Best of America

Bringing Green Jobs to Urban Youths

Zakiya HarrisPhotographed by Lori Stoll

Our hero: Zakiya Harris, 33
Where she lives: Oakland, California
How she helps: Brings green job opportunities to urban youths

As a girl growing up in Oakland, Zakiya Harris was drawn to nature; in college, she embraced a green lifestyle, avoiding chemicals in her food and beauty products and devoting herself to reducing her carbon footprint. Later, teaching in elementary schools in low-income neighborhoods, she was struck by her students’ lack of environmental awareness. But she also understood. “For many communities of color, these issues often take a backseat because residents are dealing with day-to-day survival,” she says.

Harris was determined to teach children the benefits of sustainable living and in 2007 founded the grassroots group Grind for the Green (G4G), an organization devoted to educating kids about green issues as well as providing training in entry-level green jobs. She used hip-hop music as a hook. “We embraced it to make a deeper connection [with the kids],” she explains.

One early project was a free solar-powered hip-hop concert—the first of its kind—in San Francisco. Solar panels atop a mobile trailer generated all the electricity for the equipment, and the kids set up concession stands offering organic food and smoothies made in bicycle-powered blenders. The event proved successful, spawning other G4G concerts and attracting concert organizers and promoters who wanted to collaborate with G4G. “We’ve been able to tap into a demographic that other environmental groups couldn’t,” Harris says.

“Our events are completely produced by young people,” she adds. “We say, You go be the translators. Make this cool and relevant to your age group, your neighborhood.

“No one can tell me that poor folks or folks of color don’t care about the earth,” she adds. “I’ve seen communities become engaged once they’ve been empowered by education and learn a way to do something about it.”

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