Seeing through the Smoke

I decided that the best way to travel to a Green Jobs Now event would be to ride my bike. Despite the ominous gray clouds and my total lack of familiarity with the Washington DC area, I hopped on my little red bike and headed in the general direction of Anacostia. Anacostia is unlike the rest of DC in that while are a few famous monuments in Anacostia (such as abolitionist Fredrick Douglass’s home), Anacostia’ s main source of fame is from its infamously high homicide rates.

There were 28 other Green Job events in the Washington DC area, many of them closer to my neighborhood and all of them in much safer parts of town. But the idea of Green for All, the idea that

a national effort to curb global warming and oil dependence can simultaneously create well-paid green-collar jobs, safer streets and healthier communities

made me choose the event in the community that needs green jobs the most.

I almost gave up my journey before I got there. I rode my bike to the Anacostia River Waterfront, an area that is currently undergoing some massive gentrification. I rode to the edge of the polluted, dirty river and pulled out my map, trying to figure out where I was supposed to be going. I flagged down a nearby security guard to ask for directions.

“Wait, you want to go to Anacostia?” He asked, taken aback. “You know that’s a rough neighborhood right?”

After I convinced the guard that I did indeed wish to go to Anacostia, he convinced me to park my bike and take the metro the rest of the way, so as to attract less attention. I hesitantly locked my pretty red bike to a bike rack on the side of a Safeway. Next to my bike was another bike that had been parked but now no longer had a seat or tires.

I paused for a minute before descending down the escalator. So far, everyone I had spoken with, including a security guard, had told me to not go to Anacostia. Was I being overly idealistic and naïve to the point of being unsafe? I decided that I would at least go to the Anacostia metro station and check it out the station.

The station seemed like any other and so I asked the station manager directions to the church where the event was being held. As it turned out, the event was right across from the metro and I felt my spirits rise when I saw big signs that said “Green Jobs Now.”

Sitting in the grass, I listened to speaker after speaker drive home the same basic point: transiting to a green economy isn’t just good for the environment; it’s good for America. To my astonishment, towards the end of the event a well-dressed man pulled up in a cab. It took me a second to register that this was one of the men that I admire the most in this world, Van Jones. After he gave an inspiring speech, I was managed to grab his attention before he hopped back into his cab. I briefly congratulated him for generally being amazing and then I told him about what I am doing.

I told him that I am currently working to coordinate the conference logistics for UNEP’s new Kick the Carbon Habit Education Campaign. I handed him a description of the campaign, telling him that Green Jobs wasn’t incorporated into the campaign but that I really, really want it to be. He gave me his card and a few names of people that I should contact and jumped into the cab.

I didn’t just get to talk to Van, I also got to speak with amazing people from 1 Sky, Eco-Green Living, Cool Capital Challenge, Chesapeake Climate Action, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light and Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative about our new campaign. I was especially curious to hear their thoughts on my idea to launch the campaign in Washington DC by visiting elementary schools in Anacostia and doing environmental education. A lot of the people I spoke with seemed excited and Cool Capital Challenge even suggested a partnership.

At the end of a very fulfilling day I took the metro back to Anacostia Riverfront and rode my bike back towards Capitol Hill. As I headed back, I saw a side of the Capitol that I have never seen before and that I doubt I will ever forget. Framing the Capitol were two towering smokestacks emitting a black smoke that seemed to entwine the gleaming white building in a toxic embrace.

As I later found out, my metaphor wasn’t so far from the truth; the pair of smokestacks is the Capitol Power Plant, a coal-burning plant that is operated by Congress to heat and cool famous government buildings in the area such as the Supreme Court, the Library of Congress and the Capitol itself. It also happens to be a major emitter of nitrogen oxide which exacerbates respiratory diseases such as asthma. In a city where 9.2 percent of the adults (8 percent nationwide) and 11 percent of the children have asthma (9 percent nationwide), it is a testament to the skewed politics of Congress that it still exists.

I stopped riding my bike for a second, the enthusiasm and hope that the Green Jobs event had given me suddenly dwindling. The need for the transformation to a green economy is clear, but will the decision-makers on the hill ever see through the smoke? Suddenly it wasn’t Anacostia that scared me…