Written by Cory Connolly, aka, “the Finisher”

Why is it that the green economy, in many ways, remains intangible? Why must those who are passionate about people and the environment choose between doing what they want and between living comfortably? What does a green economy look like in the country’s most devastated communities?

These are just a few of the questions that approximately 20 young people from across Michigan and the United States began attempting to answer this week as they arrived in Highland Park, Michigan (a city within the city of Detroit). Situated at the frontlines of urban revitalization, the Green Economy Leadership Training (GELT) is defining the “green” economy from first-hand experience. GELTers from across Michigan and the United States came to GELT expecting to learn what the green economy is; in reality, they are shaping it.

This week was orientation week for GELTers, and the enthusiasm and genuine intensity was impossible to miss. This general attitude combined with the variety of skill-sets, perspectives, and socio-economic backgrounds of the participants and staff is creating an atmosphere and team that would be impossible to recreate. As the week progressed, GELTers became more accustomed to the local community and its difficult realities—a process that will continue to unfold. The main training center on Candler Street is located amongst vacant brownfields, burnt out buildings, decimated infrastructure, and striking poverty. Many GELTers have been exposed to entirely new communities, interactions, and experiences—and it’s only been 5 days.

On Tuesday the GELTers were challenged to look at their local surroundings in a different light. Divided into three teams and provided with a set of tools, participants were sent into the local alleys. They had 1 hour to make something functional and creative from the waste that is commonly dumped or abandoned in the community. The participants transformed garbage and unused materials into a desk/compost toilet, a basketball hoop for the local kids, a bike-rack, towel-rack, and a dish-rack.  One of the most important take-a-ways of the Green Economy Leadership Training is learning how to think creatively about the world around you—how do you turn problems into opportunities? How do you make communities filled with blight and decay seem resource rich and opportunity filled?

Throughout the 9-week program participants will be challenged to think deeply and creatively about the challenges around them. The training equips GELTers with skills in perma-culture design, weatherization, solar photovoltaic installation, and gives them new cognitive tools through the freedom movement classes. In addition to these scheduled courses and the many guest instructors, participants have been challenged to become entrepreneurs. Participants are divided into 4 groups and are undertaking entrepreneurial projects on repurposing waste, urban agriculture, infrastructure redevelopment, and solar energy. On Wednesday participants were divided into their project teams for the first time. They brainstormed business models, steps in project development, financing options, and social concerns. Each project will result in a tangible outcome as participants learn first-hand how to develop a business plan and to execute on-the-ground solutions.

In the first few days, the Green Economy Leadership Training has forced introspective thought and discussion, challenging participants to identify their true motives and passions. By the end of the week each participant wrote a personal statement about why they are in Highland Park with GELT and what their intention is for the summer. They were required to think about these topics because as Simon Sinek points out “it’s not what you do, it’s why you do it” that makes a business successful and, moreover, that’s what we think will develop the green economy.

about Cory Connolly —
As a member of the GELT staff for the summer of 2011, Cory has focused on preparing and executing GELT curriculum, developing renewable energy solutions for Highland Park, and facilitating participant dynamics and housing. He also works part time with 5 Lakes Energy as a consultant on issues related to energy, environment, and policy. Having served as a Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment for the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, a contributor for Americans for Energy Leadership, an NGO delegate at the climate change negotiations in Cancun, a climate policy intern at the State Department, and as a carbon-offset project developer in Argentina, Cory brings a wide array of related experiences to GELT. In his spare time Cory enjoys exploring Detroit and loves listening to NPR tiny-desk concerts, watching college basketball, and travelling.