When Taleigh Smith, a worker-owner at Concrete Green, tells people about her business, she is often met with incredulity. “They think we’re peddling some sort of environmental concrete,” Smith told ioby last week.
In reality, Concrete Green is a five-member worker co-op that is attempting to revolutionize green industry in the Bronx.
Smith came to New York City in 2001 with a passion for finding global justice solutions. Through her work with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, she has come to understand that global problems can only be solved through local action. Global solutions, she found, begins with a group of people trying something new in their neighborhood. So when an opportunity arose to start a green worker co-op in her neighborhood, Smith jumped at the opportunity.
The idea for the organization was born from an environmental literacy class that Smith teaches through the Center for Sustainable Energy at Bronx Community College. In that class, Smith guides students through environmental problem solving and green job trainings. Only a few short months ago, in September of 2011, five of her most ambitious and entrepreneurial students approached her with the idea that would ultimately become Concrete Green.
Now a joint project of the Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, Concrete Green is still in the early stages of development. The organization’s short-term goal is to provide a steady income to its member-owners, the five Bronx youths between the ages of 19 and 22 who are trained to install green infrastructure, solar panels and rainwater harvesting systems on rooftops. While the group has not yet been contracted out for a job, Smith told ioby that they consider themselves pioneers in the neighborhood.
Socioeconomic contexts in the Bronx present significant obstacles for a green start-up. The member-owners, all Bronx residents, deal regularly with the effects of unemployment, asthma and deteriorating health, school closures and a fundamental lack of economic opportunity in their home neighborhoods.
“We can’t just spin our wheels without making money,” said Smith. All five member-owners work part-time in the area, but each hopes to turn Concrete Green into a career. To do so will take some hard work, coupled with the formation of strong partnerships and the generosity of donors.
The member-owners recognize that, at least in their early stages of business development, they will not be able to win contracts for rooftop installation projects without a track record. They are currently engaging with green design consultants in the hope that they might be able to spark a collaboration. With the right training and an opportunity to accompany specialty firms on contracted jobs, the member-owners at Concrete Green are confident that they will begin to build expertise and a reputation for excellence in the field. Ultimately, Smith hopes that property owners looking to install a green roof on their buildings will approach Concrete Green with their projects.
While the organization will be working with paying clients, Smith is careful to point out that the member-owners’ hearts are with the community. As a non-profit organization largely aimed at generating income for the workers who run it, the organization will continue to fundraise as it grows.
According to Smith, although their plan is to run a money-making enterprise, it is important to her team that they address the highest needs in the community, “whether or not they can pay for our services.”
In ten years, Concrete Green hopes to see a green roof on every building in the Bronx. “When we say green, we expect that to have different characteristics,” said Smith. Some buildings are ideal for typical green roofs and others, said Smith, are ideal for recreational or therapeutic uses. “We’ll measure our success,” Smith added, by looking at “business sustainability, projects we can point to and their environmental impacts, and seeing our work replicated.”
The organization will consider its mission at least partially fulfilled when organizations like it take root across the Bronx. The goal is not to monopolize, but to foster, the market for Bronx-grown green worker cooperatives.
Smith is keenly attuned to the global implications of the work that she is doing with Concrete Green. “The Bronx is in a unique position, being a part of New York City,” she told ioby. The city is an economic hub for the world, “yet the Bronx as a community has been marginalized and over-polluted and has a relationship to New York City that is similar to the developing world.” Smith affirms that environmental solutions in the Bronx have global implications for communities that have been marginalized and exploited around the globe.
With that said, the proximity of the Bronx to New York’s many international political and economic institutions affords the borough unique access to the world stage. In this way, Smith argued, “the Bronx has an advantage.” It is precisely for this allure that many organizations and companies come to the South Bronx to seed environmental projects. Sadly, these are often short-lived and provide few net benefits for the community. Smith firmly believes that environmental and economic sustainability in the Bronx begins with homegrown projects that both employ and benefit Bronx residents.
The future is looking bright for Concrete Green. With the right combination of donors and business partners, the organization might just be an exemplar model for community owned and operated green enterprises in the Bronx.
Concrete Green will be featured on-stage at the New York City Green Festival at the Javits Center on April 21. The event is open to the public but requires a small entry fee. For information on how to receive free tickets, courtesy Concrete Green, please contact Taleigh Smith at email@example.com.