Two ECSU alumni promote green economy training and awareness

Two ECSU alumni promote green economy training and awareness

Bonnie Winston
December 14, 2010


In today's new "green" economy, two new leaders are emerging.

Meet Rhon Hayes and Philip O'Neal, co-founders of GREEN DMV, a District of Columbia-Maryland-Virginia-based nonprofit (hence the name "DMV") dedicated to the economic advancement of low-income communities by promoting energy efficiency and green jobs.

Hayes and O'Neal are both products of Elizabeth City State University, where their passion for the environment was kindled. Young, smart and energetic, they represent the new generation of social entrepreneurs - creative strategists with fresh ideas and a commitment to change the world for the better.

Through GREEN DMV, Hayes and O'Neal devote their energies to ensuring that the green economy movement sweeping the country includes everyone, including people of color and low-income people. In addition to education, their mission is to demonstrate that green jobs can be a pathway out of poverty.

In the three short years GREEN DMV has been in existence, nearly two dozen people from disadvantaged communities have been trained for green jobs through GREEN DMV's centerpiece, the Greater Washington Green Jobs Corps. Three have found permanent employment as energy consultants with Washington Gas Energy Services, one of the largest natural gas and electricity suppliers in the mid-Atlantic.

Jobs corps members worked with the City of Alexandria in Northern Virginia to install energy efficient windows and doors in 16 public housing units in that city.
Hayes and O'Neal also have conducted more than 30 energy assessments at inner-city businesses, showing small-buiness owners how to cut their energy and water bills - and improve their bottom line -- by making no- and low-cost changes.

Working with faith-based and community groups, they've weatherized a homeless shelter in Washington and renovated 20 houses in a low-income neighborhood to lower residents' energy bills. They've fashioned a yearlong curriculum on climate change and environmental conservation for elementary school students called "Green Kids!" which culminated in a festival and tree planting at Jefferson-Houston School of Arts and Academics in Alexandria. They recently signed a contract with the D.C. public school system to train teachers to implement Green Kids! in classrooms there.

On Dec. 11, Hayes and O'Neal launched Retrofit the DMV, a program with volunteers that will help homeowners in low-income areas in Northern Virginia to retrofit their homes for energy savings.

"Our goal is to retrofit as many homes as possible," Hayes said. "Particularly as the winter comes, we want to help homeowners who are being burdened with this economic downturn."
Hayes' and O'Neal's work has been recognized for its positive impacts within the Washington metropolitan area. Accolades have come from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, who cited GREEN DMV for helping to strengthen communities while aiding the environment.

Hayes and O'Neal also were presented in October 2010 with the Innovation in Green/Sustainable Design Projects Award by the African American Real Estate Professionals/DC. And GREEN DMV was singled out for recognition by Washingtonian magazine's Green Awards for "protecting the environment and teaching others the importance of eco-friendly living."
"We were pleased the magazine took a look at what we were doing and fount it worthy enough to write about in the magazine," O'Neal said. "Whether or not we're recognized, the needs in the community around sustainability are so great. We're pleased to be a part of helping out."

Hayes and O'Neal are passionate about their work and their mission, the seeds of which were planted years ago while they were students at ECSU.

Hayes, 36, from Hertford, N.C., was a biology major at ECSU. Originally, he planned to go to dental school. But after an internship at UNC-Chapel Hill, he realized it wasn't an avenue he wanted to pursue.

A subsequent internship with the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Dallas in 1993 made him think about a career with the EPA.

"We were working on brownfield remediation," Hayes recalled of his Dallas experience.

During a second internship in Chicago in 1995 in the EPA's environmental justice division, his interest in the environment was sealed. "We were looking at the effects of toxin-producing facilities in minority communities in Chicago's South Side," he said.

After graduating from ECSU in 1997, he went to Washington and worked in a lab.

"It wasn't for me," Hayes said. "I'm an outgoing person and enjoy being around others and working in a team."

He worked at, and later at the Center for American Progress, a Washington think-tank, where he interacted with the energy opportunity team. That's when in 2004 he ran into O'Neal at a Whole Foods store where both their wives had sent them for breakfast.

O'Neal, 37, who was a year ahead of Hayes at ECSU, essentially was born and raised on the campus. His father, Eugene O'Neal, was an art professor an football coach. Young Philip was raised on Cooke Street. He entered ECSU in 1991 and played football that year, landing in the university record books with the longest kickoff return - a 95-yard touchdown. It was the last year his dad coached, he recalled.

He was a geology major, and picked up his passion for the environment from Dr. Francisco San Juan, who still teaches in the Department of Geological, Environmental and Marine Sciences.

In 2004, O'Neal moved to D.C. from Atlanta. He'd taken several technology courses, and was working as a print technology expert in the U.S. Government Printing Office when he ran into Hayes at the green grocer in 2004.

After becoming reacquainted over dinner, talk turned to the future and what opportunities existed for them to make a difference. The answer, of course, was the growing green economy and the seeming marginalization of people of color.

"How can we establish a certification for companies and help disadvantaged companies and the environment at the same time?" O'Neal recalled.
GREEN DMV was born and formally started in 2007.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Even as GREEN DMV blossoms, Hayes and O'Neal continue to explore opportunities to expand their reach. Their latest focus is to engage students at historically black colleges and universities.

"The interesting thing is, no matter where they are - Norfolk State, Elizabeth City State, Howard University - HBCUs are always situated in distressed communities," Hayes said. "That's why this program is so important. Imagine if students could volunteer their time and make a difference in those communities. They can go in and help weatherize a home, go in and help educate students on sustainability, go in and help a church by showing them ways they can cut down on their energy bills. This is real life work they can do," he said.

Hayes and O'Neal are in discussions to launch HBCU Energy at ECSU.

"It would be ideal to work with the university," O'Neal said. "Think of the opportunities and benefits for both the students and the community."