Recycling Waste, Rebuilding Lives: Eliminating Poverty Through the Clean Economy

The notion of job creation as a solution to poverty reduction is nothing new. But what if we could create jobs that are not only sustainable but also help to sustain our planet?
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You wouldn't think that green jobs and gangs in America have much in common. But that's before you realize that one has the power to positively change the other.

As the political rhetoric heated up last week in Tampa, many listened to hear how Mitt Romney will address the economic concerns felt by many Americans. For the past year, clashes between the one percent and those left behind have shed a new light on wealth disparity in our country. At a time when we're expected to hit a record 66 million people living at or below the federal poverty line, our political leaders must support bold, innovative solutions that address the varied sources of poverty in our country.

The notion of job creation as a solution to poverty reduction is nothing new. But what if we could create jobs that are not only sustainable -- providing quality jobs for low- and middle-skilled workers -- but also help to sustain our planet? What if those same jobs could also support members of our community who are often overlooked and cast aside?

According to a 2011 Brookings Report, there are currently an estimated three million jobs supported by the clean economy in industries such as wind and solar and with job titles like auto worker, electrical engineer and energy auditor. Despite what some may say, the clean sector has been and will continue to be an integral factor in the growth of our nation's economy, with significant jobs created here in the U.S. that cannot be outsourced. As our economy evolves and businesses adapt and become more innovative, workers of varying education levels and trades are also adapting their skills to a growing sector that pays a median wage 13 percent higher than the median U.S. wage.

In California, economic opportunity for one community in particular is still hard to come by, continuing a vicious cycle of poverty in the state. As a result of California's broken prison system, people with records who are re-entering the workforce are faced with innumerable barriers to jobs, resulting in a high rate of recidivism for many. Research has continued to show that both children and adults in poverty are more likely to enter the criminal justice and adult protective services systems, continuing the cycle. Upon release, they often lack the relationships and access to services and employment that could assist them in their successful transition to life outside of prison. This is a problem that needs to be tackled seriously and head on.

While working as an aide for the City Council President in Los Angeles, I witnessed first-hand the poverty, crime and incarceration that not only plagued California, but affected the poorest communities across our country. It became clear to me that at-risk people and those exiting prison needed jobs and I grew determined to develop a strong transitional jobs program that also aimed to address the struggle to properly re-use existing and diminishing resources. So I started a social enterprise.

With my own business, I knew there was a real need for a program that provided economic opportunity for people exiting the justice system and re-entering the workforce. Now, let's be clear: creating a business model that works to provide quality jobs to often low-skilled workers and at the same time remain profitable is a challenge in its own. However, I saw the chance to tackle two societal problems at once, creating jobs by addressing the state's fastest-growing waste stream: electronics.

Ambitious? Yes. But I am not alone in my desire to create good green jobs for the underserved. My business aims to provide easy, reliable systems for people to recycle their electronics in an environmentally safe and secure way, and to reduce recidivism and increase public safety by providing job training and employment for people with records. Since last fall, we've worked with school districts, county jails and local officials to collect more than 46,000 pounds of electronics.

I've continued to learn firsthand that as we face new challenges in our competitive marketplace, we must all continue to evolve, creating new and innovative opportunities to strengthen local economies and put more money in the pockets of the American worker. With new technologies continuously being developed, workers are learning new skills and adapting existing trades to meet the demands of consumers and of the emerging green economy.

My experience here in Los Angeles has taught me that the opportunities for those who are living in poverty and unable to find work, including those who are at-risk or previously incarcerated, can and do exist -- we just a need to bring those opportunities to scale. With the GOP National Convention wrapped up and the Democratic National Convention now underway, it's important to remember that we can harness the innovation of American businesses to revitalize the economy and work to reduce the number of people living in poverty. It's a great challenge, and I believe that we, American businesses and the American people, are up to it.

Kabira Stokes is the Founder and CEO of Isidore Electronics Recycling in Los Angeles, California.

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at the persistence of poverty in America August 29th and September 5th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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