Corporation for Economic Opportunity
Purpose Prize Winner 2008
Ensuring that rural African-Americans are included in the green economy.
Green-collar jobs are on everyone’s lips – politicians, economists and those fighting for social justice. Inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who recognized that freedom has little meaning, without the economic wherewithal to enjoy it, James abandoned his love for science and, in 1970, embarked on a 34-year, economic development career.
Concerned about the economic plight of blacks in South Carolina, he left the State’s Commerce Department in 2004 to create the Corporation for Economic Opportunity. He helped form the South Carolina Biomass Council and a multi-million dollar state biomass incentive and grants program. James realized that participating in the South’s growing “Green” economy was a way to stabilize the ever-decreasing numbers of black farmers and to reduce rural poverty. His Greening of Black America initiative helps black farmers to increase their earnings and reduce “food-miles” by selling produce directly to nearby consumers at farmers markets. And the production of lower-cost bio-diesel fuels reduces their operating costs. He also plans to combine new technologies with efforts to help farmers grow bio-crops, while others harvest forest biomass, to attract bio-refineries – and jobs – to poor rural communities.
Joseph “Joe” James was in college when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. A tall athlete with a penchant for science, James no longer saw himself becoming a chemist.
Instead he opted for a career in economic development, working for government offices in a half-dozen cities, always looking for ways to develop best practices and equity for disadvantaged people and communities.
Over 30-plus years, James built a strong reputation, managing a wide variety of revitalization programs, business attraction and retention programs, and high-tech initiatives. Still, he was nearly always frustrated with the inability of government and the private sector to create big change for the poor, especially those in the African-American community.
In 2003, the South Carolina Commerce Department recruited James, but it quickly became clear to him that state leaders “were primarily looking for big, industrial projects, the kind least likely to be located in rural and, particularly, minority communities.” Although it was unsaid, there was little interest in using biomass and bio-energy to help revitalize poor rural communities, even though James had secured federal funding to begin that process. It was the last straw.
James quit and in 2004 launched a nonprofit, The Corporation for Economic Opportunity. Its flagship idea: to help black farmers share in the profits to be made from new environmental practices. He calls the initiative “The Greening of Black America – A Rural Development Opportunity.”
“For African-Americans here, economic development has been like a rainstorm that hits everywhere else,” says Janie Davis, executive director of the state’s Commission on Minority Affairs. “This is an opportunity to bring prosperity to the communities that have not benefited from mainstream economic growth. Joe made us believe there are opportunities out there. This idea could actually transform South Carolina.”
The Greening of Black America initiative works to create new jobs, revitalize rural communities, help farmers retain their land, and improve nutrition and health in inner-city neighborhoods. A key component is creating opportunities for black farmers from the growing biomass industry, which is based on converting plant materials into energy and fuel.
The initiative galvanizes farmers in the production of oil seed crops (including sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and rapeseed, used to make canola oil) to make biodiesel fuel. Because biomass cannot be transported very far, biofuel businesses will come to these rural communities, creating jobs in the harvest, treatment, and sale of products made from biomass. While some states face challenges in biofuel distribution, South Carolina has more ethanol and biodiesel fuel pumps per capita than any other state.
“South Carolina can produce and consume a lot of renewable energy,” says James. “And we can create a situation where less fuel and food is shipped great distances and more of it is consumed locally, which is better for everyone in terms of climate change.”
During the past four years, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy, James has helped create the South Carolina Biomass Council, which has since created a multimillion-dollar state biomass incentives and grants program. Investments stimulated by the Council’s efforts will generate $300 million in the state, in three years’ time. Within five years, James hopes that hundreds of farmers will be growing dedicated bio-crops and dozens of new operators, many African-American, will be processing biomass for sale to biomass processors, electric utilities and other users.
“Having farmers grow non-food biomass is a really good thing, not just for the country but for the individual farmer. They are helping the environment, and it will increase their profit margin,” says Joseph Spells, an organic farmer who operates a small farm in Columbia, S.C. The Greening of Black America will work to level the playing field for rural blacks, after a long history of discrimination. “There has been a tremendous loss of land,” James says, “a denial of fair price, loss of markets, discrimination, and manipulation that helped make black farmers unsuccessful.”
Just a few months ago, the National Black Farmers Association (NBFA) filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of African American farmers for failing to pay back billions promised as result of discrimination in government loan and subsidy programs. In part due to lack of equal access to USDA loans, the number of farms operated by African Americans declined dramatically over the past 20 years, plummeting from 54,367 in 1982 to just 29,090 in 2002.
“I don’t want my guys scammed anymore,” says Leon Crump a beekeeper and organic farmer who echoes the views of many black farmers in South Carolina who feel they have been taken advantage of both by the government and market opportunities. “We need to find reliable markets. Black farmers’ income per acre is half of what white farmers are making.”
What James and his organization offer is a culturally sensitive and economically relevant solution at the right time.
The solution is broader than biomass. South Carolina is one of the nation’s most food-insecure states, with approximately 20 percent of its population considered hungry, according to the USDA. Connecting farmers with limited market opportunities to inner-city residents who have little access to nutritious, fresh vegetables at affordable prices addresses several needs. It will also reduce the fuel used to transport food from distant places to local markets.
Next spring, the Corporation for Economic Opportunity hopes to launch a farmers’ market at a 6,000-member church in a largely African-American community where farmers within a 75-mile radius can sell their produce. It will be the county’s first farmers market, and the opportunity it provides farmers’ is almost a lifeline.
In the next three years, James projects the number of farmers selling produce at this and similar new markets will grow threefold, and the number of weekly shoppers will triple to 1,500.
Partnerships with the church’s health guild and the state’s Eat Smart, Move More initiative will allow James’ group to create a community garden and provide wellness programs there.
“I am particularly concerned about the health issues that disproportionately affect black people. We have to speak to these needs,” says Pastor Charles Jackson of Brookland Baptist Church, who is one of the initiative’s backers.
James is eager to make this program work, eager to make sure that a rising tide, in the form of new business opportunities and new industries, really will lift all boats this time.
“I want to see people who have been denied opportunity grab the potential this program has and succeed,” James says. “We’re watching a new sector develop, and the time to get in is now. My experience has been that it is very hard for blacks to break into mature industries.”
“But if we can make this happen here and now, we can make it happen anywhere.”
2015 Update: After winning the Purpose Prize in 2008, Joe James used his award to create Agri-Tech Producers, LLC (ATP), whose mission is to make a variety of products from plant and woody biomass via torrefaction, a process that uses heat to convert biomass into a cleaner, renewable alternative to coal, as well as feedstock. He is still affiliated with The Corporation For Economic Opportunity, which now aims to involve poor, rural, black communities in bio-economy along South Carolina’s 1-95 corridor, creating economic activity and much needed local jobs. ATP is now in the process of completing its efforts to raise capital for a $3.6 million pilot torrefaction plant in Allendale, SC.