“Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” is the last thing you might expect the director of a sustainability program to preach, but Stan Johnson, executive director of Knoxville’s Socially Equal Energy Efficiency Development program, believes that saving the planet and helping real people in their day to day lives are not mutually exclusive.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2000-2011, the city of Knoxville, Tennessee grew 3.09%, a growth rate that knocked it into second place for fastest growing in the state, right behind Nashville. The increase in population came with an increase in employment opportunities, but Johnson saw that the city’s problems were far from over.
“You have skill sets that people need before they can get jobs,” Johnson said. He added that the high school dropout rate in the four major high schools in the inner city is about 20%. With those kinds of numbers, he says, the outlook isn’t good.
Then, there are people living in old housing stock built in the early 20th century, complete with poor insulation and even lead-based paint in some cases. Johnson says it’s all most people in the area can afford, but their utility bills cost around 20-40% of their disposable income.
“None of their houses were properly insulated,” Johnson said. “That was the cause of a lot of wasted energy and, of course, a lot of high utility bills.”
This is when Johnson put two-and-two together. He realized that Knoxville needed to be more sustainable, not only for the environment’s sake, but for the residents.
“If we cut back on our energy consumption that means we have to burn less fossil fuels to get the energy to the people,” Johnson said.
People like Pearl Paige, who works at a local nursing home and lived in her home for 23 years before SEEED helped her get it weatherized, would have toughed it out in extreme weather or paid pricey utility bills.
“If it wasn’t for that program, my house would probably be really cold right now,” Paige said. “It’s saving me money on my utilities.”
The contractors that worked with Knoxville’s Community Action Committee renovated the ductwork and insulation and patched up holes in Paige’s walls, as well as installed a brand new A/C unit. Paige was one of the lucky people who qualified for one of 1,300 free home weatherizations provided by Knoxville Extreme Energy Makeover.
A study by the U.S. Department of Energy of the weatherization assistance program found that weatherization saved households around 12% in energy costs. This savings can make a difference for the 25.7% of people in Knoxville living below the poverty line.
The neighborhood where Paige lives is a tight-knit community, one where three months worth of renovations attracts interest and questions. Paige took advantage of that interest to try to help out her neighbors and get them to SEEED’s workshops and events that focus on simple energy saving techniques.
“I’ll stop and talk to my neighbors,” she said. “Because what they did to my house, it wasn’t anything more than a blessing from the Lord.”
Paige admitted that at times it was difficult to get people to come to the workshops. People sometimes had been working all day, but she felt that SEEED could help so many people that she had to keep spreading the word.
The people who Paige sent to the program also had a chance to escape the food desert using the community garden and healthy food preparation classes. Over 52 fruit trees and plants are growing in the garden and the program encourages people to grow their own crops when they can.
Sustainable Jobs for Sustainable Energy
As for the young people who help make the the energy saving possible, they are getting the basic skills needed for jobs after they graduate SEEED’S Career Readiness program.
Former students Kasey Williams and Kaija Guydon said in a video testimony that SEEED helped them develop their communication skills. They informed the community about the program through canvassing campaigns.
“When I started SEEED, I was homeless.” Williams said. “Once I got out of SEEED, I had my own place.”
SEEED also partners with contractors to give young people jobs helping to weatherize homes like Pearl Paige’s, so that jobs are created right in the community that way The residents do not have to rely on inconvenient public transportation to get to jobs on the other side of the city.
Maddie Stevens, a student at the University of Tennessee who volunteered at SEEED for Martin Luther King Day of Service last year, was surprised that a city like Knoxville faced these problems.
“It’s crazy to think that somewhere I call my home, I didn’t even know these simple things that affect so many people in our community,” Stevens said.