Jane Jacobs Medalist Omar Freilla: Green Worker Cooperatives and the South Bronx

[reblogged from http://www.futureofny.org/medalists/omar-freilla]

Jane Jacobs Medalists

Omar Freilla

Photo of Omar Freilla
Photo by Rob Bennett

Even though only 34, Omar Freilla has already brought fresh hope and new ideas to the South Bronx, an area that was a national icon of urban decay in the 1970s and 1980s. Ironically, the reason for this blighted image can be traced back to many of the issues that Jane Jacobs fought against: the construction of highway projects that tore through neighborhoods, cold and imposing housing projects, and slum clearance. Omar and his parents, Zoraida Martez and Jose Freilla, who settled in the Bronx after emigrating from the Dominican Republic in 1960s, were firsthand witnesses to this deterioration and the burning of the Bronx.

After graduating from the Bronx High School of Science, Omar went to Morehouse College in Atlanta, receiving his B.S. degree in 1995. While at Morehouse, he was featured in a New York Times article for founding Black Men for the Eradication of Sexism, following several incidents of harassment and violence against women on campus.

Omar later attended Miami University in Ohio, where he earned a Master’s of Environmental Science in Resource Analysis and Ecological Anthropology. It was there that he first heard the term “environmental racism,” a phrase that would change his life. Omar returned home to bring his learning and talents to the place where he was born and raised.

Omar initially worked as the Transportation Coordinator for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, where he directed a campaign to promote greater use of cleaner alternative fuels, and managed a campaign to convert Sheridan Expressway into a park. In 2001, he moved on to serve as Program Director for Sustainable South Bronx; there, he coordinated everything from media relations to grant writing and a Minority Worker Environmental Training Program. In 2003, with seed funding from the Open Society Institute, Omar founded Green Worker Cooperatives (GWC).

With the mission “to foster environmental and economic justice by developing worker-owned and environmentally-friendly businesses in the South Bronx,” GWC aims to organize low-income residents into worker cooperatives and provide the necessary training and assistance to launch businesses that reduce existing pollution levels from polluting industries and practices. The tagline on all of Omar’s emails reads: “…because your work shouldn’t kill you, your community, or the earth.”

Jane Jacobs urged people to closely study their neighborhoods to see what works, what doesn’t, and how people interact with their built environment. Omar has made use of this kind of neighborhood knowledge to try to create a more equitable community. One goal of GWC is to turn some of the estimated 2,000 tons of construction refuse that ends up in waste transfer stations in the Bronx each day into “green collar” jobs for local residents—24% of whom were unemployed as of the 2000 census—by opening a retail warehouse for salvaged building materials in the Bronx.

Until recently, the environmental movement focused largely on conserving the natural environment, wilderness protection, or energy consumption. Now, Omar is helping to shape a new urban environmental movement. He and his peers are modeling innovative solutions to counter the disproportionate environmental effects faced by low-income, minority and urban communities.

Omar is the recipient of a National Hispanic Scholars Award, the Union Square Award for Grassroots Activists, and he was awarded a fellowship in 2003 by the Open Society Institute’s NYC Community Fellows Program. Omar is also a board member of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a newly formed organization uniting worker-owned businesses throughout the United States.

In his spare time, Omar is a gardener and a percussionist with the Haitian-Dominican folkloric band, Pa-lo Monte.

Omar says that his favorite New Yorker is his wife, Gia, a school teacher in Harlem who, he says, taught him “a lot about democracy.”

To watch an interview with Omar Freilla, click here.

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