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Sierra magazine
Act | On Your Convictions

Sunny Path to Prosperity

Interview by Della Watson

Michele McGeoy, Richmond, California; founder, Solar Richmond

"Richmond has the third-highest unemployment rate of any city in the San Francisco Bay Area. It also has the highest per capita murder rate in the state and one of the highest asthma rates in the area. Our goal is to create pathways out of poverty and into prosperity. We train underemployed folks here in Richmond to do solar installations, and then we help them get jobs.

"By training folks to get into the solar industry, we're bringing well-paying jobs to a community in need. Because it's an up-and-coming field, you can advance rapidly, and in three to five years our graduates today will be the old-timers. My hope is that some of them will be on management teams and running their own companies.

"Although there's a great need in the solar industry for installers, it's also a hip field, and everybody wants to be in it. So our guys are competing with college graduates with environmental studies and engineering degrees who are willing to do labor to get their foot in the door at a solar company.

"Our idea is to move the interview from the conference table to the rooftop. That's where our guys really shine. They're hard workers; they have the skills. A college grad is great at talking about global warming and connecting in an interview, but getting our guys up onto the rooftop working side by side with other solar installers increases their odds of succeeding.

"I'm pretty pleased with our outcome, but it feels like it's never enough. We have 12 people working full-time in the solar industry and 12 people working in internships.

"The most powerful part for me is that it's meaningful work. In a community with so much struggle and suffering, our workers are proud not just to be able to feed their families but to do something the whole country is looking at, saying, 'We care about the work you're doing.'"

RENEWABLE GROWTH Excluding hydroelectric, the renewable-energy industry grew three times faster than the rest of the U.S. economy in 2007, according to the American Solar Energy Society and Management Information Services.

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Photo by Lenny Gonzalez; used with permission



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