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Native Americans largely blocked from green jobs’ path to middle class


As a boy, Dayne Goodheart became fascinated with the sun. He’d learned that its energy was being harnessed to power spacecraft and started to wonder about such technology’s potential on Earth. 

His fascination grew over the years, as did that potential. As an adult, Goodheart vowed to use solar power to help free his Nez Perce reservation from a reliance on dams and other outdated energy sources that threatened the Idaho tribe’s way of life. 

Jasmine Neosh came to a similar awakening later in life. She was working as a bar manager in Chicago when the Dakota Access Pipeline protests erupted at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2016.

Jasmine Neosh looks around an outdoor classroom at College of Menominee Nation.
Samantha Madar

Neosh, a member of the Menominee Nation in Wisconsin, sympathized with activists’ fears that the pipeline would threaten the Dakota regions’ water supply and sacred burial grounds. Frustration at feeling anything she did couldn’t make a difference drove her to go back to school — and back to the Menominee Reservation – to get her associates degree in natural resources.

But for Goodheart, a father of three in his early 30s, and Neosh, 32, the path toward a sustainable future is riddled with obstacles.

The green economic boom that promises many Americans a new entry to the middle class hasn’t lifted everyone equally. The fields are so new that connecting workers with training opportunities is difficult. Plus, what training exists often fails to resonate with Native people, focusing more on technical skills than on environmental knowledge and cultural practices. 

As a result, green-collar jobs are dominated by white men, with many low-income people of color either unaware of the opportunities or unable to access them. Roughly three-quarters of green-collar jobs – fields ranging from water conservation and sustainable agriculture to solar-panel installation and resource-efficient construction – are held by men. White people account for more than 4 of 5 positions in the sector, according to a 2017 study. 

Native Americans largely blocked from green jobs’ path to middle class

Dayne Goodheart stands of buildings with solar arrays installed at the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, April 1, 2021.
Joe Whittle for USA TODAY

The disconnect is especially striking in Indigenous communities, where a sustainable lifestyle is often seen not only as a cultural and moral imperative, but an existential one, too. 

“Indigenous people are natural stewards of Mother Earth,” Goodheart said. “And … when I pass on, I want to be able to leave behind a place for my kids where they don’t have to worry about power or water.”

After all, he noted, “there’s no shortage of the sun.”

Missed opportunities: green jobs are booming. Training isn’t

There’s no shortage of jobs in green industries, either. Wind turbine inspectors and solar panel installers are two of the three fastest-growing jobs in the U.S., federal data shows. 

The trend toward green jobs is bolstered by record-high demand for sustainable products and government incentives to move away from fossil fuels and practices such as factory farming and overfishing. The election last year of President Joe Biden, who’s made climate change reform a top priority and proposed funneling billions of dollars toward clean-energy efforts, has furthered the momentum. 

Career and technical education — programs that typically generate associate degrees and certificates that focus on the skilled trades and applied sciences — plays a critical role in bringing more Americans into these highly skilled and highly paid jobs. 

Native Americans largely blocked from green jobs’ path to middle class

Such education is flexible and hands-on, allowing students to adapt to changing technologies in an effort to meet the demand for a workforce that’s both skilled and environmentally conscious, experts say. It gives them real-world experience and sets a foundation for “upskilling” – when people in technical industries can advance their careers by continually learning new skills.

Dayne Goodheart
Indigenous people are natural stewards of Mother Earth. And … when I pass on, I want to be able to leave behind a place for my kids where they don’t have to worry about power or water.”

North America’s Indigenous people – including continental tribes as well as Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians – would seem ideal candidates to ride the green wave. They are “disproportionately vulnerable” to the devastation of a warming planet in the view of the National Congress of American Indians’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That’s because nearly all tribes are located in flood plains or areas prone to extreme weather events and/or dependent on economies “linked with climate-sensitive resources,” the panel concluded. 

The devastation could extend beyond native people’s livelihood, the panel warned: “The large role of climate change in separating tribal people from their natural resources poses a threat to Indigenous identity.”

Yet for various reasons, green-minded career and technical education, or CTE, has struggled to reach native communities, where the unemployment rate reached 26% at the start of the pandemic.

Enrollment in CTE overall is down. The number of associate-degree earners dropped by roughly 7% in the first few months of the pandemic, while that of certificate earners plummeted by nearly 20%, according to data from the National Student Clearinghouse. 

Meanwhile, many native communities — especially those that are concentrated in poor, rural areas — are impoverished and poorly equipped to develop green CTE programs on their own, often lacking state-of-the-art equipment enjoyed by programs elsewhere.

And, generally speaking, Indigenous Americans face limited access to higher education and science, technology, engineering, and math-related fields. Seventy percent of STEM workers are white and 65% are male, as a pair of researchers with the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute noted in a USA TODAY op-ed last year.

Leaders in CTE policy are often based in areas where “the Indigenous presence is minimal,” said Amanda Bergson Shilcock, a senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition. “A lot of the gatekeepers to this work have a big blind spot.”

CTE, which used to be known as vocational education, has “a painful history of tracking,” she added, referring to the practice of funneling people of color into low-wage jobs. “There’s a bunch of communities in this country that feel like vocational education was … patronizing or condescending or even racist.” 

James Ezeilo, the chief strategy officer at the Greening Youth Foundation, also pointed to the fraught relationship that many Indigenous Americans have with the conservation industry. Greening Youth’s mission is to connect young people of color with green careers, and Ezeilo said the foundation has struggled to recruit Indigenous youth for jobs with the U.S. Forest Service. 

“If I was a Native American student and was being asked to come and work for the United States Forest Service – an entity that was very instrumental in removing me from my ancestral land – would it not be analogous to me being asked to come and work for some overseers?” said Ezeilo, who was born in Nigeria. “Wouldn’t that be the same thing as being asked to come and work in a an administrative position on a plantation?” 

Native Americans largely blocked from green jobs’ path to middle class

A return to roots that also feels like a good business practice

Deciding shortly after high school that college “didn’t feel right,” Goodheart started working in construction to start making money and learn about trade work. Still inspired by his childhood revelation of the sun’s potential, he began flirting with the idea turning his blue-collar training into a green-collar profession. 

Native Americans largely blocked from green jobs’ path to middle class

Jasmine Neosh, undergraduate researcher at the Sustainable Development Institute, poses for a portrait at the College of Menominee Nation, Tuesday, April 20, 2021, Keshena, Wis.
Samantha Madar, USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

At Solar Energy International (SEI) in Colorado, he secured certificates in residential and commercial photovoltaic systems and solar business and technical sales. But it wasn’t until he returned to his reservation in Idaho that he figured out a way to bring his green tech training back home.

“Hindsight’s always 20-20,” he said, recalling how he was struck on that visit by the juxtaposition between the potential that renewable energy could provide and the status quo of living off of sources that go against everything his tribe believes.

After COVID shelved plans to go back for his bachelor’s degree – he didn’t like the idea of distance learning – Goodheart linked up with a local anti-poverty nonprofit that had done some work providing energy assistance to low-income members of the Nez Perce tribe. Within a few weeks, he was involved in a project aimed at outfitting a handful of tribal office buildings with solar panels.

Neosh, having completed her associates degree in natural resources, also found her way back to her reservation – as an intern at the Sustainable Development Institute, part of the College of Menominee Nation. Through that role, which is focused on climate change, she organizes and participates in networking events, such as webinars for Indigenous Americans involved in renewable-energy advocacy.

She grew up in the midst of a decades-long battle over a hard-rock mining project near the headwaters of the Wolf River, a scenic tributary that flows through the Menominee Reservation. Development of the mine began in the mid-1970s and was eventually stymied by a coalition of tribes that argued its toxic run-off posed widespread harm to the area’s wildlife.

So Neosh knew how special the Menominee’s forests are. She knew they’re so dense the reservation can be seen from space. She knew they’ve long garnered interest from scholars and environmentalists globally because of how they’re managed sustainably: As has been Menominee custom for thousands of years, the forests aren’t clear-cut.

Today, the forest – and the Menominees’ methods of sustaining it – fill her with pride. “It’s a good business practice to make sure you’re not just depleting your resources right off the bat in your first cut,” she said. “We want to make sure that future generations get to enjoy the beauty as well.”

Returning to her own roots also feels like the right move, she said.

“The reason I stayed was because … of that feeling of relief, of a burden being lifted off of me,” Neosh said. “Suddenly, things that were confusing to me aren’t confusing.”

An alternative approach to green training 

Goodheart and Neosh both took winding routes to find green jobs that served their homes. Advocates want to make it easier for others to follow them.

Each year Congress authorizes roughly $14 million to federally recognized tribes, Alaska Native organizations, and other Indigenous education entities to provide CTE to native students. The federal government has also given out grants through what’s known as the Sustainable Employment and Economic Development Strategies (SEEDS) program to support workforce development. 

But advocates say funding is just part of the solution.

James Ezeilo, chief strategy officer at the Greening Youth Foundation, who was born in Nigeria
If I was a Native American student and was being asked to come and work for the United States Forest Service – an entity that was very instrumental in removing me from my ancestral land – would it not be analogous to me being asked to come and work for some overseers? Wouldn’t that be the same thing as being asked to come and work in a an administrative position on a plantation?”

For CTE programs, including those focused on green jobs, to recruit more Indigenous Americans, they have to be “reflective of … [students’] own cultural values,” said James Gregson, a professor emeritus at the University of Idaho who studies green-collar education and training. A place-based mindset to such education/training – and, specifically, efforts to recruit more Indigenous Americans to such fields – could be key to ensuring this industry promotes economic mobility.

Some tribal colleges have sought to fill those gaps through programs that pair green-workforce training with a more liberal-arts focus, said Kendra Teague, who oversees environmental sustainability programs for the American Indian College Fund. 

“Especially in a mainstream institution, there are these extreme silos around what environmental [science] is and what math is, and that’s just not how the world works,” she said. “And that’s definitely not how Black and Brown folks – and Indigenous folks – relate to place.” 

Native Americans largely blocked from green jobs’ path to middle class

Dayne Goodheart performs an inspection of solar arrays installed buildings at the Pi-Nee Waus Community Center and Nez Perce tribal administration complex on the Nez Perce Reservation in Lapwai, Idaho, April 1, 2021.
Joe Whittle for USA TODAY

Relating to a place is just what drove Goodheart while helping to outfit buildings on his reservation with solar panels. As part of the project, he assisted in training his fellow Nez Perce members in the nuts and bolts of the business. The trainees not only got a feel for a promising industry but also regained a sense of what it means to be part of a community of Native innovators. To be, as Goodheart put it, “a part of something that’s bigger than us.”

Goodheart says he’s turned down several jobs outside of the reservation. He doesn’t want to leave his home – a “utopia” where his children can eat food grown in the backyard and water the crops with rain collected on the premises and, eventually, derive their power not from dams but from the sun.

This story was produced as part of the Higher Education Media Fellowship at the Institute for Citizens & Scholars. The Fellowship supports new reporting into issues related to postsecondary career and technical education. 



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