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(Environmental) Justice for All

North Philly’s Serenity Soular is training workers and installing solar panels in communities hardest hit by climate change

North Philly’s Serenity Soular is training workers and installing solar panels in communities hardest hit by climate change

Custom HaloIn 2013, when Swarthmore environmental studies professor Giovanna Di Chiro first took students to Serenity House, a non-profit community center on 12th and Lehigh streets, the intention was pretty simple: to help create a garden and community cafe where neighbors could gather.

They toured the house and the surrounding neighborhood with .O, Serenity House’s community caregiver—who does not use her legal name—and surveyed the backyard, imaging what kind of vegetables could be grown there. They crawled onto the garage roof to see if it could be converted to a green roof, or a kind of roof top garden.

Eventually, they did build the garden. But the roof became something even better: The first of Serenity’s forays into bringing community solar power and jobs to North Philly.

With the help of Di Chiro, her Swarthmore students, and the Swarthmore engineering faculty, Serenity residents installed solar panels on the roof of the center’s garage, which are now helping to generate electricity for a security light and string lights in the garden’s gathering space. Throughout the process, Di Chiro and her students worked with .O to organize community workshops on the science and mechanics of solar energy and solar panels.

Do SomethingThat led Di Chiro and .O to launch Serenity Soular, a non-profit, worker-owned solar panel installation company that employs North Philadelphia residents and that makes the transition to clean energy affordable for communities of color who are often the ones most affected by global climate change.

So far, Serenity Soular has educated two classes of apprentices, and begun a partnership with YouthBuild Philly, a school and training program for 18 to 21-year-old high school dropouts. They have completed three solar installation projects, including the one at Serenity House. Currently, they are working on solarizing the Village of Arts and Humanities.

“A truly sustainable society is one in which all peoples are treated with dignity and have access to a healthy environment and a secure livelihood,” Di Chiro says.

“Community leaders imagined this proposition as a scalable idea in support of climate justice and a just transition away from fossil fuels and into secure, career path jobs in the green economy,” Di Chiro says. “We hoped that this entry point into the solar field could generate new opportunities to enter the workforce in the burgeoning solar economy.”

All of this speaks to a pair of intertwined issues facing many in North Philadelphia: The effects of climate change and the need for more and better jobs.

“A truly sustainable society is one in which all peoples are treated with dignity and have access to a healthy environment and a secure livelihood,” Di Chiro says. “In our early conversations, .O said that the environmental justice framework I described resonated with her vision for Serenity House, and we discussed how we could build a productive partnership joining together the goals of community healing, regeneration, and ‘just’ sustainability.”

A study published in the January 2020 issue of the journal Climate found that Read MorePhiladelphia neighborhoods that had once been redlined had average daily temperatures that were almost 10 degrees higher than non-redlined neighborhoods. This has ripple effects ranging from higher energy bills to cool houses, to an increase in health issues and even early mortality.

Serenity House, once a parsonage of Cookman United Methodist Church, serves as a community center that promotes leadership development, spiritual growth, and community organizing. They offer job application assistance, cooking classes, community activities, Bible studies and help connect residents with other community services. At Serenity House, .O hosts community gatherings and group sessions on anger management, domestic violence issues, healthy eating, and more.

The partnership with Swarthmore stemmed from conversations that .O and Di Chiro began having in 2012, when Di Chiro joined the college faculty. Di Chiro, who has worked with activists and community members to pursue environmental justice for over three decades, knew that she wanted to connect with local activists in order to pursue equitable sustainability throughout the region.

“The field of environmental justice grew from grassroots social movements, from communities of color around the world resisting and confronting the injustices of environmental racism and the disproportionate impacts on their lives of the so-called ‘progress’ of our industrialized societies,” Di Chiro says.

Their work manifested in an independent study course at Swarthmore, which led to the initial backyard garden and, a year later, the solar panel installation.

This year, Serenity Soular plans to secure their 501(c)3 non-profit status and to finish structuring the organization as a cooperative. They just completed a successful crowdfunding campaign which raised just over $11,000, to support their organizational building efforts. (Their goal was $10,000.)

The apprenticeship program runs parallel with the solar panel installations, the group works with local leaders to recruit young people to secure funding for them to attend courses and to shadow the installers. In 2019, one of Serenity’s former apprentices and current lead solar installer, Ky Sanders, led the group’s first independent installation at The People’s Garden, a community garden managed by the members of Serenity House, funded by Energy Sprout, a grant competition through Penn State.

“The field of environmental justice grew from grassroots social movements, from communities of color around the world resisting and confronting the injustices of environmental racism and the disproportionate impacts on their lives of the so-called ‘progress’ of our industrialized societies,” Di Chiro says.

Later that year, the first YouthBuild Philly project solarized Philadelphia Urban Creators; the school and Serenity will next take on installation projects at West Philly’s Sankofa House; the North Philly Peace Park. Also in the planning stages are a community garden solar installation project with the Penn State NECA student chapter, and a series of residential projects with the West Philly Solar Co-op and YouthBuild Philly.

The Village of Arts and Humanities project is funded through RE-volv, a San Francisco-based organization whose mission is to empower people and communities to invest collectively in renewable energy. Several of Serenity Soular’s student leaders became Solar Ambassadors through RE-volv, which helps run funding campaigns to help non-profits transition to solar energy. So far, Serenity Soular has funded their efforts through crowdfunding, grant writing, donations, fees for speaking and leading tours, and solar contracts installation contracts.

Serenity Soular has also participated in the city’s Coolest Block Contest, which allows low-income homeowners to apply to become the “coolest block” and, if successful, receive weatherization retrofits for the entire block. In 2015, the 1200 block of Seltzer Street won the contest with Serenity’s help, and the organization then helped collect the required information from homeowners to approve the retrofits to their homes.

“Because the members of Serenity Soular had built trust with the local community, local residents were willing to share this personal information, and we enabled 20 low-income homeowners on Seltzer Street to receive full energy efficiency retrofits,” Di Chiro says.

VideoAll of Serenity Soular’s goals grow from their desire to run their non-profit like a triple bottom business, prioritizing social and environmental justice concerns equally with the income that comes in to support their work. Serenity Soular is a worker-owned cooperative and member of the Philadelphia Area Cooperative Alliance (PACA); Frank Oritz, their former business development advisor, used to sit on PACA’s board. It’s a mission that’s embedded in the company’s name: It spells “solar” as “soular” in order to emphasize that their initiative focuses on “the people and not just the panels,” Di Chiro says.

“Historically, the costs of conventional profit and growth oriented businesses have been externalized onto the bodies, health, and lives of those most marginalized: poor people and people of color,” she says. “Our goal is to develop a just and sustainable economic model that puts people and the community at the center, that puts people’s health at the center, that puts clean air, water, and land at the center, as well as creating the capacity to generate a decent livelihood and economic security for the community.”

Photo courtesy Serenity Soular / Facebook

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