Eco-Conscious Young Adults Reach out to Urban Poor

Local nonprofit seeks to educate low-income communities on the benefits of a green economy

As vermillion leaves fell across Knoxville Saturday, and the creamsicle Vols fell in Oxford, three men, ranging in age from 16 to 31, and their gregarious leader bounced from door to door in the northwest neighborhood of Lonsdale. Armed with a digital video camera, a box of mint-green fliers, and clipboards, they were there to interview residents about their utility bills and feelings on the economy.

One interaction went like this:

"What's your perception of the economy and the overall job situation now versus five years ago?" asked Rick Held, the leader, as he knelt in cargo shorts and sandals to a lady, Diane, in a parked car. "Worse?" he repeated Diane's answer. "What do you base that on?"

"Everything's up, everything's high. It's just worse now than it was," Diane explained, matter-of-factly, from the passenger seat of the white sedan.

Held followed, "Why do you think your utility bill's so high?"

"They just keep raising the rates!" Diane replied, saying she thought she was using less energy but paying more. "I think they're just charging what they want to."

Held ended his survey by asking, "What do you think Knoxville's chances are for a brighter economic future? Are you optimistic, pessimistic or neutral?"

"Neutral," Diane answered.

"Neutral," Held repeated.

Consumer confidence is an oft-debated metric for gauging economic health. After all, perceptions vary widely within and between groups, and even when they're largely uniform don't always reflect reality.

But the objective Saturday wasn't to gather hard economic data—it was to listen to people like Diane talk about their energy consumption habits and describe their economic outlook, and also to gain an understanding of what they want and expect from the stimulus package. For those who gave permission, it was also a chance to film those responses for a short documentary to be screened on Thursday, Nov. 19, at 6:30 p.m. at Pellissippi State Community College's Magnolia Campus.

This year, a nonprofit called Socially Equal Energy Efficient Development, or S.E.E.E.D., was launched. Since mid-September, Held, who's S.E.E.E.D.'s program director, and about a dozen young people have been working on the video as part of an exercise to determine what low- to moderate-income residents think about their energy use and explain what job opportunities the green economy might provide.

The project and nonprofit are aimed specifically at low-income communities, often forgotten as organic grocery stores and new energy-saving appliances offer ways of decreasing one's carbon footprint to those with means. But Held, a former government and economics teacher at Austin-East High School, and his volunteers say enlisting the poor is essential.

"If the only people who can afford green technologies like hybrid cars [are wealthy]...if they're the only ones that are benefitting from the technology, as individuals they may benefit but in the big picture we're not making a dent in climate change and global warming," Held says.

"Everybody should become more energy efficient," says Joshua Outsey, 23, a volunteer. "But it would actually help low-income people more to save money."

At the forum Thursday, S.E.E.E.D. will screen the documentary, about 10 to 15 minutes long, and then host a panel with representatives from KUB, the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee, and others, to explain the various incentives available for insulating homes, as well as coming job opportunities, such as training in energy auditing, solar panel installation, and weatherization for low-income people.

"This money's coming down from at least five or six different pipelines," Held says of the stimulus. "Even the Department of Education has money for job training. The Department of Energy, the Department of Labor, the Department of Housing and Urban Development have money.... So one of the reason's we're doing the forum is to kind of give a big picture about where all this money's coming from and where's it intended on going. And how do we plug into that as a community?"

Held cautions that the project isn't about race. On Saturday his volunteers were black, and everyone they interviewed was black, but he says on other trips they've visited poor white communities in South Knoxville.

"This isn't an East Knoxville project," Held says. "We're in all parts of the inner city and the heart of Knoxville.... It's real easy for people to just assume that kind of thing is concentrated in East Knoxville, and it's not."

As for responses, Held says people are often quick to assign blame to the utility company. "But when you start talking to them a little more about it, they admit that if they could, they would do things to their house to weatherize it so they could save money."

Held and his volunteers want the same people in the community receiving improvements to be the ones providing those services.