Written: June 2021 by Jasper Roberson-Schulz and Emily Eckland

It is a late spring day over the welcoming Jerusalem Baptist Church in the Hoffman Triangle neighborhood of New Orleans, and a periodic cool breeze offers a nice reprieve from the afternoon heat. The interior of the church is still under construction, but its bright red exterior already beckons you to come inside. The church founder and leader, Pastor Cotton, was thrilled when Thrive approached him in Fall 2020 with an opportunity to not only transform his parking lot with an expansive green infrastructure installation, but also transform the lives of those working on the project. Thrive’s Executive Director, Reverend Chuck Morse, says Pastor Cotton is a shining example of what it means for faith leaders to step into water stewardship: “If we’re not good stewards of the land, how do we expect others to be good stewards?”

The project labor has been delegated to the graduates of the Thrive Works Green program, the first green infrastructure training program of its kind for adults in New Orleans. One of the graduates and crew members, Joseph Richardson (pictured above), sits under a tree on his lunch break and looks over the progress his team has made. Even at the ripe age of 60, he is one of the most dedicated crew members, committed to seeing the project to fruition. Life has thrown many of the other graduates curve balls; some had to take another job to support their family or had to deal with other personal issues. Joseph has been grateful that life hasn’t pulled his attention away, because learning this type of craft gives him purpose. “It keeps me out of trouble,” he adds with a grin. “I enjoy working with my hands, and doing something that will set me up for down the road. It’s the best thing that has come to me in some time,” he says, as his eyes survey the rows and rows of bricks he had just set with his team.

For the last 10 weeks, Joseph and his fellow crew members have been working on the church project as part of the hands-on apprenticeship and field work component of Thrive Works Green. They’ve learned the ins and outs of excavation, leveling, installation, and edging, directly from industry expert Cedric Patin of JC Patin/CAG. They just finished laying a special kind of brick that allows rainwater to trickle down and get absorbed in the ground rather than pooling on the surface (called permeable pavement). He admits that there has been a steep learning curve in the process, but says, “If you are willing to learn, you will have a skill that this city needs, and I am willing to learn.” It has not been easy work though, especially as the muggy heat starts to set in, but Joseph says, “work like this builds character,” joking that character “is something I could use right about now.” Passersby often stop to admire the work that is being done, one of whom even asked what the workers’ rates are. Thrive uses a “Learn and Earn” model, paying trainees $12/hour during the entire 15-week program.

Now that the project is complete, the Thrive Works Green crew will move on to the Work Experience Initiative phase of the apprenticeship: retrofitting homes that are part of NORA’s Gentilly Community Adaptation Program (CAP). For these projects, the crew members get to connect directly with the Gentilly homeowner and see first-hand how their work impacts the daily lives of residents and ripples out to impact the entire neighborhood. For Joseph, being job-ready and moving on to more complex projects is not just a badge of pride, but also a way to engage with the community around the issues of climate change and past human errors. The whole crew is excited to learn more about how homeowners are taking their lawns into their own hands, and asserting agency around how to manage rainwater on their properties.  

Joseph stands up to walk back to the job site, his hunger satiated, if only for a little while. “It is a great feeling to do something productive with my time, and I feel confident about the prospects of getting a job after the training program is complete,” he says. With the help of Thrive Works Green, his ability to learn specialized skills on the job will make him qualified for higher-paying green infrastructure jobs in landscaping and construction. In a city like New Orleans that is becoming more and more susceptible to severe storms, Joseph’s skill-set is becoming increasingly important and in-demand, setting him up to immediately make a positive impact in the field. Joseph and the other 5 crew members (pictured above) consider themselves lucky to be part of that process, and we can all feel lucky to have professionals who know what they are doing.

Thrive Works Green is currently recruiting for its second program cohort, to begin in summer 2021. More information and the application can be found at ThriveNOLA.org/GreenWorkforce.

The primary funder for the Thrive Works Green Spring 2021 Pilot Program was the Greater New Orleans Foundation, which is dedicated to strengthening our local workforce while developing solutions to improve stormwater management in New Orleans.