D.H. Wright reports on a conference in Atlanta, where labor and environmental leaders joined forces in an attempt to show how collaboration and equality can bring economic prosperity.

Atlanta - The sky is a somber gray blanket pondering lift-off above a silver city. It is a warm Thursday morning and the temperature is hospitable for winter, the touch of the sun empathetic and cool. There, in the heart of Atlanta, miles from coastal shores still recovering from the Gulf Oil Spill, the voice of civil right's leader John Lewis is heard in a convocation meant for dreamers, speaking to the south's most progressive business executives, union leaders, entrepreneurs, and investors.

One day before this speech, the U.S. Representative for Georgia's 5th congressional district, was in Washington DC, alongside President Obama, to break ground for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, scheduled for completion in 2015.  Forty-nine years after Lewis marched to the nation's capital, alongside Martin Luther King, he has continued to break ground for social equality and justice and this time, with predominantly white union workers by his side.

“It is time to get into trouble,” he says as late arrivals rushed into the Hyatt Ballroom, glared at wearily by those who had been waiting since 7 am to hear the legendary orator speak.  “It is time to get into trouble, good trouble, environmental trouble, good jobs kind of trouble.”

The speech signaled the opening of the Good Jobs Green Jobs Conference.  The conference is an event created by the Bluegreen Alliance, a national, strategic partnership between labor unions and environmental organizations dedicated to expanding the number and quality of jobs in the green economy.  Members of the BGA include but are not limited to the Sierra Club, United Steel Workers, National Wildlife Federation, Union of Concerned Scientists, United Auto Workers, and American Federation of Teachers.  The alliance works on issues ranging from energy and climate change, to transportation, to workers' rights and green chemistry.  Since 2009, the conference has existed in order to provide a unique opportunity for like-minded people to meet and build coalitions that will move the country  forward to a cleaner, greener and more prosperous economy.  This is the first time the Good Jobs Green Jobs conference has moved out of Washington DC and Atlanta is the first stop on the bill.  “This is where green jobs are being built,” says Larry Cohen, President of Workers for America.   Throughout 2012, the conference will travel to Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit.  

Larry Cohen's voice echoed from the factories across the country, shrill and deep as to be heard above working machines.  “We must bring democracy to this century.  It is not about this coming election, it is about democracy.  Whether we are an immigrant or not, we are going to have to act as if we are, whether we are a person of color or not we are going to have to ask if we are, if we can work together, we can act as one.”  

“The only way to get out of this crisis is to dig much deeper than we are used to.  This is a democracy crisis.  It's not business as usual.  There will be no one to fight for green initiatives if we have no worker rights,” Cohen says.

Before the next round of the conference began, out on the outdoors patio of the hotel, union members talked politics and policy.  One man, running late to meet his friends, lit a cigarette and inhaled it quick.  He had come from the Occupy Atlanta protest and was excited to see the conference and if any occupiers would be in attendance.  “I haven't seen any here yet,” the man said, “but they blend in more than you expect.”  Quickly his cigarette had disappeared and he was inside the main lobby, a gray skull on the back of his shirt, arching in a half moon smile, the words “Support the Union,” underneath.

“Nothing stops a bullet like a job, says Stan Johnson as he quotes Van Jones to open a discussion on non-traditional alliances.  Van Jones is the leader of Green for All, an NGO working to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty.  “ We must get out of the poverty mind set,” Stan continues, “class-ism is alien.”  Stan is the founder of a group called SEEED, yes there are three E’s.  He works on creating jobs for Knoxville’s urban young people, and ensures clean energy and conservation technologies are available for low income residents.

Hopewell Ventures, an equity capital and strategic expertise investment firm, specializes in getting their message out.  The company is dedicated to investing in ideas that have become companies in areas that Craig Overmeyer, Partner of Hopewell Ventures, refers to as “fly over America” ;areas of the country seen by most travelers as unidentifiable middle of nowhere towns.

“Keeping jobs in the community means long term gains, shipping [jobs] away is a short term gain.”  Craig says with the surgical eye of a veteran investor.  He has seen the rise and fall of hundreds of businesses, some he had faith in, others he says, did not have faith in themselves. The goal of his firm is to invest in the companies that are creating value for the country.  Hopewell Ventures invests in companies that have the potential for high returns.  It is capitalism in its truest form.    For every great idea, the money to pull it off has to come from somewhere.

Craig states that interacting with the community is key to long term success for any business initiative.  “ We go to small clubs and groups and ask what their favorite business in the area is.  This is laying the ground work,” he continues, “ we look for the real jewels and we work to keep them in the community as they grow.  If a company is good, it does not have to leave.”

No matter how altruistic or socially beneficial a single idea that was shared at the conference or came out of it would be, no one would throw money at an idea without the prospect of reciprocal return.  
Craig made a point that sums up what it will take for the Bluegreen Alliance to create more jobs that support healthy investments.  It comes from a partner at Hopewell Ventures named David Wilhelm, who was a former campaign manager of Bill Clinton.  He says, “no matter what someone asks you, get your message out.”

With unions backing environmental designs, investors that specialize in the business of infusing capital into environmental businesses will have new allies to create profit, while simultaneously adding to the power of the local economy.  Thomas Croft, Executive Director of the Steel Valley Authority says, “We hope to encourage high performance work places,  provide stock options, empower employees to become part owners.”  To do this, he mentions, unions must be educated in stock options, if they are not, pension fund managers will make the easiest choice, often looking to sending activities overseas.

The need to educate employees in all industries about the capabilities they can aspire toward, with the right group of people is endless.  Mtamanika Youngblood, CEO and President of Sustainable Development Strategies, INC. says that training at the university level is one of the most important ways to engage future adults about to enter the work force.  Mtamanika says, “ We must make certain that when the jobs come, young people with training must be ready to take them up.”

“Teaching kids the skills that were good in the twentieth century but not now does not make sense.  It is like we are teaching kids to work with log cabins in an age of advanced materials.  The academic community must not be afraid to look into the future,” Mtamanika says.  There is always a gap unless partnerships exist for schools to gain real life experience while in school.   “We must tear down man made social barriers,” says Carlton Brown, Founder and COO of Full Spectrum of NY, LLC.

After Representative Lewis stepped off stage and Natalie Pawelski, Vice President of Cater Communications, took his place at the podium and began her introduction of the upcoming guest panel, the civil rights leader, poised as a monument, radiated, transcending each person he met to a level above and beyond the stage he had moments ago stepped down from.  This feeling of equality between presenters and conference attendants gave proof that a light exists at the end of the tunnel of worker rights and environmental responsibility, and to turn the light on and to bask in its glow, collaboration and the strength to disrupt the status quo will power all attempts for a brighter and less wasteful future.