An interview with Renewable Energy Partners founder Jamez Staples on his company’s efforts to foster equity in the built environment through a job training center for green-energy careers
By Sheri Hansen
The equity category in the 21st Century Development (21CD) matrix seeks to shift the development paradigm from focusing on doing less harm to embracing our role as stewards and co-creators of a living future for all. It aims to transform how we think about every aspect of design and construction and encourages us to see opportunities to positively impact the social and cultural fabric of our communities. The equity category examines the connections between human-scale neighborhoods, community services, and nature, and assesses investment in equitable development practices.
Jamez Staples is the founder and CEO of Renewable Energy Partners (REP), a company that is developing a training center for workers in the sustainability economy. Architecture MN talked with Staples about the 21CD equity category and the ways in which his work aligns with its goals.
One of the focal points of REP’s work is to provide greater access to green career training in economically challenged parts of Minneapolis. Why is that so important?
There are incredible opportunities for careers in solar-energy development and energy efficiency, which are essential parts of changing the energy footprint of our city and building a sustainable economy. But the training centers for these jobs are currently in outer-ring suburbs, or even farther from the core population areas. That means that transit options are extremely limited if you live in the heart of the city, and energy companies miss an untapped employee base because people can’t get to the training.
REP wants to create pathways to help economically challenged communities get access to training and careers, which will help increase the power of the resilient economy of the future. It’s all about awareness of and access to training so people are properly equipped and ready for success.
We purchased a 22,000-square-foot facility in North Minneapolis that can be used as a technical training facility for that workforce, and our intent is to work with regional school districts and engage high school students to help them see the opportunity for future careers. The property is just a half-mile from light rail and along a planned high-volume, bus-rapid-transit route, which will make it much more accessible to the entire region.
In addition to workforce opportunities, how do communities benefit from learning more about solar energy?
The more people within the community learn about the technical aspects of solar power, the more they will learn about how it can help their community become more energy efficient. This will help ensure that our community is more economically resilient through access to career training as well as the savings in energy costs that come with diversifying power generation—and more environmentally resilient as well. We’re planting seeds in the community that will pay off in our battle against the impacts of climate change.
It’s important that every community, regardless of its location or median household income, know about the opportunities to create environmentally sustainable spaces and places for themselves. We hope that by bringing the expertise into our community we help more people get involved both in the industry and in improving the broader community by expanding the footprint of renewable energy.
How does your business model promote equity and community engagement?
In many cases, development is done with the profit-seeking business model—not the community—in mind. Our business model is community-centric by engaging the community and showing them that opportunities to work in the industry create possibility. Our goal is to show we can do good and do well by being a good community partner.
We’re working with groups in academia, the nonprofit world, and the public and private sectors who share this sense of the importance of creating an engaged and empowered community that is resilient in all ways.
How does the work of REP align with the 21CD matrix?
In learning about 21st Century Development, I was delighted to see so many examples from the Nordic countries of what a regenerative community could look like, because that’s what I’d like to see developed here. At REP, we’re having conversations and formulating plans about how to look beyond the training facility to developing a regenerative corridor in the heart of North Minneapolis that is as productive and innovative as other leading projects around the world.
I also like the fact that the 21st Century Development model is all about actions and steps any developer can take to improve the resilience of their project. That fits with what we’re trying to do with both the training center and the corridor, which is to create a pathway to a vibrant, equitable, and more resilient Minneapolis for all its residents.
THE TOOL SET
21st Century Development (21CD) is a new framework for achieving the best in development through radical incrementalism. How can we make strides in key areas of building performance to provide a healthy environment for all people and living systems today and into the future? How can we move, step by step, toward a regenerative reality in architecture? This robust tool for architects, developers, funders, and policy-makers provides detailed yet easy-to-digest answers.
Learn more about the 21st Century Development performance areas, development matrix, and case studies at 21stcenturydevelopment.org.