When environmentalists approach poor communities of color, often the first impression they make isn’t very promising. “The mainstream environmental movement is full of rich, white people who try to tell people of color what to do,” says Omar Freilla, the founder of Green Worker Cooperatives, a grassroots, green enterprise in the South Bronx.
In truth, he adds, the poor have to be the ones in the driver’s seat.
The group’s mission statement is straightforward: “Creating green-collar jobs and worker ownership in the South Bronx…because your work shouldn’t kill you, your community or the earth.”
Freilla, 35, is the son of Dominican immigrants and was born and raised in the South Bronx. From an early age, he saw the link between poverty and pollution. “It’s pretty obvious when you travel around the city that some places have way more than their share of dumps and polluting industries,” he says. “The poorest areas are always the dumping grounds.” In the mostly Black and Latino South Bronx—the poorest urban county in the country—some residents live within sight of garbage dumps, a sewage sludge processing plant, power plants and a huge food distribution center.
Freilla initially tried attracting green businesses to the South Bronx, but that proved next to impossible. So he and his colleagues decided to start the businesses themselves five years ago. “We decided to push the envelope as far as we could and make it a worker-cooperative structure,” he recalls. “That way, we retain wealth in the community and empower workers.”
The group’s first cooperative, ReBuilders Source, collects castoff materials from large construction companies that over-purchased or from waste-hauling companies that remove barely used materials during renovation projects. The four-person cooperative resells the materials at about half their retail cost. Their clients are mostly small builders and do-it-yourselfers. After five years, the co-op is on track to turn a profit, Freilla said.
Freilla came up with the idea for ReBuilders Source after observing dumpsters full of usable building materials in his neighborhood. He and his wife were able to renovate their home using almost nothing but castoff supplies.
His plan is to launch cooperatives that combine environmental and economic justice and that eventually stand on their own as profitable, sustainable businesses run by an elected board of directors. Two ideas are already in the works. One would piggyback on Rebuilders Source: a “green demolition crew” would scavenge buildings slated for demolition for usable materials. A second idea is for an artisans’ cooperative that would make decorative items out of discarded materials.
What motivates Freilla’s work?
“I deeply believe that all of us have an obligation to the community and the people who raise us,” he says. “That includes the place.”