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Climate Jobs Institute Conference Puts Boots on the Ground in New York State

"This conference is about getting boots on the ground," said New York State (NYS) Senator Jessica Ramos at the Climate Jobs Institute's (CJI) statewide conference on Mar. 1-2.

"There's lots to be optimistic about," said NYS Senator Rachel May, but CJI's conference went even further. Challenging the idea of 'just another inauthentic conference,' the boots on the ground in Albany propelled the conversation towards an authenticity founded in doing.

Generating Equity: Pathways to Union Careers in Clean Energy featured panel discussions, breakout sessions, workshops and networking opportunities to advance New York State's clean energy economy. 

The conference brought together state senators, labor union representatives, assemblymembers, climate researchers, frontline workers, workforce development groups and community-based organizations.

Ramos and Commissioner Roberta Reardon of the NYS Department of Labor praised Dr. Lara Skinner, executive director of CJI, and her team for their tireless work to produce a map for the future.

CJI Statewide Conference

"Most jobs today are low quality, low wage, and that's what makes this challenge so scary…but it amazes me how prepared unions are for these new futures," said Skinner.

Can we meet climate goals while addressing issues of equity? How do we create good union jobs that prioritize frontline and marginalized communities? These questions guided conversations, but CJI's conference asked another: What does it mean, in reality, to put boots on the ground?

"Boots on the ground" is a synecdoche (suh-nek-duh-kee): a figure of speech in which a part represents the whole (e.g., Boots mean soldiers, wheels mean car, hands mean helpers). 

Synecdoches are a risky business. It's easy to confuse the parts with the whole, the models of reality with reality itself: Boots are not actually the soldier, hands are not the whole helper and maps are not the physical empire

Imagine a map of an empire so precise that it is exactly the same size as the empire itself. Herein lies the risk of any 'inauthentic' conference: mistaking the map for the territory. 

"I think you've got to call people out and ask, 'What are you really doing? Is it really tangible? Is it a true pathway for folks?'" said Justice Favor of Laborers' Local 79 during a breakout session on Overcoming Barriers to Entry for Underserved Communities

CJI has provided a map, so now, "What's the execution plan?”

The conference put critical information in plain view. During a panel on Ensuring Access to Good Jobs, Amy Peterson from the U.S. Department of Energy's Loan Programs Office paused the discussion to walk audiences through IRA tax bonuses for unions and community benefits programs.

For those unfamiliar with “IRA tax bonuses,” “community benefits programs,” or even “unions,” Jeff Grabelsky from CJI and Cornell’s Worker Institute hosted An Introduction to Construction Unionism breakout session. 

Interactive maps made by Rohan Palacios, training and education specialist at CJI, enabled union leaders, members and prospective apprentices to find accessible training opportunities throughout NYS. 

Gwen Summers from New York State Energy Research & Development (NYSERDA) "had the pleasure of meeting Nicole [Bertrán]” during the breakout session Building Pathways to Success: From Pre-apprenticeship to Union Careers. Bertrán represented one of the many pre-apprenticeship programs in attendance that hoped to connect funding opportunities like NYSERDA’s with workforce development initiatives. 

What good is a resource undiscovered by the people who need it, or a map without an instance to use it? "It's like pushing a pull door," said Doreen Harris, president and CEO of NYSERDA.

"It is our relations that will move us forward," said Skinner during the panel Building a Robust Labor Market in the Clean Energy Economy. “Each of us must use our networks, big and small," said Assemblymember Stefani Zinerman, echoing the panel Building Power Through Labor Community Partnerships

To use a synecdoche, it was all hands on deck in Albany. Colossal efforts came in across Cornell’s ILR School, from the Buffalo Co-Lab and Worker Institute to Jodi Anderson Jr. from the Criminal Justice Employment Initiative and Ellice Switzer from the Yang-Tan Institute, who delivered deeply personal panels.

“I’m blown away by the care shown at this conference – across Cornell, the climate jobs world, the construction unions, technology sectors, etc. Everywhere, people are embodying the action our climate requires,” said Melissa Shetler, senior training & education associate at CJI.

CJI's conference overcame the risk of synecdoches, pressed forward, and remained cemented in reality (ironically, ‘cement’ is a synecdoche for ‘concrete’).

Yes, "the whole is greater than the sum," said Zach Cunningham, training & education associate at CJI, but the individuals at the conference revealed an ecosystem dedicated to a clean and equitable economy. 

We expect the world to persist in the face of climate change, but in Albany, the parts of a whole were making it happen.