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Community Organizers Combat 'Triple Threat' of COVID, Climate, and Racism

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Participants at Tuesday night's virtual summit hosted by Illinois People's Action.

Green energy advocates are warning the COVID-19 crisis is exacerbating problems like economic inequity and environmental racism.

Illinois People’s Action (IPA), a community organization with chapters throughout Illinois, hosted a virtual summit on Tuesday night to discuss the “triple threat” of climate change, COVID, and systemic racism.

“We are in the midst of a triple-layered crisis that is threatening our people and our planet’s well being,” said IPA organizer Cecilia Long.

Long said problems created by centuries of systemic racism are now being compounded by the mounting climate crisis and the deleterious effects of the global pandemic.

Research has shown that racial minorities are disproportionately affected by COVID-19, with Black and Latino patients being hospitalized at nearly five times the rate of whites. Long attributed the disparity, in part, to the fact that minorities are more likely than whites to be low-income, which presents barriers to medical care. The lack of health insurance or the inability to secure paid time off from a job can deter people from seeking medical attention.

Long also noted that low-income households are more likely to be located in areas with high levels of pollution. Sixty-eight percent of Black Americans live near coal-fired power plants despite being 13% of the population, Long said.

Tying air quality to health, Long said Black children are twice as likely as white children to suffer from asthma and 10 times more likely to die from the condition.

Asthma, a respiratory ailment, is one of the underlying conditions that has been shown to complicate COVID-19.

IPA is a supporter of the Clean Energy Jobs Act (CEJA)--legislation that would push Illinois to produce all of its electricity with renewable sources by 2050. The group says the conditions created by the pandemic have exacerbated societal inequities and created added urgency around the need for green energy.

IPA member Joyce Harant, of Peoria, said green energy could have a transformative effect on the lives of residents of her congressional district. “The 17th district is unfortunately one of the worst places in the country for African Americans to live and it’s one of the poorest districts in the country,” Harant said.

On average, Black household income in the district is roughly half that of white households, while the pre-pandemic unemployment rate for Blacks was 26.1%.

Harant said the group has been meeting with U.S. Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Moline, to discuss how CEJA could improve both economic and environmental conditions in the area.

“The new clean jobs economy, if implemented correctly, will enable people currently left out of good-paying jobs--whether they’re in urban or rural communities--to improve their economic lives with good-aying jobs,” Harant said.  “A new green economy can be a great boost to the 17th district, all while helping the climate by reducing carbon emissions and bringing jobs to our COVID-wracked economy.”

Harant said IPA has had three meetings with Bustos’s office so far, and hopes the congresswoman, who she described as a “leader in the Democratic party,” can become a “champion” for the new jobs CEJA would create. 

CEJA would ramp up Illinois’ investment in green energy jobs from $3 million to $25 million by creating 13 workforce hubs throughout the state. The hubs would train workers in skills like solar panel installation. 

Legislation passed in 2016, the Future Energy Jobs Bill, created three hubs--two in Chicago and Peoria--that trained nearly 350 workers to install solar panels.

Another IPA organizer, Dawn Dannenbring, said a majority of the jobs created by those three workforce hubs  went to minorities.

“Now imagine what we can do with 16,” she said.

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