Building a Coalition in the Inland Empire to Promote Local Clean Energy

From the June 2013 issue of Desert Report.

Imagine rooftops throughout California covered with solar panels as far as the eye can see. Homes, schools, churches and businesses.

Imagine producing your own energy, clean energy, saving money at the same time, and in some cases, making money off the energy you’re producing. Now picture working-class and middle-class people sharing in the same vision of helping save our planet, ending our reliance on fossil fuels, and producing renewable energy on our own without the interference of greedy utility companies. Envision a new green economy with green-collar jobs with which you can raise and support a family. See those jobs bettering the situation for our poorest communities with Latinos and Blacks working side-by-side with our white brothers and sisters in pushing for more environmental justice in our most vulnerable communities. Imagine a better, healthier future for our communities, our environment, and our children.

As an organizer, part of my job is to create a shared vision with the community of what a better world could look like. The other part of my task is to motivate those same people to move beyond just imagining creating that better world. With these goals we launched the “My Generation” campaign in early 2012.

The Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign is an innovative campaign focused on promoting more local clean energy and energy efficiency legislation and initiatives to California, with an emphasis on low-income communities and communities of color.

Following the model of organizing practiced by progressive community organizations and labor unions, the My Generation Campaign places specific focus on organizing and being a real part of the communities we organize, live, learn, and labor in.

When we began our campaign in the Inland Empire (San Bernardino and Riverside Counties) in early 2012, we assessed our situation. We were dealing with a region of Southern California that had the worst unemployment in the country outside of Detroit, an area with the highest particulate air pollution in the nation, where the housing bubble first burst, and where our cities are on the brink of bankruptcy. In spite of those grim statistics we were also dealing with a region with ample sunshine, high rates of home ownership, vast commercial rooftops, and a trained work force of highly-skilled out-of-work construction workers. The Inland Empire is probably the nation’s best example of a region ready for the new green economy and local clean energy.

We started by beginning to work in coalition with other organizations in the region, on the premise that the environmental movement is not separate from the social justice movement as a whole, and vice versa. We formed partnerships with non-profit groups such as the US Green Building Council, the Uncommon Good, the Chicano Indigenous Community for culturally Conscience Advocacy and Action (CHICCCAA), Grid Alternatives, college and university student groups, churches, and also with the solar industry. From these partnerships we created exciting new initiatives, such as the Green Home Series with the US Green Building Council, a series of community forums focusing on energy efficiency and local distributed generation. The Environmental Justice Academy we plan to launch this summer with CHICCCAA, will incorporate both a classroom setting where participants will learn about clean energy and environmental justice as well as a community garden where they can get their hands dirty. In keeping with the spirit of being more inclusive, our second Green Home Series was conducted in both English and Spanish, reflecting the crowd in attendance and the ever-growing participation of Latinos in the environmental movement.

Along with building coalitions, we wanted to build a base of activists who were traditionally not involved with the Sierra Club or the larger environmental movement such as residents and students of color from low-income communities, as well as low-income communities as a whole. Our work with CHICCCAA allowed us to work with students from San Bernardino Valley College.

These young Latino activists spent the last summer with me canvassing the communities they live in, such as Colton and San Bernardino, with petitions for local clean energy. At the same time they were getting signatures, they were also letting the community know about the many great programs at CHICCCAA, which serves as a community center for San Bernardino. As we continued our work in the community, other student groups from UC Riverside, Riverside Community College, and Mt. San Antonio College began getting involved. Our local San Gorgonio Chapter played an incredible role in recognizing the work of our youth and with providing resources, scholarships and Sierra Club memberships to these hard working young people.

H aving begun building coalitions through the Inland Valley and building up a new base, we then began working on our political power. Last year we fully engaged in the legislative battle surrounding AB 1990, the “Solar for All” bill that would have created a feed-in-tariff for low-income communities throughout California. We engaged our young activists in phone banking, indistrict lobby visits, and lobby visits in Sacramento. The bill was ultimately defeated by an all-out kill effort by Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric, and San Diego Gas and Electric.

But the training our students received will carry over to future campaigns.

This year we are working with our state assembly members and senators in advocating for more local clean energy in the Inland Valley. We were recently able to have one of our newly elected assembly members, Cheryl Brown, participate in an Earth Day celebration where she cut the ribbon for a newly-installed solar system on the roof of the Truth Tabernacle Church in Bloomington CA. We will also be working in partnership with Grid Alternatives in making sure AB 217 passes the legislature. AB 217 is a bill asking for the expansion of funding, which currently allows Grid Alternatives to install solar for free on rooftops of low-income homeowners who qualify.

The My Generation campaign has been able to accomplish a significant number of things in its short lifespan so far. But the vision we have for the Inland Empire and for California keep us striving for more. We plan on having more elected officials come out publicly in favor of rooftop solar projects and legislation around local distributed generation. We plan on recruiting more colleges and eventually beginning divestment campaigns from fossil fuels and reinvestment in local clean energy projects. We plan on developing young activists of color to be the leaders of the environmental movement for decades to come. We see our program building solid relationships in the community that not only work toward local distributed generation, but work on building up these same communities that have been plagued by unemployment, pollution and health problems. As long as our visions for our communities are limitless, we won’t stop fighting.

You can help our efforts by “liking” our Facebook page and keeping up to date on all our efforts in bringing more local clean energy to California.

Allen Hernandez is the local clean energy organizer for the My Generation Campaign in the Inland Empire. He has been with the Sierra Club for a year and half. A lifelong resident of the Inland Empire, Allen was a union organizer for 5 years with UNITE HERE prior to joining the Sierra Club. He holds a BA from Azusa Pacific University and a MA from the University of Chicago.