The Rev. Tony Pierce, board chair of Illinois People's Action, talks about the importance of state's Future Energy Jobs Act and social justice. Photo source: Illinois People's Action.

Equal Voice

In Illinois: An Environmental Justice Revolution

June 15, 2018

By Elaine Porterfield

The Future Energy Jobs Act of Illinois shows how equity crosses boundaries, such as interests, income and the rural-urban divide. It also illustrates environmental justice.

Helping the environment versus helping poor communities: For so long, it’s been viewed by many who are concerned about social change as picking one or the other. You can create jobs, but you can’t clean up polluting industries. You can encourage alternative energy, but that’s for communities of means, not for low-income neighborhoods.

But a grassroots coalition of community advocates and environmentalists in Illinois is working together to change that picture. They’ve forged an innovative partnership to bring clean energy, family-wage jobs and wealth building to some of the most disenfranchised communities in the Midwest. It’s called the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act, and there are hopes it can serve as a model throughout the United States.

Some have called the Future Energy Jobs Act perhaps the most significant energy bill ever passed by the Illinois General Assembly. It took almost two years of near-constant meetings and negotiations involving consumer groups, faith communities, environmentalists, elected officials, grassroots organizations and power companies to get it crafted and passed into law in 2016. The law and dollars associated with it continue to be rolled out in 2018.

“It’s really exciting that we’re starting to see progress with this,” said Ben Ishibashi, a climate justice organizer with Illinois People’s Action, an interfaith community organization in downstate Illinois that advocates for social justice issues and is affiliated with People’s Action and People’s Action Institute.

“We’re more than a year into it and we’re starting to see programs up and running. The very first jobs are now being created. I am so thrilled.”

Clean and Prosperous Communities

Dawn Dannenbring, an environmental organizer in Peoria with Illinois People’s Action, is part of the coalition that helped birth the Future Energy Jobs Act. The coalition includes Organizing Neighborhoods for Equality: Northside (ONE Northside) and The People’s Lobby (which is affiliated with The People’s Lobby Education Institute).

Dannenbring said it promises a more prosperous, healthier future on many levels for people in disenfranchised communities in Illinois. That includes low-wage earners, as well as people coming out of prison and substance-abuse treatment programs.

“(Before) people go through this program, many are lucky to be making $20,000 to $25,000 a year,” she said. “But these are $30,000 to $40,000 a year jobs. That’s entry into middle class.”

A Plus for Places and People

The progress is welcome because Peoria, by many indicators, can be a challenging place in the country to live if you’re Black. The poverty rate for Black residents in the city is 28.2 percent, versus 10.4 percent for the city’s White residents.

The Future Energy Jobs Act, an Illinois law approved in 2016, calls for investments in solar energy for communities statewide. The law was the result of organizations, including ONE Northside, The People's Lobby and Illinois People's Action, working together as part of the Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition. Photo source: Illinois Clean Jobs Coalition

In addition, the average income for a Black household in the city is $28,777, while White households enjoy an average income that’s more than double that, at $58,563.

The city is home to about 113,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Supporters, Dannenbring said, fought long and hard throughout the crafting of the act to include low-income communities in all aspects of it. Those communities are the ones “who feel climate change first and worst, because if they live in coastal cities, they live where it gets flooded. Other places, they live next to polluting factories and coal plants,” she said.

“If we’re having a clean energy revolution, they need to be a part of it. If there is going to be clean energy projects happening in our neighborhoods, we want people hired for that.”

They faced the fears of some in the environmental community on that point, she added. “It’s wasn’t that anyone was against it, but some groups were very honest and said they were worried first about carbon in the environment, then about jobs second,” Dannenbring said.

“We were pretty honest, too, and we told them, ‘That’s what is always said.’ We said, ‘No more getting in line. You want our support? You want us fighting for this? This is what we have to see to fight for it.’ ”

Jobs That Are Light Years Ahead

In May, clean energy training programs in downstate Illinois graduated their first classes. Some graduates almost immediately found jobs in the solar industry. “Hearing that, people got teary eyes,” Dannenbring said. “Our folks are beating the odds and getting hired.”

About 25 percent of people who finished the class were Black, another 8 percent were Asian American and the remainder were White, she said. Overall, 40 members of the first class were women. “That made me so excited,” she said. “You have to be able to lift and carry 40- and 45-pound solar panels on roofs. These were jobs traditionally going to men.”

The Rev. Tony Pierce speaks at a community meeting in Peoria, Illinois, about the Future Energy Jobs Act and how people coming together to work for grassroots solutions and progress can be productive, even in the face of business and political power. Photo source: Illinois People's Action

Environmental Justice for All Communities

The Rev. Tony Pierce, board chair of Illinois People’s Action and co-pastor of Heaven’s View Christian Fellowship in Peoria, said it boils down to the concept of environmental justice. The Future Energy Jobs Acts means lower power bills for people who need it, a chance for people frozen out of the job market to get decently paying clean energy jobs and an opportunity for whole communities previously disenfranchised to gain sovereignty over their energy needs.

It also means a cleaner, healthier environment for all, said Pierce, who also serves as CEO of Heaven’s View Community Development Corp. and Community Transformation Partnership Power.

More places in the United States need to move to a green economy, said George Goehl, executive director of People’s Action and People’s Action Institute. He hopes the transition pace to such an economy would be faster, calling in concerning.

“Equally important is who benefits from that transition,” he said in a statement. “Rev. Pierce, Illinois People’s Action and other stakeholders are making sure poor and working class people are among the beneficiaries. The model they’ve created is without question one of the leading lights in ensuring a transition that is just and equitable.”

Pierce snorted at the notion that people of color don’t care about the environment. “Our mission…is to push lower class Whites, Browns and Blacks into the middle class,” said Pierce, a businessman before becoming a full-time minister. The act is “forecasted to create approximately 30,000 living- and prevailing-wage jobs between now and 2030. That’s a big vehicle to move people into the middle class,” he said.

“I think it’s analogous to when (technology) was a generation ago, when these guys named Gates and Jobs burst on the scene to transform America, with trillions of dollars in benefits to the country. That’s kind of a once-of-a-lifetime opportunity. Solar and green energy may be that opportunity for our generation.”


Elaine Porterfield is a Seattle-based writer, editor and communications professional. She has contributed to Seattle Magazine, Reuters, The New York Times and NBC. She is a former journalist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The News Tribune in Tacoma, Washington. Equal Voice is Marguerite Casey Foundation’s publication featuring stories of America’s families creating social change. With Equal Voice, we challenge how people think and talk about poverty in America. All original and contracted Equal Voice content – articles, photos and videos – can be reproduced for free, as long as proper credit and a link to our homepage are included.

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In Illinois: An Environmental Justice Revolution