When Jamez Staples returned home after spending a year in the Virgin Islands, he did not expect to see that conditions had further deteriorated in the north Minneapolis neighborhood he was raised in — one that has often been described as among the poorest corners of the state.
“When you leave you notice the new buildings, you notice the state of the people, you notice if things have changed and when I got back, I realized that my people in my neighborhood looked like they were doing even worse than when I left,” Staples said. “And maybe they weren’t. Maybe that’s the way it always was and I didn’t pay as much attention as well because I was so close to it.”
Staples had gone to the Virgin Islands to complete his education and while there had learned how to install solar panels. He returned just as the Solar Energy Jobs Act had passed and a year later, in 2014, he founded his own company that provided clean-energy services, Renewable Energy Partners. Soon after, he began to envision a clean-energy training center located in his neighborhood that would help local youth train for jobs in the emerging green energy economy.
In 2017 Staples acquired a former state workforce center in the north Minneapolis neighborhood of Near North where some 50% of residents are Black and 30% live below the poverty line. The center is now the North Minneapolis Clean Energy Training Center.
For decades, residents of north Minneapolis have borne the brunt of the state’s energy policies. Residents in the area’s ZIP codes have the highest rate of asthma hospitalizations in the state, and studies have linked higher rates of lung and heart illnesses to pollutants from nearby facilities. And while residents contended with an increasing number of vacant storefronts and abandoned homes in the face of soaring unemployment, the state continued to neglect the neighborhood. But now, both the DFL-majority House and Republican-led Senate want to help Staples’ training center and engage with the community in what is one of a handful of provisions that both parties agree on in their respective climate and energy omnibus bills.
On Thursday afternoon the House and Senate agreed in the Commerce and Energy Conference Committee to a provision that will fund the energy training center with $2.5 million.
“I think it is pretty meaningful that this was a bipartisan part of both bills and had a Republican author in the Senate and a Democrat in the House,” said Rep. Jamie Long, DFL-Minneapolis. “I think it shows that when it comes to the issues, there are areas where we can come together, and that includes making sure that we have a workforce that is inclusive, that is ready for taking the jobs.”
Staples, who has intentionally remained a resident in north Minneapolis, says he believes the training center will fill a necessary gap left open by local schools with a goal of preparing students to be workforce ready for the green economy while completing high school credits and college credits.
“Public schools aren’t necessarily delivering on the career and technical education components which increase graduation rates and so I saw this as an opportunity to to help fix multiple problems at once,” Staples said. “I saw it as an opportunity to make sure that the people from my community had the necessary access.”
In fact, Staples had hoped to partner with the city’s public schools to provide training in exchange for course credits, but in 2019, Minneapolis Public Schools pulled out as a potential tenant of the building. Staples is now partnering with alternative schools, which have long been considered a last stop for students before dropping out. The training center will work with LEAP (Learn & Earn to Achieve Potential), a network run by Project for Pride in Living. It is focused on helping youth who are homeless, in foster care or the juvenile justice system to earn a secondary credential, and will facilitate its network of 12 alternative schools to access the center.
Current conversations about training options at the facility include six to eight green-adjacent jobs such as solar installation, home energy audits and electric vehicle infrastructure mechanics.
Antonio Cardona, who is vice president of career readiness at Project for Pride in Living, a partner of the training center, says by being on a bus line the center will give access to those who would otherwise be unable to train for green jobs.
“The real importance of this is that most green jobs training is in outstate Minnesota and this would be a great way to make these sorts of jobs accessible to a new workforce,” Cardona said. “It would be difficult if somebody was interested in the sector to drive an hour and a half to go to a training location.”
In addition to being a training center, the building will operate as something of a maker space where students can witness how green solutions operate — the building will have three retention ponds and rain gardens for students to learn how to manage stormwater, a demonstration for heat pumps and a battery storage system.
In 2019, the Legislature directed the Public Utilities Commission to conduct a diversity report within the current and projected energy utility field. The report found that while the energy sector was changing and moving from power plants to renewable and distributed energy sources, diversity was lacking and in the emerging energy field people of color were at risk of being left behind. Ten percent of the trade, transportation and utilities sector in the state consist of people of color, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. Long says that provisions in this year’s energy and climate omnibus bill are aimed at promoting diversity in the emerging sector.
“We want to try to make sure that residents get access to jobs in the new clean-energy economy,” Long said. “We don’t want to have a transition where we come out the other side with the same equity problems that we have right now. We want to make sure that we are improving health outcomes for all but focused on those who are disproportionately impacted now.”
State Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, who carried the bill in the Senate, said he met Staples during the protests last year. After a tour of the center he encouraged colleagues to visit as well. “The RDA money is sitting there for this kind of stuff,” Chamberlain said of the Renewable Development Account, an account that has funds deposited annually by Xcel Energy.
“Environmental justice equates to economic justice,” Staples said. “The reason why there’s environmental justice issues to me is because it’s a community that hasn’t had the necessary resources to push back. So if we empower the people with the necessary skill sets to actually go out and earn revenues, then they can turn their attention to the more immediate and important issues that are negatively impacting the environment.”