separately, Green Door's Motor City to Solar City project aims to create a neighborhood model for solar use and sustainability, utilizing Department of Energy funding.
  • The organization plans to build a renewable energy hub around the Russell Street-State Fair neighborhood, where it has retrofitted a house to run on renewable energy with flooring upgrades and solar.
  • It also has a contract to install 100 air monitors across Wayne County.

Flashback: Wilkins' job was in workplace training for occupational health and safety when she was invited to attend a 1991 conference in Washington, D.C., the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. It was a game-changer for the environmental justice movement.

  • Many mainstream groups were more focused on environmental causes for upper and middle classes and not addressing toxins and pollution in lower-income communities, she says.
  • Wilkins and others ultimately created Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, and she launched the Green Door Initiative in 2010.

Between the lines: Green Door has partnerships with and/or funding through the University of Michigan, the state, the U.S. Forest Service, the EPA, the city and the Gilbert Family Foundation, among others.

  • Plus, Green Door participates in research and trains residents dealing with environmental issues to navigate government.
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