Lansing Community College Leads a Revival with Help from Greenforce Initiative

“We’ve gone from begging people to hiring my students…[and] now I have kind of the opposite problem”

10-04-2011 // Max Greenberg
Lansing Community College project

About two blocks west of the Allen Neighborhood Center on Lansing, MI’s, Eastside, the flat, tree-lined expanse of East Kalamazoo St. is showing signs of renewal.

It's a welcome change. In 2009, the median inflation-adjusted household income in Lansing was more than 36% below the national average. The city, Michigan’s fifth largest, is home to nearly double the U.S. average in individuals and families living below the poverty line, with many hit especially hard by the struggles of the auto industry. Population in the area has declined by more than 5% since 2000, leaving many houses abandoned or in a state of disrepair. This is, in most measurable ways, a town in serious need of a boost.

Enter Lansing Community College (LCC) and a bevy of students wielding hammers and a sense of purpose. They are on the front lines of the Restoration Works! project, a partnership between the school, the Ingham County Land Bank and the Allen Neighborhood Center to provide a living laboratory for students learning about energy auditing and sustainable construction and help maintain property values in the neighborhood with the help of a Greenforce Initiative Innovation Mini Grant.

Helping Lansing, Helping Students

LCC students in the alternative energy, architecture and HVAC programs began retrofitting two foreclosed houses along the 15 bus line this summer, installing a solar water heater and renovating roofing and siding materials. Late last month, the fall semester began, focusing on insulation, green roofs, energy audits and more. All this in properties once slated for demolition---an all-too-familiar occurence that Sean P. Huberty, head of LLC’s Alternative Energy Engineering Technology program, said “opens up a hole in the neighborhood.”

Lansing Community College project

The renovations are a small change, but the diverse area, home to many LCC students, has embraced the project as a powerful statement about the importance—and the thrill--of investing in the community.

“People are very excited. We get asked, ‘when is this gonna get done? When can we buy these houses?’” Huberty said.

The project has served the students too. Officials originally hoped that at least 300 degree- or training-seekers would become involved over the lifetime of the project. Huberty estimated that “several hundred” have joined in so far, and many have been able to parlay the hands-on learning into paid jobs with local employers. He said that as many as 30 students each semester now find work as a result of training in LCC’s sustainability courses.

“We’ve gone from begging people to hiring my students…[and] now I have kind of the opposite problem,” he said.

Officials would like to make the Restoration Works! project a regular feature of LCC’s sustainability training efforts, and they may retrofit local commercial buildings and build case study commercial and residential spaces on campus as their focus expands in semesters to come.

A Network of New Ideas

The Lansing Restoration Works! project earned just one of 25 Greenforce Initiative Innovation Mini Grants given to a diverse array of projects in Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and Washington as part of a broader effort to strengthen the capacity of community colleges to develop, enhance or refine green career pathway programs.

In Michigan alone, Lake Michigan College, St. Clair County Community College and Wayne County Community College have been awarded grants for sustainability and green job training programs, building on a growing regional partnership.

The National Wildlife Federation partnered with Jobs for the Future (JFF) to launch the Greenforce Initiative in 2010, thanks in part to grants from the Bank of America Charitable Foundation and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and since then the coalition has collaborated with the Michigan Community College Association (MCCA), coordinating with their Alternative Energy Consortium and the Breaking Through network, to build green career pathways and share best practices for community colleges. The partners even hosted a summit for educators and employers at LCC earlier this year.

The Role of Community Colleges

Community colleges serve a unique role in ensuring access to---and preparation for---careers for ‘lower-skilled’ workers and traditionally underserved groups. These students will lead the way in the clean energy economy, but they need access to ‘Green Career Pathways’ and hands-on learning opportunities like those offered by LCC.

According to Huberty, community colleges are “able to transition very quickly” compared with many large universities, partly as a result of their unique focus and close relationship with local businesses and organizations.

Lansing Community College project

This adaptability and willingness to try new things---like green career training---also serves a broader purpose for many schools, increasing visibility and making some community colleges a destination. At LCC, Restoration Works! and other green job training ventures have drawn students from western Canada and spurred partnership overtures from MIT and Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain.

Building green career pathways at community colleges can open new opportunities for in-need regions, under-skilled workers and the schools themselves. Beyond that, the future of the planet, the economy and the American workforce lay in the promise of renewable energy and sustainable practices. It’s no stretch to imagine that schools like LCC represent the vanguard of that movement.

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