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Patrick Barnes describes how his recognition of minority communities created his passion to help.

Patrick BarnesPatrick Barnes is being honored as a Champion of Change for his efforts as a Community Resilience Leader.

I am truly honored to be recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change Community Resiliency Leader. Early in my career as an environmental geologist working in New York and New Jersey, I was struck by the fact that the vast majority of the contaminated sites I worked on were located in poor or minority communities.

I could not help but notice that the employees of consultants and contractors doing the environmental assessment and cleanup work did not look like the residents of the area, who often lived directly adjacent to the source of pollution. These contractors would rarely employ local residents and instead bring employees in from other areas. This dichotomy grew even starker as my career took me to environmental projects in North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana.

In 1994, shortly after establishing Barnes, Ferland and Asscociates, Inc., also known as BFA Environmental, in Orlando, Florida, I read Dumping in Dixie by Robert Bullard. The book chronicles the tremendous disparities that exist in the siting of hazardous waste facilities, landfills, and industrial plants, and how such facilities are routinely placed in poor and minority communities.

Also in 1994, President Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, formally mandating that federal agencies make achieving environmental justice a part of their mission. During that time, I decided the most effective approach to achieve environmental justice at the grassroots level would be for firms that are involved in environmental assessment and remediation to be actively engaged in teaching the residents of impacted communities about the environment and how to safeguard and protect it.

Additionally, the results would be maximized if much needed job training were provided to at-risk members of these communities in conjunction with this outreach. In essence, the infrastructure repair and environmental restoration needs—which are greatest in underserved communities—represent a great opportunity for renewal. Residents of such communities should have the chance for a direct economic benefit from that opportunity.

This issue all came into clear focus for me after the destruction caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita along the Gulf Coast. These disasters exposed the tremendous lack of proper environmental infrastructure in poor communities. After BFA Environmental successfully completed a large contract on behalf of the Army Corps of Engineers in the aftermath of the hurricanes, it was time to take a decisive step.

Drawing from the lessons of a successful entrepreneurial and engineering business career, in 2006 I established Limitless Vistas, Inc. (LVI), a New Orleans-based nonprofit dedicated to providing entry-level job skills for the environmental industry to at-risk young adults. Since its founding, working primarily through job training grants from the EPA, the Corps Network, and the City of New Orleans and funding from BFA, LVI has trained over 300 young people from New Orleans as environmental technicians.

Trainees obtain a variety of credentials and certifications covering a wide variety of environmental skills including emergency response, asbestos/lead abatement, mold awareness, home energy efficiency auditing, OSHA construction safety and hazardous waste operations, FEMA emergency management, water and wastewater operations, coastal restoration and GIS mapping. The need for a properly trained local population with environmental skills was heightened yet again after the BP Deep Water Horizon oil spill.   Billions of dollars will be spent and, by some accounts, 60,000 jobs created to make the Gulf Coast more environmentally resilient as a result of the spill.

Our work has provided disconnected young adults from poor and disadvantaged neighborhoods more direct access to these good jobs. In the process, LVI and BFA have emerged as leading voices along the Gulf Coast. We help organize business leaders involved in coastal restoration and protection projects and speak up for the economic value of investing in adaptation as communities begin to make plans to invest fines from the oil spill. Additionally, we have been advocates for innovative ways to bring together private and public policies to connect the most vulnerable workers to jobs and training in coastal resiliency projects, thus helping to build the socioeconomic strength necessary for communities to adapt to climate change.

In Spring of 2013, Limitless Vistas, BFA Environmental, and Oxfam America launched a coastal restoration job training pilot program further preparing at-risk youth in Louisiana’s coastal communities for jobs in environmental monitoring, surveying, assessment and data collection—a significant part of a number of ongoing and upcoming coastal restoration and protection opportunities projected in Louisiana. This work will leverage efforts by NOAA and EPA in the area.

My personal view is that there cannot be true environmental justice without economic justice. This tremendous need represents a unique opportunity for the residents that were most affected by environmental disaster to obtain meaningful jobs, thus putting them on a path to economic equality. However, navigating the political process and connecting the dots between locally-trained individuals, the contracting process and the potential contractors with the job vacancies is still a difficult task. But, it’s a challenge we are worthy of.

In addition to my work as founder and advisor to Limitless Vistas, I am a professional geologist and President/CEO of BFA Environmental, the largest African-American owned multidiscipline environmental engineering, scientific consulting and surveying firm headquartered in the southeast. We have offices throughout Florida and in New Orleans.

I routinely engage in work consulting on water resource needs of clients across the region designing and managing large-scale coastal resiliency projects including the Biscayne Bay Florida Minimum Flows and Levels Ecological Indicators and Kissimmee River Restoration Program analysis. Both projects were critical to the comprehensive Everglades Restoration program, and to building the resilience of southern Florida.

Over my 27-year career, I have worked extensively in the minority community, and on groundbreaking environmental justice projects. I continue to work with business leaders across the Gulf States, the Nature Conservancy, Oxfam America, and the Corps Network to encourage decision-makers in the Gulf Coast States to invest in large-scale environmental restoration and coastal adaptation that would create jobs and asking for state investment in worker training initiatives tailored to at-risk communities.

Patrick is President/CEO of BFA Environmental.