Why does climate change hit marginalized communities harder?

May 2, 2023

This week's guest is Julia Hatton, the CEO of Rising Sun. Rising Sun is a non-profit organization that works to create green jobs and provide sustainable energy solutions in underserved communities in California. Under her leadership, Rising Sun has trained over 3,500 individuals in energy efficiency, solar installation, and other green job skills. In this episode, we'll be discussing the urgent need for sustainable energy solutions in marginalized communities, and the challenges and opportunities of building a more equitable green economy. We'll also explore Julia's personal journey and what drives her commitment to social and environmental justice.

- Hello, everyone. I am Chris Hyams, CEO of Indeed. My pronouns are he and him, and welcome to the next episode of Here To Help. For accessibility, I'll offer a quick visual description. I'm a middle-aged man with dark rimmed glasses, I'm wearing a blue T-shirt. Behind me is the North Austin skyline. At Indeed our mission is to help people get jobs. This is what gets us out of bed in the morning and what keeps us going all day. And what powers that mission is people. Here to help is a look at how experience, strength, and hope inspires people to want to help others. As most of you likely know, April is Earth Month. A global recognition to foster awareness support for climate protection, though lesser known in the US, April is also Second Chance Month. First officially observed in 2017, Second Chance Month is a nationwide effort to raise awareness of the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction and unlock second chance opportunities for education, housing, and employment for people who have completed their sentences to become contributing citizens. The awareness effort is led by The Prison Fellowship, the nation's largest nonprofit serving the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated and their families and is an advocate for justice reform. Today's guest is Julia Hatton, the CEO of the Rising Sun Center for Opportunity. Rising Sun is a nonprofit organization in California that prepares low income youth and adults for good quality careers. Uniquely, Rising Sun does this work through a climate lens, focusing on careers in the clean economy and providing energy solutions to underserved communities. Julia has been with Rising Sun since 2012 and has led the organization through significant growth and impact, becoming CEO of the organization in March of 2020. Since 2000, Rising Sun has prepared over 3,000 youth and adults for careers in energy efficiency, the clean economy, and the union building and construction trades. Prioritizing women, youth, and people impacted by the justice system. Rising Sun is a member of the Justice40 Accelerator's inaugural cohort, and was recently granted the Neighborhood Builders Award. Rising Sun sits at the intersection of Earth Month and Second Chance Month, and in this episode we'll be discussing the opportunity to address climate resilience and economic mobility simultaneously. And the challenges and imperatives of building a more equitable green economy. We'll also explore Julia's personal journey and what drives her commitment to social and environmental justice. Julia, thank you so much for joining me today.

- So wonderful to be here. Thanks for having me, Chris.

- Let's start where we always start these conversations. How are you doing this morning right now?

- I'm good. I'm here, I'm awake. I've had my coffee, so that's all I can ask for at this point. I'm doing well. How about you?

- I'm doing great. I'm really looking forward to this conversation. So let's dive right in. Can you start by just telling us a little about the mission and work of Rising Sun? How the organization came to be, and what are some of the things that you're most proud of that you've accomplished to date?

- Yeah, yeah. Well, we have some alignment in our missions. Rising Sun's and nonprofit organization, we're focused on workforce development and climate change and sort of where those things intersect. And we're in the California Bay area. We have offices in Oakland and Stockton and ultimately cover a 10 county region. And all the people in communities we work with are considered low-income. And most have things going on in their lives that make it hard to get a job or to keep a job. So we're all about breaking those barriers to employment. And we've actually been around since 1994. But our origin story really begins in Berkeley in 2000 when we had staff who were teaching a class on climate change at Berkeley High. And it was the students in that class who decided that they didn't want to just learn about how climate change was affecting their communities. They wanted to go out and do something about it, you know, as youth are want to do. So they started going to their family and friends' houses, and taking out their old inefficient lighting and replacing it with new bulbs that saved energy. So that was sort of the beginning of everything. And then, then it was 2009, which was the days of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And so there was a lot going on at that time around green jobs. We started offering job training for adults at that time, and we were preparing people to work in residential energy efficiency, weatherization, solar, sort of your traditional green jobs, right? But pretty quickly we found that those jobs weren't offering good wages, benefits, safety protection and career advancement. And because of that, green jobs were keeping people in poverty. And that was sort of the antithesis of our mission, right? So in 2014, we switched up our adult program. We became a pre-apprenticeship for the union building and construction trades. And the built environment generates about 40% of global CO2 emissions. The construction industry is really at the forefront, especially in California, of building a more sustainable future. They're really building the climate resilient infrastructure that we need. And on the other side of things, unions also offer sort of the gold standard for job quality and economic mobility. And they don't require a college degree, they don't discriminate against system-impacted folks. And we saw a need for increasing representation of women in the trades. So we decided to prioritize women in our pre-apprenticeship. So that leads us to today. We have two main programs that we run: Climate Careers and Opportunity Build. And I'll briefly describe each just so we have some context for the rest of the conversation. But Climate Careers trains and employees youth, ages 15 to 22 as energy specialists. And they provide these free energy efficiency and water conservation services, or Green House Calls to homes in their own communities. And then we place those youth in paid externships with other organizations doing climate work to give them that additional career exposure. And then Opportunity Build, like I mentioned, is a certified pre-apprenticeship for adults 18 and up. We have three cohorts a year, including one of the only all-women construction pre-apprenticeship programs in the country. They're here today, they're doing their physical education training right now. And our graduates get hands-on training, classroom instruction, case management support, mental health and substance use disorder counseling, job placement support, both during the 11-week training and then 12 months after graduation. And so the last thing that we do is we're trying to get more into the policy advocacy space. 'Cause what really needs to happen, right? To address the things that we'll probably talk about today is systems change. That's the piece that we're getting into next.

- I think most people would a agree with the concept that we have an urgent need for more sustainable energy solutions. But can you talk about that need specifically in low-income communities and in particular why in California this is so pressing?

- Yeah, yeah. And I think you're right. I mean, I think it's a global issue. There's no sector of our economy, no person on this Earth who's not going to be impacted or isn't already being impacted by climate change. In California, we're specifically dealing with things like sea level rise, drought, or when there isn't drought, paradoxically flooding, wildfires, extreme heat. And our infrastructure really just isn't ready to deal with all those things. And our residents aren't either. Especially like you're saying in communities that have been historically and persistently underinvested, ignored, or intentionally placed at a disadvantage, right? So you can think of, you know, maybe their homes are uninsulated and overcrowded. Maybe they've got limited access to clean water. Maybe the air is polluted, their health burdens are greater, maybe their power gets shut off more often, and at the same time their energy bills are higher, right? And, you know, maybe they don't have the economic resources or even the privilege of time to deal with all of those things. I don't think those things are unique to California, but these tend to be communities where the household income is insufficient. And disproportionately they're communities of color. And so this is who is hit first and worst by climate change every single time. And that's because of decades of racist policies and discrimination. Ironically, these same folks likely have a smaller carbon footprint than higher-income households, 'cause they're consuming less. But they disproportionately bear the burden of those who have a bigger footprint. You know, I think it's also really important to remember in this work that these impacted communities, which we often label as disadvantaged, they have the solutions that our world needs. The people who are most impacted by a problem are the experts on how to fix it. And that's I hope a perspective that's starting to change.

- You had mentioned in particular the type of jobs are potentially more available to folks who've been justice-impacted. And I'd love to talk a little bit about how Rising Sun's work supports individuals who may be seeking a second chance, formerly incarcerated folks through job training, access to clean energy, or any other means.

- Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I mean, I think when you look at our justice system and the folks who are coming out of it, I don't think our country does a great job of really truly providing second chances. I don't know that we- The extent to which we really believe in second chances. And you see that in the barriers that we put up for people who are coming home. You know, it's just, it's like a second incarceration. It's just more punishment, right? And about 40% of our Opportunity Build participants our system-impacted. We started focusing on prioritizing system-impacted folks in about 2014, right around when we started our pre-apprenticeship. And that's because I think a union construction career really does offer a second chance, in that they don't discriminate against folks who've done their time and just want an opportunity. And then, you know, the second part of that is then helping people access those opportunities. And that's the part we do at Rising Sun, right? So pre-certified, pre-apprenticeship like Opportunity Build gives these folks access to these opportunities. The trades can be hard to navigate. We have 28 building trades affiliates in our- In like one county alone where we're at. So you need sort of like that transparency, that access. And then we also build foundational skills, we do the employer introductions, and then you have all the wraparound supportive services, which can include referrals to legal aid and other resources like that. And we're super lucky to have a senior staff member and a board member who are both graduates of Opportunity Build who came to Rising Sun right after they came home. And our impact is greater because of them. We're better because of them, I'm better because of them. So that's the perspective I'll share on that.

- And thinking back to the conversation we had last week in getting ready for this, and one of the phrases, and I spent a lot of time thinking about jobs and opportunity and careers, but I had not heard this phrase that you used to talk about specifically the type of opportunities that you want to create with Rising Sun, which you call high road opportunities. Can you share with other folks that may, like me, have not heard that before? What do you mean by that, and what does that mean for Rising Sun?

- So the high road is a good job, a quality job. Union jobs are the gold standard for the high road, but it really can be any job that provides good wages, benefits, career advancement opportunities, worker protections, and opportunities for worker voice, right? And I like to say it's one that you don't just survive on, but it's a job that you can really thrive on, which is I think something that we all deserve, but isn't really available to everyone. And on the employer side, high road employers compete based on the quality of their services and their products, right? So not just being the cheapest. And they invest in their people in the long-term. And I think, you know, like I think if your business model only works if you pay people the minimum, maybe it's time for a better business model. You know? Like we can do better than that, we can be more creative. So in California there are formal partnerships that are focused on specific industries that work to build the high road and deliver equity, sustainability and job quality simultaneously. And that's to the credit of California's Workforce Development Board. And Rising Sun actually leads one of those partnerships. Specifically for, I'm going to get real jargony, the residential decarbonization and electrification sector. So basically converting from gas to electric sources of energy. And at the end of the day we believe that climate investments should deliver both economic and environmental benefits. And one way to do that that we're exploring in our HRTP is by tying workforce standards to those investments. And an example of where you see that would be in like the Inflation Reduction Act that got passed at the federal level this year.

- In the climate space we talk about sustainability, but at Indeed we talk about sustainable jobs and careers. And there's a difference between subsistence and something that actually- And so I love that intersection of thinking about economic sustainability. And so in particular, you know, one of the things that you all do, you mentioned the phrase workforce development, so Rising Sun is a lot more than just training. Can you talk about what workforce development really means?

- Yeah, I probably should have started with that. Yeah. So it's the training that's absolutely part of it. But like you're saying, there's a lot more to it than that. And especially, you know, the people we work with are facing some pretty high barriers to employment. So, you know, maybe they've been incarcerated, they might be a single parent without childcare, they may have housing insecurity, they may have all of those things happening in their life at once, right? So they have things in their lives that make it hard to get a job. And then most importantly to, to keep a job, right? And to grow in that job. So good workforce development addresses all of that and serves the whole person. Some examples of that would be, in Opportunity Build we have wraparound supportive services, we have case management, we provide stipends. There's mental health and substance use disorder counseling. There's job placement and retention support. We're going to have those childcare stipends soon. And that's during the training, but also for 12 months after graduation, 'cause that's when it gets really tough. And all of that is then paired with the 280 hours of training we provide, which includes the hands-on construction, OSHA 10, first aid certification, site visits, applied maths, soft skills, physical training like they're out doing right now. So our folks are ready for a high road career when they graduate, right? And that's how we approach workforce development.

- You know, April being both Second Chance Month and Earth Month, and there is an intersection between those. And can you talk about some of these opportunities for addressing both of these challenges at the same time?

- Yeah, yeah. I think the connection between those two things is not immediately apparent, but climate touches everything. So, you know, there's a couple- A few ways that you can think of these things as overlapping. So one is that you cannot be climate resilient without economic security. Setting up solar and battery storage might not be first on your list if you're trying to figure out how to afford your medication, or, you know, you have to own your home or have a place to sleep, right? For that matter. And I think, you know, as your guest discussed, system-impacted people face incredible employment barriers when they come home, which then leads to economic security. So all of that is exacerbated. Another way to think about it is, you know, if you think about prisons, many do not have air conditioning, many are overcrowded. We have more and more and more extreme heat days every single year. I mean, that's truly hell, it's killing people. And nobody, nobody deserves that. So, you know, I think the thing is that over and over and over again, we see low-income BIPOC communities hit first and worst by these things like mass incarceration, climate change, the health, economic, social and environmental impacts hit them disproportionately. And that's the system that we're operating in, and which many people have chosen to accept or ignore or perpetuate, right? So instead, I think we can give people access to career opportunities they've been excluded from. We can deliver on the triple win promise of a green job. So people, planet and prosperity. And we can at least start to address some of these intersectional connected issues together.

- There's definitely reality and perception about the fact that adopting some of these greener practices is more burdensome. That organic produce costs more than non-organic produce, and upgrading, you know, your home to be more green with double-paned windows is more expensive. Can you talk a little bit about some of the challenges and barriers that communities face in adopting these solutions, and how you're working to address those barriers?

- There are real economic barriers to access and adoption of these solutions. EVs aren't cheap. You need a home to install solar. You also need a stable roof and an updated service panel. And programs can be seriously overly complicated to apply for. Requirements like proof of income, landlord permission, upfront payments, those are all barriers for low-income families. And I was talking to some folks last week actually about how we have so many great programs in California, but we also have so many great programs. There's so many of them. And I mean, I'm in this work, and I can't keep them all straight. And, you know, how are people supposed to navigate that? So we need things to be easier and simpler. And I think that all comes down to, do you want people to benefit from these programs or not? We're overly concerned that people will cheat the system, and I think there's also a subtext there, a lack of trust of low-income folks and BIPOC communities. So that's one thing. But you know, worst case scenario, a handful of people get some free stuff that they probably could have paid for, that still means progress towards our energy goals, right? So, you know, I think, again, we just need to sort of get out of our own way and stop putting up all these barriers and then being surprised when programs go underutilized. It is an issue that we're raising awareness of and that a lot of great folks are working on. And at Rising Sun we've intentionally designed the Green House Call that our youth employees provide to residents to be barrier-less, right? So we do massive on the ground outreach. It's free, everyone is eligible, outreach is targeted. You don't need landlord permission, you don't have to prove your income. And we end up really effectively serving our priority communities, and making progress on climate goals as well. So it does work. I'm here to tell you that it works.

- Organizations like yours and government institutions can play a big role in this. But what is the role that individuals and communities should play in addressing environmental challenges, and what type of meaningful actions can people take to help create a more sustainable future?

- You know, I think there's been this deflection onto individuals away from those most responsible, like the fossil fuel industry, for example, and away from sectors with the greatest emission sources, like transportation and buildings. And I think... You know, I think at this point we all know what we can do at the individual level, what we can all do differently. And a lot of folks are doing it. It's not a new issue. You know, recycle, ride your bike, take shorter showers, turn the lights off when you're not using them. Those are all meaningful actions and let's keep doing them. We need to keep doing them, we should keep doing them. But I think we also need to think and act bigger. We need to change some things that require a major paradigm shift and maybe a power shift, and that's not easy. But I think also where we are now isn't easy for most people and there are real consequences of inaction. So I think other things that we can do as a society, as communities, as individuals or like, you know, first center the people who are most impacted. Put them at the center. Phase out fossil fuels, invest in clean energy at scale, legislate, regulate, vote. We all got to vote. And let's innovate. You know, like let's find ways to prosper that aren't at the expense of people and planet. We can avoid these tragic trade-offs. We can avoid these false choices we've been given. And I think, you know, hard things are hard, it's not going to be easy, but I do believe we're better than this and we can figure it out.

- For people who might be at the point that you were at a while back, and feeling inspired or called to like, "This is what I want to devote my time and energy to," how would you recommend for people who want to get involved in this space or who want to lead positive change?

- Yeah, yeah. I'd encourage people to think about sustainability and the clean economy much more broadly. It's not just rooftop solar and EVs. With our climate careers externships at Rising Sun, we look at all different roles and industries. Engineers, researchers, construction workers, techies, policy makers, consultants, organizers, all the things. And that can be at a nonprofit at a for-profit, at a government agency, you know, in government, labs, all of it, right? We all have skills that can be applied to this space. I have my undergrad in English, like that's it. So all of these skills are needed. And because eventually there isn't going to be a job that doesn't touch or isn't touched by climate.

- As we're nearing our close here, is there one sort of big takeaway or message that you'd like people to walk away from this conversation in their minds?

- Yeah, well, hopefully the importance of job quality is coming through the thinking about workforce development more broadly and inclusively. Understanding the connection of climate to all the things and thinking through that lens. And when it comes to Rising Sun, reach out. You know, I love hearing from people, I love talking about these things, and I'd love for folks to visit our website, learn more, donate, ask questions, all those good things.

- Final question that I always ask all of our guests is, looking back over the past now three plus years since the start of the pandemic, and all that we've been through, and all of the challenges and inequities that have been exposed, and all of the suffering, in all that, what have you seen that has left you with some hope for the future?

- Hmm. Yeah, thank you for that question. This will probably have to be a long answer. You know, we have a practice of celebrations and appreciations at Rising Sun. So this fits like right into our wheelhouse. One thing that I believe in is lifelong learning, and people's ability to both learn and unlearn. I've done it, I'm still doing it. I think that's a real gift. And it does give me hope seeing people do that, seeing those transformations. And then, you know, I'm so lucky. I have a lot of things in my life that lift me up every day. My nine-year old daughter Ranger, my husband Joff, our goofy dogs, the beautiful place we live. There's the team I work alongside at Rising Sun. I mean, they are just so truly awesome. They care deeply. They're really good at what they do. They're fun to be around. Yeah, they make it happen. They make a difference. And then... And then, yeah, then there's the work I get to do every day. So you spend one day with our youth participants and you will have hope for the future. If you spend a day with our adult, our participants, you'll be inspired. So I just feel, I feel grateful every day to have found this work.

- Well, Julia Hatton, CEO of Rising Sun Center for Opportunity, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you for sharing your work and your experience and your outlook. And thank you so much for the work that you do every day to make the world a better place.

- Thank you. It's been really great to be here. I appreciate it.