Darryl Malek-Wiley is a 20-year veteran of environmental justice in the Southeast. Having worked with a number of projects before joining Sierra Club's Delta Chapter in 2004, Malek-Wiley's post-Katrina work in the Lower 9th Ward and Holy Cross neighborhoods involved finding ways to rebuild those communities. One project in the Lower 9th focused on installing solar panels donated by Sharp Solar — the 10 systems were installed in nine homes and one community center, marking the first time solar systems were used in one of New Orleans' historic neighborhoods. Today, the neighborhood has been designated one of the greenest in the world by the U.S. Green Building Council.
"That's pretty amazing, coming from what it was before Katrina," Malek-Wiley says. Not only has the neighborhood been a focal point for rebuilding after its near destruction from floods following Hurricane Katrina, it now serves as a model for green building internationally.
Malek-Wiley and the Sierra Club hatched the idea to unite members of the green community to learn about accomplishments like these taking place citywide — from community gardens like the Hollygrove Market & Farm to Brad Pitt's much-publicized Make It Right Foundation in the Lower 9th. The two-day event, the Green ReBuilding of New Orleans conference, is the first of its kind post-Katrina to put members of the city's green revival under one roof.
Other conference partners include the United Steel Works Local 620, International Brotherhood of Electrical Engineers Local 130, Louisiana Green Scene, American Institute of Architects, the U.S. Green Building Council, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Green Project.
The conference focuses on three tracks: green building, green jobs and urban agriculture, but professionals and nonprofessionals alike are invited.
"The average person will have a good idea of how to get involved in these projects and how to incorporate sustainable practices in their own home," organizer Jennifer Grosso says. "The speakers at the conference are mostly directors, presidents, the people really starting these programs. Hopefully their initiative and entrepreneurial skills will really rub off on people."
Featured speakers include author Rebecca Solnit, John Williams from Global Green, Roy Guidry from Louisiana Green Corps, and the New Orleans Food & Farm Network's Pam Broom. Each track of the conference includes at least seven speakers from different organizations.
Grosso says the conference also offers a moment to celebrate and publicize citywide green rebuilding efforts. "If you're an outsider to the field, it's hard to get a good grasp of what's going on in the city right now," she says. "People say, 'Oh, you're rebuilding New Orleans.' That's sort of vague. I want people to get a really tangible idea of what's going on and how many people are really involved. (Some) people have a general understanding that Brad Pitt is doing all the work. Though Make It Right has huge input and they've definitely done instrumental things as far as green building and national awareness, the little guys need their credit, too."
By bringing together a network of more than 200 attendees and more than 40 green businesses, architects, nonprofit organizations, universities and students, among others, the conference provides an exercise in community building — getting organizations that have focused on green building to network with like-minded organizations and share information and services.
"It's a combination of nonprofits displaying what they're doing, what they have done and what they will be doing, and more technical professionals — people from the solar industry and landscape architects — saying, 'This is what you can do,'" Grosso says. "They learn from each other. You get the technical people learning what people want to do, and then teaching nonprofits how to do it."
Malek-Wiley says these groups haven't had the opportunity to get together in this environment because "everyone's just working so damn hard. If I've got a project and a deadline, I'm focused on my deadline. I don't have time to sit down and have a drink with somebody over here who's focused on his deadline."
Earlier this year, the Sierra Club published the New Orleans Green Building Assessment, authored by Kristen McKee from the Monterey Institute of International Studies, which provided the organization with background it needed to set up the conference. The assessment gathered surveys of nonprofit organizations, volunteer programs and businesses to find funding sources, number of employees, largest hurdles and knowledge of green concepts and technologies. Results indicate that most programs and businesses operate with fewer than 20 employees, many rely largely on volunteer support, and all face funding issues. Green workforce training programs advanced less than 25 percent of graduates into green jobs. The assessment suggests coordinated efforts and partnerships among organizations would relieve funding issues and boost a green-collar workforce.
Grosso says the results showed "that people who are doing green building projects need more assistance. When we saw that, we basically said, 'Let's get together to see what we can do to brainstorm from each other's work and get everyone involved in something that's hands on, and learn from each other's projects and present your own."
The final event of the conference is a brainstorming session to not only help each organization's efforts and programs, but construct a plan for the 2010 mayoral election campaigns, including a green platform to present to candidates in hopes of influencing the next administration. A panel discussion and small groups will develop mock plans using what they've learned from the conference in their efforts.
The Sierra Club pledges the conference itself will be eco-friendly, with public transit options available for attendees and recycling services provided by the NOLA Recycle 2010 campaign. Other conference highlights include a bus tour (12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sun., Nov. 8) showcasing several of the city's green projects: Andrew H. Wilson Elementary in Broadmoor, Hollygrove Market & Farm, Project Home Again in Gentilly, Make It Right, Bayou Bienvenue Restoration Project and Global Green. The tour provides an opportunity for all conference attendees to see what their colleagues are working on.
"There are so many different green projects going on in New Orleans right now that are sort of operating in isolation," Malek-Wiley says. "I'd like to see this kind of conference happen every year or every two years, so we can keep track. We often forget how much has happened since Katrina because we're so focused on what we're working on today."