Fight for Light: Bringing clean, green awareness to black campuses

Happy January! Welcome to Clean Start week.

There doesn’t seem to be any shortage of organizations working to increase awareness of climate change. If you take a step back though, it’s apparent that there are quite a few issues and population segments that are underrepresented in the environmental community.

One of these issues is how climate change affects people of color and the poor, and one of the most underrepresented groups of people in the environmental sector is African Americans.

Due to heat waves and air pollution in cities and increasing energy and food prices, climate change is poised to have a disproportionately large and negative effect on the urban African American community. African Americans are also generally underrepresented in the staff of environmental organizations, both public and private.

In 2009, Markese Bryant and John Jordan saw these growing problems as a call to raise awareness of environmental issues among African Americans. Then students at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, they teamed up and formed Fight for Light, which works “to transform Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) into hubs for environmental sustainability and social innovation.”

Almost five years later, Markese and John are the leaders of a thriving nonprofit organization that’s inspiring campus leaders across the nation to become more environmentally active.

How did they do it?

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John Jordan, left, and Markese Bryant.
(photo via fightforlight.org)

Find something you care about

It may seem obvious, but it’s essential to devote your time to an issue that really resonates with you. If you plan on turning an idea into something concrete, you’ll have to be prepared to spend a lot of time working on it.

Before they formed Fight for Light, Markese and John had been concerned about the environment as well as the lack of African American representation in many professional settings. After reading The Green Collar Economy by Van Jones, Markese and John became interested in the idea of a “Green New Deal,” which would help lift people out of poverty while also encouraging the use of alternative energy sources and promoting conservation. Knowing this was something they could feel good about putting time into, they moved onto the next step.

Start small

Once Markese and John decided what to focus on, they wanted to get right to work. However, they were both still undergraduates, and couldn’t immediately invest all their energy into Fight for Light. So they started with small steps, first entering a nationwide student business competition and collaborating with organizations that shared their vision.

In 2010, Markese partnered with Green for All and helped develop the College Ambassador Program. This program encourages young leaders at 15 HBCUs to become advocates around the environmental issues that affect their communities. One year later, John began to manage a large grant given to Morehouse by the National Science Foundation, which helped Fight for Light encourage sustainability among the student body and also led to him managing student engagement at Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University.

Somehow in that mix, Markese also found the time to team up with Green for All to film this music video:

Get support

All their efforts eventually led to a big reward. In 2012, Markese and John were selected as Echoing Green Black Male Achievement Fellows in recognition of their several years of slow but steady awareness-raising about environmental issues on HBCU campuses. With the fellowship came financial help and the freedom to turn Fight for Light into something bigger.

Expand

With the support provided by Echoing Green, Markese and John are now increasing the reach of Fight for Light across the country. Markese recently traveled to Nashville to serve as a keynote speaker at the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) conference, while both Markese and John traveled with students from the Atlanta University Center to the Power Shift 2013 conference in Pittsburgh.

As Fight for Light makes new contacts and continues to expand outside of the Atlanta metro area, its core mission remains the same. Every day, more students at HBCUs come into contact with the organization, and each new supporter is a fresh voice in the environmental awareness movement.

Your turn

How can you get involved? If you’re interested in raising awareness of environmental issues, particularly at HBCUs, just get in contact with Markese or John. If you like what Fight for Light is doing, follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

What other organizations or people do you know who are addressing issues at the intersection of climate change and minority communities?

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The secret to surviving a financial apocalypse? Community trust

Jason Lee is no stranger to the ups and downs of financial instability. In Detroit—a city left financially and physically vacant following the 2008 economic downturn—it’s impossible for Lee to be anything but.

“I became director right before the economy changed, so I got to experience it all first-hand,” says Lee, who runs the Detroit Area Pre-College Engineering Program (DAPCEP).  “It wasn’t easy. People sometimes forget that nonprofits are businesses, too.”

Nonetheless, DAPCEP—a local mainstay offering free pre-college science and mathematics programs to minority youth—has seemed to rise above the bankrupt-triggering recession. From summer computer camps getting prospective college students up to speed on cutting-edge technology to basic pre-engineering classes for Kindergarteners and their parents, DAPCEP’s breadth of classes rope in a wide reach of support.

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Students learning about molecules in DAPCEP classroom

Its secret? Community trust.

Now at 37 years old, DAPCEP has successfully led students from the first day of elementary school to the first day of college. Growing from a small idea to a family name over the decades, the program has now reached a point where its community is returning the effort.

From public schools and local universities regularly encouraging parents to enroll their kids in DAPCEP to second-generation DAPCEP graduates donating money and time to keep the program on its feet, Lee says he’s has seen an uptick in local support since the city hit financial bottom.

“A lot of credit goes to schools and universities when it comes to encouraging people to get involved in the program,” says Lee. “They see students interested in becoming doctors or scientists in the classroom and can send them directly to us.”

Local and national grants, issued through a variety of foundations, have also kept DAPCEP above water over the years.

But this support didn’t come without work. The program’s pre-recession roots in the community certainly added to its neighbors’ backing.

DAPCEP offered its first classes 37 years ago with a small population of 245 middle school and high school-aged students (now, Lee says, they’ve had up to 10,000 at a time) with the simple goal of breaking outdated career stereotypes. At the time, it was uncommon to see students of African-American, Hispanic, or Native-American heritage choose a career path in science, engineering and other technical fields. DAPCEP wanted to change that.

Now, based on a 2010 survey, 94 percent of all students enrolled in DAPCEP plan to attend college and pursue a technical degree. Additionally, more than 90 percent of Detroit Public School entries in the 2011 Metropolitan Detroit Science Fair originated in DAPCEP classrooms.

Soon, DAPCEP college graduates will likely return to the city to add to its regrowth. Lee himself went through a similar program as a child in Massachusetts, a move that, after leading him through graduate school to an engineering job at Ford Motors, inspired him to take the reins at DAPCEP.

The community has clearly recognized the impact.

For the first time in the program’s history, DAPCEP will be charging for its younger age bracket classes this summer. The price? $100, a steep jump from a long-time free program. But instead of grimacing at the change in policy, applicants’ parents appear eager to pitch in to DAPCEP’s grant-funded pot.

“Many parents were amazed that DAPCEP has survived so long without having to charge,” says Lee.

With the community-based support giving the program the boost to continue growing, Lee has fielded many requests from people across the country wanting insight on the program’s successful model. While he’s hesitant to expand DAPCEP itself to other metropolitan areas, Lee fully supports other programs starting up their own similar platform, as he’s seen such success in Detroit.

“We’ve been around long enough to engage a population that’s had parents and grandparents in DAPCEP,” says Lee. “And now we have their children telling them ‘Mommy, I want to be a scientist!’ on their own. It’s come full circle.”

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Interested in learning more about the importance of community trust in sustaining a nonprofit? Talk to Jason Lee at jdlee@dapcep.org.

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