By Emma Castleberry
In 2008, DeWayne Barton and Dan Leroy were in the car together on the way home from a conference. The two men, both residents of Asheville’s Southside neighborhood, were eager to connect young people in their community with sustainable employment. On that drive, the framework for Green Opportunities (GO) was born. Leroy and Barton recruited eight people to participate in a pilot program that would help them build skills for a career in green industry. The small group planted gardens, built structures, installed solar panels, captured rainwater and weatherized homes over the course of 15 weeks. Six of the eight trainees went on to paid apprenticeships or jobs with local businesses.
The pilot program was a success, and GO continued to grow, earning official nonprofit status, increasing the budget through grants and donations and expanding the organization’s staff. GO also launched three social enterprises: UpStaff Personnel, Southside Woodworks and Southside Kitchen Catering. These enterprises are designed to provide ongoing training and employment opportunities for GO members while improving the community and generating program-supporting revenues.
Despite its growth, the organization’s ultimate mission remains the same. “Addressing intergenerational poverty and systemic racism is the bedrock of the work at GO,” says Joseph “J” Hackett, executive director of GO. “People are hurting, and we are asking them to go and compete for positions when they have not been given the same starting point—the same degree of readiness to work. We try to help create equity and inclusion for these people. Our mission is to train, support and connect people from marginalized communities to sustainable employment pathways.”
GO’s goal is to reduce unemployment and increase wealth in Asheville’s most disparate communities. To achieve this goal, the organization works with both employers and students to better prepare them for a diverse workforce and career experience. GO offers three primary training programs: YouthBuild, a 9-month construction and life-skills training program funded by the Department of Labor; Kitchen Ready, a 17-week culinary training program; and Ready to Work, a short-term intensive for adults that offers soft skills and job readiness supports. “GO helps our members find a job with one of our employment partners, and all trainees receive a full year of wrap-around case management services to help them stay employed,” says Susan Andrew, training and support director at GO.
GO’s early training programs focused on weatherizing homes, a skill which became far less in-demand after the housing market crashed. “There weren’t any jobs in weatherization,” says Hackett. “So, Asheville’s Independent Restaurant Association came together to help create the culinary training we know today as Kitchen Ready.” Ramona Young is currently the interim executive chef for the program. “Kitchen Ready is dedicated to certifying anyone who is looking for a better opportunity to improve self, home and their chances of surviving in Asheville with its high cost of living and low paying wages,” she says. “If they have a certification, then they are able to enter into this competitive workforce with a good chance of excelling.” Kenya James, a graduate of Kitchen Ready, says the program gave her clear expectations about a career in the culinary industry. “Kitchen Ready helped me understand the importance of being on time, dressing correctly and how I represent myself,” she says. “And, of course, the certifications we earned can take you a long way.” James’ current career goals are to go back to school for a culinary degree and a business degree so that she can open her own restaurant.
Eric Howell, program manager for YouthBuild, is also a former participant of the program. “I know how a second chance can improve lives,” he says. “Coming to GO was a life-changing experience for me. They allowed me to prove to the world that I can do anything I put my mind to and I will continue to uplift participants as they come here. I am living proof of what this organization is capable of.”
GO helped to renovate its current headquarters in the Edington Training Center, formerly the segregated school for African Americans in the Southside neighborhood. “As you walk the halls, you can see the history on the walls: pictures of the classes that happened here and students who helped to renovate the building,” says Hackett. “Over the years, the industry has changed, the landscape has changed and our trainings have changed, but the heart of Green Opportunities has remained the same. We meet people where they are and help them move forward.”
For more information about GO, visit GreenOpportunities.org.