Saturday, July 31, 2010

Green job training and rebuilding in New Orleans

I visited two organizations AND had time to explore New Orleans (see previous post). Definitely could have stayed many, many days, but I had to get out to Taos by Saturday/Sunday so Phil and I booked it across Texas…through Austin and Lubbock…

The first organization I visited in NOLA was called Build it Back Green, a program run through Global Green. Like many organizations, BIBG and Global Green started in New Orleans post Katrina and are involved in the green re-building of the city, primarily the 9th Ward. What was on my mind constantly while talking with the woman at BIBG was: how were you accepted by the community? Both Global Green and Make It Right (the organization supported/championed by Brad Pitt) have a base in Hollywood…funny enough, Global Green is based out in Santa Monica, so maybe I’ll chat with a few folks there when I visit my brother in September. Also, Global Green’s main office is in downtown New Orleans, hardly accessible to many of their target population. So given this information, how were they accepted, especially as out of towners?

My sense is that any help immediately post Katrina was badly needed; so all incoming organizations were confronted with a mix of apprehension and acceptance. The fact that Global Green has survived and continues working within the community is what builds trust. An interesting twist though, from what I’ve heard from both this organization and the other one I interviewed (LA Green Corps), is that the money available for post Katrina clean up is starting to dry up and funders are experiencing something called “Katrina fatigue,” meaning as charitable as someone is, they are nonetheless tired of donating money and time 5 years down the line. Ask for support too many times, and the last time will be a no. It’s the same in other community orgs, even without a national emergency/natural disaster situation. How much is too much? How do organizations avoid donating fatigue? The way that Global Green and Make It Right have dealt with it—by holding fundraising parties with celebs and the rich in Hollywood for “those poor people in New Orleans”—seems a little unrealistic and snooty to me. Again, I return to funding for nonprofits…it is ALWAYS in the top 5 on an org’s priority list (or if not, they are either lucky or they are soon to be in trouble…).

Pretty much everything else I spoke with BIBG about was stuff I was familiar with, but I figure…the more lessons of funding and structure etc etc are pounded home, the less chance I will have of repeating mistakes that a lot of orgs and business make. At the end of the conversation, we started talking about the strength of religious organizations. What Global Green has realized is that if you’re trying to get anything done within a neighborhood, call all the pastors, go to mass, present your message, etc. How does an organization remain secular and still become heavily involved with churches? How does funding for churches work, and can that contribute/help non-profits (or only in a strictly partnering sense can they use money given by churches?)

The second organization I talked with was LA Green Corps. They are one of the luckier non profits that I’ve heard of in terms of funding because they received 1 million+ dollars to start a job training program for at-risk youth and disabled persons (CreateHere was also heavily funded in their start-up phase). 1 million +!!! Whew, what I could do with that money! LA Green Corps is very similar to Build it Green! in NYC and Buffalo ReUse in that they have a warehouse of materials taken from houses, they offer deconstruction services, etc.

When I first got to the job site/warehouse, I got a quick tour of the place. They were in the process of shipping out enormous cypress planks…I just wanted to grab them for myself they were so gorgeous! After a tour through the warehouse…more processing place versus store…I spoke with one of the teachers for the training program for disabled persons. I got the general scoop of how it was formed—three organizations formed an umbrella group which became the LA Green Corps—and talked to him a bit about his own training, how he works with his group, the day-to-day of job training, and the positives/negatives of the Green Corps’ setup.

It seemed from our conversation that teachers are hired mostly on their knowledge of construction, rather than their ability to work with kids. Of course many have an interest in being teachers, but there is no required “how to” training, which I think may be somewhat of a downfall. Having worked in NYC schools with kids labeled as “troublemakers,” it was obvious to me which teachers made the most difference in students’ lives; the teacher who was more interested in the kids and the kids’ lives than what they were teaching that particular day was always more successful. The green corps teachers are trained to teach the general construction curriculum, but the social worker was the one who was sent for when emotional issues surfaced. Perhaps a social worker is necessary, but wouldn’t it be more cost effective if all the teachers were trained in working with kids and the additional social worker wasn’t needed? Besides, doesn’t it create a divide between teacher and student if a social worker is called?

Another thing I learned was that the training program for kids is anywhere from 2-7 months. Both the teacher and I agreed that this was not enough time to unteach learned work habits and teach new things as well that would raise the hireability of a worker, but it all came down to FUNDING. How can a job training program afford to pay workers for longer than a few months? There needs to be an additional income generator…fee for service component and if you’re lucky, a supportive/rich donator. My other thoughts are…what if you were to teach skills to the kids, have them make value-added products and split the profit on whatever they make for x amount of time. They learn a new skill, have an incentive/way to make more money, and you come out with a profit that can fund part of the program. Certainly not a solution to the huge challenge of where to find all the money to fund teachers, kids, materials, etc, but every little amount of money generated counts, does it not?

I chatted some more with the teacher from Green Corps until the head of the organization came in. It is always interesting to meet the people who run the organizations, because oftentimes they are not what you would expect. Suzy, the woman who runs LA Green Corps, is every bit the businesswoman, whereas I expected her to be a more hands-on, construction gal. Suppose I only made that assumption because that’s sort of where I am coming from, but people who are most passionate about the actual work of the kids may not be the most effective in starting an organization and dealing with funders, outreach, etc. So maybe having a businesswoman like Suzy on the job makes more sense!

Suzy knew more of the technical/logistical stuff and directed me to several resources that I will check out when I have a few minutes. She told me that anyone looking to get involved in job training corps like the one she started should first connect with local businesses who are able to hire and WILLING to work with the kids. They did it sort of backwards and are now doing a little backpedaling and trying to create businesses that can actually hire their trainees. This makes sense, though I am wondering…if you have an income generating business, why do you need to have an attached nonprofit for the trainees? Perhaps you can do less community work as a business because you need to make a profit to float, but then you’d be truly selective in who you train. Though, if you’re training them in life skills rather than in specific skills pertaining to what your business does, I guess it makes more sense to have a nonprofit training component so you could focus less on your business as the be all end all for the person you hire and focus more on helping them achieve their own career dreams…

From talking to Suzy, one thing is for sure: I need to get better at networking. Talking to people in the trades, selling my ideas, getting people interested in seeing me succeed, because that’s when the money starts flowing and that’s how you magically find yourself on a path that’s headed somewhere (rather than just circling in your head)…

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