Brooklyn startup addresses gun violence with climate jobs
On a bright spring afternoon, a group of workers from BlocPower descend the steps behind a four-story apartment building, down into the cramped, musty basement, where the only light is a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.
The workers — three of them trainees in a climate-focused workforce development program run by the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based startup — have come to the site to perform a practice energy audit. But Jevon Rock also wants to show me the results of another practice assignment, on the tablet he carries with him: a three-dimensional floor plan of his mother’s apartment, which he drafted using Google Maps, a laser measuring device and the Magicplan construction and floor plan app.
One day while he was working on that drawing, he tells me, out in front of the apartment building in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood where he grew up, curious neighbors took an interest — then started having a bit of fun with him.
“They were like, ‘You planning to rob a bank?’ I told them, ‘That’s like a blueprint, man. You get paid for doing that,’” he says. The 41-year-old, who tells me he’s had difficulty finding a good paying job with just a high school diploma, started his training with BlocPower in November. He first learned how to install solar panels, although he much prefers the drafting and design involved in transitioning buildings to cleaner energy. “That’s what I love to do. That’s my meaning; I love doing it. I love it. … I’m just happy.”
BlocPower’s “Civilian Climate Corps” program launched in September, after the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice (MOCJ) awarded the company a $37 million contract, paid for with funding from the $2.2 billion federal COVID stimulus package, known as the CARES Act. The program provides paid, on-the-job training to New Yorkers who live in neighborhoods with high rates of gun violence, with the aim of starting them on their way to a career in the city’s fast-growing green construction and clean energy trades.
If we’re going to address climate change and meet the needs of frontline communities, then we should be able to hire from frontline communities and work with local companies, and allow generational wealth to be built.
Most of the work relates to greening the city’s buildings — electric heat pump installations, weatherizations and solar panel and battery installations. However, trainees also have the opportunity to learn other in-demand skills, such as electric vehicle charger maintenance and Wi-Fi installation. To date, BlocPower and its contractor partners — which include Augmented Construction, Urban Energy, VRF Solutions, Super Cool HVAC and Ch! — have trained roughly 1,500 New Yorkers, 400 of whom have moved on to full-time jobs in weatherization, HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), EV charging, data collection and more, according to the company.
BlocPower’s current contract with New York City is set to expire this month. A spokesperson for MOCJ confirmed the city intends to continue funding the program but declined to say more as the details are still being worked out. The goal for New York is to train 6,000 workers over two years, said Keith Kinch, BlocPower cofounder and general manager. The company, which now has projects underway in more than 25 cities, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Baltimore and Oakland, also plans to take its Civilian Climate Corps model with it as it expands, eventually implementing the program nationwide.
Legislation begets demand
At the site of the practice audit, Rock and his two fellow trainees, Robert Clark and Que Cunningham, begin in the basement because that’s where you’ll find the heart of the building’s heating system: an aging, heavy-duty, gas-powered boiler, which generates steam heat that is pumped throughout the building. The vast majority of New York City apartment buildings have heating systems like this one, and replacing them with electric heat pumps is key to the city reaching its climate targets, the most urgent being a 40 percent overall reduction of emissions by 2030.
Buildings contribute 67 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, with apartment buildings representing the biggest share of that. Steam heating systems alone, many of them old and inefficient, account for about 42 percent of NYC’s building emissions.
As such, the city has made tackling this emissions source a legislative priority. In December, the New York City Council voted to ban gas-powered heaters, stoves and water boilers in all new construction, which effectively requires developers to install all-electric heating and cooking. The ban takes effect in December 2023 for buildings under seven stories; for taller buildings, developers negotiated a delay until 2027.
Even more important to BlocPower — which specializes in clean energy retrofits — is Local Law 97. Passed in 2019, the law requires existing buildings over 25,000 square feet to start lowering emissions in 2024 and to reach a reduction of 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050. The energy system retrofits needed to comply with Local Law 97 alone are projected to create or sustain at least 23,600 green construction jobs for skilled workers in NYC. Statewide, New York is expected to see at least 211,000 new jobs related to clean energy by 2030, with most in building energy efficiency and electrification.
“There is a lot of work in the city that needs to be done now and over the next decade, and there’s a need for new talent across the board,” Kinch told me over a video chat. “And if we’re going to address climate change and meet the needs of frontline communities, then we should be able to hire from frontline communities and work with local companies, and allow generational wealth to be built. So it is exciting. It’s one of the best things I’ve ever worked on.”
A second chance
In addition to climate mitigation and job creation, the city sees the program as a way to address increasing gun violence in certain neighborhoods. After plummeting to historic lows in the late 2010s, shootings (along with overall crime) have increased since the start of the pandemic (although New York remains one of the safest large cities in the country). But while historical crime rates fluctuate, the geography of gun violence stays stubbornly the same, with the city’s poorest neighborhoods, home primarily to Black and Latino residents, bearing the brunt of the violence. Roughly two-thirds of the city’s shootings take place in Brooklyn and the Bronx, a level that has remained steady over time, in neighborhoods such as East New York, Brownsville and Bedford-Stuyvesant in north-central Brooklyn, and Mott Haven, Grand Concourse and Woodlawn in the South Bronx. Shooting victims are overwhelmingly young Black men.
“I grew up in East New York, in a low-to-moderate-income community, and I remember the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Kinch says. “I’m not different than anyone in this program. I’m not smarter, or faster, or better than them. I was just fortunate, by the grace of God and having a social safety net, to get to where I am today, whatever that means. But I know there are folks that are in this program that will bounce past me given a chance.”
BlocPower’s program explicitly targets these neighborhoods, partnering with community organizations to recruit trainees. Eighty percent of current participants didn’t have regular employment prior to joining the program, often due to pandemic-related job losses. A significant number of trainees are reentering society after serving prison terms.
Robert Clark falls into this latter category. The 53-year-old Bronx native spent 20 years in prison for burglary, a sentence he received under New York’s “three strikes” law, which imposes harsher than usual sentences for repeated felony offenses.
On the day of the practice energy audit, he wears a 3D camera on his hard hat, capturing images of the structure’s exterior from the street before moving inside. The timeworn building has the hardwood floors and decorative wall moldings typical of “prewar” architecture, a style that was all the rage in New York City when the building went up, back in 1931. As he moves up the staircase and through a vacant two-bedroom apartment, Clark diligently keeps his eye on his cell phone, which is recording camera images to create a “virtual walkthrough.”
Clark connected with BlocPower through Exodus, a transitional program that helps formerly incarcerated individuals pursue educational and job opportunities and find housing. After being released from prison in July, he completed his associate’s degree in liberal arts, and he’s nine months away from a bachelor’s in organizational management, thanks to his colleague Que Cunningham, he says. Cunningham, who also served time, has completed the same bachelor’s degree and intends to pursue a master’s and a Ph.D., and she encouraged Clark to go to college.
“We turned it around,” Clark says. “And I’m glad they [BlocPower] aren’t holding my past against me. They’re saying, ‘OK, you want a second chance? Here you go. Let’s see what you’re gonna do with it.’ And I’m showing them.”
In addition to skills related to specific jobs, the program’s hybrid curriculum includes OSHA training and various career development courses, as well as services such as child care support and culturally competent, trauma-based counseling. The range of training and services, and the fact that trainees make $20 an hour, allows BlocPower to recruit a diverse group of workers, including parents and older workers. Women make up 30 percent of program participants, compared with only 9 percent of overall trade industry workers and only 1.2 percent of construction workers and HVAC technicians.
On the mention of the program’s high percentage of women, Cunningham, a transgender woman who also grew up in the Bronx, smiles broadly and gives me a high-five. “What you see is the future of New York,” she says. “This is what New York looks like — diversity.”
Recruiting different types of workers brings a variety of often complementary skills and interests to the program, and BlocPower offers various tracks for participants to pursue according to what suits them. The core program runs three months, but some participants, such as Rock, Clark and Cunningham, stay on for additional training, Evan Montilla, the construction manager on site, tells me.
“I’m trying to give them different skills, so they’re not forced to only do construction; they can also do work in operations, for example. So it’s really like cross-training. Because in addition to actually doing the [installation] work, there’s an operations side to it, there’s a scheduling side to it, there’s delivery,” Montilla says.
Trainees also learn a variety of technical skills, such as those Rock is using to create building layouts. “Drafting is something you typically have to go through multiple years of training to learn,” Montilla says. “But the tech I’m teaching them, it bridges a lot of the gaps. And a lot of the technology is very approachable.”
They’re saying, ‘OK, you want a second chance? Here you go. Let’s see what you’re gonna do with it.’ And I’m showing them.
While younger workers have an edge on the tech side, participants such as Clark and Cunningham, 52, are serving as mentors for some of their younger colleagues.
“My goal is just to give back to the community,” Cunningham says. “This is my purpose in life. I’m here to give back and encourage the next person, because the thing I’ve learned about life: It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
From Bed-Stuy to nationwide
Donnel Baird, the company’s CEO, and Kinch founded BlocPower in 2014. The two men, both Black, met 16 years ago while working on a local political campaign. Like Jevon Rock, Baird grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a neighborhood with a history of activism and a hotbed of hip-hop culture. “I thought he was a pretty cool dude,” Kinch says. “I remember telling my girlfriend, now my wife, that Donnel is someone I hope to stay close to in the years to come. I guess 16 years later, it worked out.”
The company’s mission from the start has been to provide clean, efficient and less expensive energy to residents in underserved communities.
Roughly a third of U.S. households have trouble paying their energy bills, according to the Energy Information Administration, but wealth disparities and decades of racist housing policies have left Black and Latino Americans disproportionately likely to live in homes with broken or inefficient HVAC equipment or structural problems that increase energy costs. Replacing a gas- or oil-powered boiler with an electric heat pump — which can be used for both heating in winter and cooling in the summer, eliminating the need for window AC units — can dramatically lower these costs. All told, BlocPower’s customers save between 20 and 40 percent on their energy bills each year, according to the company’s website.
Since its inception, BlocPower — recently named one of the TIME100 most influential companies — has completed projects in more than 1,200 buildings in underserved communities in New York City; and in November, the company was selected to “green” all 6,000 buildings in Ithaca, New York, over the next 10 years, the first large-scale, citywide electrification project in the United States. The startup’s work has also piqued the interest of investors. BlocPower has raised nearly $100 million in debt and equity to date, from investors including Kapor Capital, Jeff Bezos’ Earth Fund, Microsoft Climate Innovation Fund, Goldman Sachs and Salesforce.
In addition to the job skills the trainees gain, the program’s other important benefits include the obvious sense of pride and ownership they have for their work and the sense of camaraderie they feel with their coworkers. They help each other out and crack each other up.
“We talk at work, we talk outside of work, and they always build me up if I’m down. I could call these guys anytime,” Rock says. “I love my crew. I’ll be mad sometimes when I’m off on Saturdays and Sundays.”
Clark and Cunningham laugh at this. The three trainees have made their way up to the building’s rooftop now, where the afternoon sun shines, and a cool breeze blows.
“I guess they [BlocPower] see that I’m doing a good job,” Clark says at one point, somewhat cautiously. “And maybe I’m an inspiration to those who are coming behind me.”
“You are to me,” Rock chimes in.
“But I feel that I’m doing something relevant, that the job I’m learning is definitely going to be relevant in the future,” Clark continues. And with a smile, he adds, “We’re blazing a trail!”