Student group set to launch weatherization outreach and landfill education effort

by Eric Ginsburg

Cherrell Brown (center) and Starlyn Robinson (left), with Ignite Greensboro, talked to A&T students about the White Street Landfill last week. (photo by Eric Ginsburg)

Though it is a relatively young organization, Ignite Greensboro has already launched a number of successful initiatives to forge alliances between students and community members around civic engagement issues, especially connected to environmental justice.

Now Ignite members are poised to immerse themselves even more fully in local politics as they hope to lead outreach around the city’s $5 million energy efficiency grant and bolster the opposition to the White Street landfill.

Ignite Greensboro founder Zim Ugochukwu convened a number of the other students involved while working on the Obama campaign, and created the organization in 2009 with the intention of sustaining student involvement in community projects.

“Students have such a powerful force and energy but it’s not utilized,” assistant director and A&T senior Starlyn Robinson said. “Some students want to help but they just don’t know how.”

Run by a core team of about eight students, Ignite Greensboro has engaged approximately 2,000 area students, many of them through the annual “Let’s Raise a Million” project. Held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the project mobilizes hundreds of volunteers to help install energy efficient light bulbs in Greensboro communities. “As college students we’ve been able to come together and do something positive,” said UNCG art major Rachel Propst. “Over the last two years we’ve actually made a difference and reached a lot of people.”

As its first project, the group raised money for the International Civil Rights Center & Museum downtown, which hadn’t yet opened. Through donations of $2 per person, representing the cost of a cup of coffee, the students succeeded in raising $1,000.

Ignite recently joined with the Greensboro Housing Coalition and NC A&T University’s Center for Energy Research and Technology to submit a joint proposal to carry out community outreach as part of the BetterBuildings energy efficiency program, which is coordinated by the city.

After receiving seven different proposals, city staff chose the collaborative proposal, according to communications manager Donnie Turlington. The decision will go before city council for approval on Sept. 13. Program specialist Baiplin Warren said the goal is to send out the contract to the approved contractor the following day.

The federally funded program aims to encourage homeowners to improve their energy usage by at least 15 percent through rebates, incentives and grants. The money is designated for specific upgrades including heating and air duct sealing and improving insulation.

“We’re already mobilizing as if we got it,” said Ignite Greensboro director Cherrell Brown, who added that the coalition would meet soon to continue planning for implementation. Brown participated in the Beloved Community Center’s summer internship program, which publicized the BetterBuildings initiative as part of a canvassing effort.

A number of the proposals were submitted by out-of-town groups, including one in Cambridge, Mass. and another in New York City. Two other organizations from Greensboro, New Hope Community Development Group and Redistributing Community Services, also applied, along with Neighborhood Solutions in Winston-Salem.

Brown, an A&T senior, said professor Bob Powell with the center approached Ignite Greensboro to help organize the community around the BetterBuildings energy efficiency program.

If awarded the contract, Brown said the group hopes to create four or five paid internship positions for students to perform outreach work.

In addition to helping coordinate the BetterBuildings project, students with Ignite Greensboro are focused on the White Street Landfill, another environmental justice issue, leaders say.

Members are already at work on a documentary about what residents living near the landfill think of the debate raging in city politics about whether to reopen the landfill to municipal solid waste. Now, Ignite Greensboro is planning a bigger push to increase student involvement in the struggle to keep the landfill closed.

Ignite Greensboro has become known for its use of flash mobs, in which a number of people come together and freeze at a certain time to draw awareness to an issue. In addition to passing out informational flyers, group leaders plan to hold flash mobs on a number of local campuses to raise awareness.

Many students are unaware of what is happening in city politics, including about the landfill, Brown and Robinson said, but upon learning about it are “appalled” and excited to be involved. After outreach and education efforts, the group’s goal is to hold a march from the A&T campus to the city council’s Sept. 20 public hearing on the landfill.

As a 501(c)3, Ignite is limited in the electoral work it can do, but Brown said if council members ignore the community’s wishes and vote to open the landfill, voter education and mobilization will be the next step.

The group’s nonprofit status limits it from endorsing specific candidates, but the group can inform voters about issues, explain the organization’s opposition to opening the landfill and provide a list detailing where candidates stand on the landfill, Brown said.

It wouldn’t be the first time Ignite Greensboro attempted to engage students in local and statewide elections. At UNCG, Ignite members are partnering with the Black Student Union to encourage students to vote. The day before the last midterm elections, Ignite members on three campuses asked people what voting meant to them. As part of the group’s initiative called the black marker project, members photographed people with their response written on a white board.

Propst, who oversees the black marker project, said it helped the group not only get students thinking, but also show the community that students care about more than just classes and partying.

Striking a similar note, UNCG political science major and Ignite member Joyce Booth said part of the group’s goal is building connections across campus lines.

“Our youth spunkiness and energy can help some of these issues that are affecting Greensboro,” Booth said. “We want a partnership with the community, not just to be on campus in a little bubble. I want to leave my footprint in Greensboro and not just come in as a student and leave.”

Thanks to Ignite, Booth was able to attend a conference in Washington DC that changed her outlook, even causing her to minor in sociology.

“It inspired me not to be so capitalistic and self serving,” Booth said. “[Ignite Greensboro] has definitely changed me to be more people serving than self serving.”

Booth isn’t sure if she’ll stay in Greensboro or try to find nonprofit work in DC.

Even if they do leave after graduating, Ignite members will be taking what they’ve learned with them. Robinson, who is originally from Detroit, is looking at graduate schools and plans to move home after graduating, but to stay involved in similar community organizing efforts.

“I draw inspiration and excitement from the students who are involved,” said Robinson, a political science and environmental science double major.

Brown is considering law school and Teach for America, but is reluctant to leave the roots she’s planted here.

“I’ve gotten so involved with everything in Greensboro that I don’t feel ready to leave,” she said.

While many of the student leaders in Ignite are seniors, younger students will continue the project. If awarded the BetterBuildings contract and interns are hired, Ignite will plan outreach in a way that it can be sustained after they leave, too.

The group’s work extends beyond the landfill, the contract and the black marker project, including creating a scholarship, but Brown boiled down all the projects to Ignite’s central mission.

“We’re just trying to get students engaged,” Brown said. “We have a major legacy with the movement in the city in so many ways. We don’t want to just lean on the legacy, but to build our own too.”