Jerome Ringo’s Tireless Pursuit of Clean Energy Economy

Like other nationally prominent public interest leaders, Apollo Alliance President Jerome Ringo spent a few days after Barack Obama’s election considering its full meaning. It wasn’t just that the new president was African American like himself. It was also that President Obama had campaigned and won on almost precisely the same call for a clean energy, good jobs economic transition that Ringo has championed for the Apollo Alliance from one end of America to the other.

Since December 2005, when Ringo joined Apollo, he has devoted himself to the mission of scaling up the clean energy sector to generate millions of good-paying green-collar jobs. He has spent over 1,000 days on the road. He’s talked to union chiefs and evangelical leaders. He’s motivated big crowds of students and intimate gatherings of business executives. He’s gained the trust of the directors of America’s national environmental organizations, and engaged social justice leaders. He counts mayors and governors as friends, and three presidents have recruited his support.

Apollo’s message, delivered by Ringo, is as big and striking as the towering 295-pound man who is its messenger: The solution to the energy crisis, the climate crisis, and the middle class jobs crisis lies in making an immense industrial transition to a clean energy economy.

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That idea commanded attention during the 2008 presidential election. “The election,” said Ringo, “is a catalyst for opportunity for America to say no to more CO2 in our atmosphere. To say no to foreign countries holding us over an oil barrel. To join with the new administration and the new Congress, and the new thinking of America to generate a clean energy revolution, millions of good jobs, and help clean up this globe.”

“Hope,” Ringo added, “now comes in many forms.”

Persistent Advocate for Clean Energy
Indeed it does. On Tuesday next week Ringo, who earlier this month celebrated his 54th birthday, is scheduled to spend an hour on Capitol Hill testifying to members of the House Education and Labor subcommittee on Workforce Protections about the need and value of high paying green-collar jobs. Having helped to convince the White House and Congress to make a $100 billion-plus investment in clean energy development and green-collar job generation in the American Recovery and Reinvestment, enacted in February, Ringo and the Apollo Alliance are focusing intently on these next steps: Reviving manufacturing to make the equipment and components of the clean energy sector, and making the case for green-collar jobs that pay well, come with benefits, and help rebuild the American middle class.

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The Congressional appearance is part of a nationwide drive to promote Apollo’s New Apollo Program, a comprehensive economic investment strategy to build America’s 21st century clean energy economy that was made public last September. Just this week Ringo spoke to a meeting of the New York State Apollo Alliance about opportunities for green-collar job development. On Friday he addresses the Aspen Institute Environmental Forum in Colorado. Over the weekend Ringo is in Pittsburgh to speak to a conference convened by PennFuture, and another by the Green Business Alliance.

It’s a relentless schedule that is more than matched by Ringo’s endurance and his eagerness to seize a turning point moment in the nation’s history. Earlier this month Ringo addressed 12,000 young people at the second Power Shift conference to mobilize citizen action on global warming. In February, at the invitation of the White House, he joined President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden for the formal launch of the White House Middle Class Task Force. Last September he appeared before the House Committee on Ways and Means to advocate for a new federal program to cap carbon emissions and invest the proceeds from a carbon trading system in clean energy investments.

Thanks to Ringo and the Apollo team, over 60 national business, labor, environmental, and social justice organizations — from Redefining Progress to United Steelworkers of America to the Natural Resources Defense Council, among others — have signed on in support of The New Apollo Program, as have thousands of individuals.

A Distinctive, Respected Voice
Apollo’s ability to mobilize around big ideas is clearly enhanced by Ringo’s important voice. “He’s a motivator,” said Jeff Rickert, the director of the new AFL-CIO Center for Green Jobs, and former executive director of the Apollo Alliance, who worked with Ringo for two years. “He’s such a good passionate spokesman. He carried a message in a way that people could hear it. He added a new voice to the environmental community, and the green jobs and clean energy community.”

“Jerome is breaking barriers, no question,” added Dorceta E. Taylor, the program director of the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative at the University of Michigan. “He’s gotten to the top leadership of major conservation organizations. We’re seeing more African American leadership in a movement that is really diversifying now. To put Jerome’s work in context. He came up a different way. He didn’t come out of academia or government. He came out of industry. That is one of the things that makes him unique.”

He also came out of the Deep South, one of the few national conservation leaders to do so. As Ringo explained, “I was born in Louisiana where oil and gas is king. My hometown of Lake Charles has about 30 industrial sites that include refineries, petrochemical plants, what have you. I grew up in the shadows of the petrochemical industry.”

Ringo’s father Earl, a postal worker and local civil rights leader, and his mother Nellie, a nurse, raised six boys in a modest house in an African American neighborhood in Lake Charles, then a booming Gulf Coast oil and chemical production center of 65,000 residents that was closer to Houston than New Orleans. Jerome, the third oldest, excelled at football – he grew to the size of a Division I lineman – and talking.

Born in the Bayou
In high school, Ringo discovered debating, winning state championships that he leveraged into scholarships to attend Lousiana Tech University and McNeese State for two years before dropping out to care for the first of his four children, and to go to work as a process operator in a Cities Service refinery and chemical plant. “At that time we were making about 18 bucks and hour,” said Ringo in an interview. “That was a lot of money. At that time I said ‘18 bucks an hour.’ I can take care of my little kid here. What the heck. Take a job. Join the union. The rest is history.”

Hardly. Ringo spent 18 years as a petrochemical process operator, oil platform roustabout, and chemical plant training specialist, 12 of them as a member of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union.  He worked in an industry so dangerous that he can count 11 friends and colleagues killed by explosions, fires, and accidental chemical releases.

Ringo, though, had the heart, instinct, and courage of an activist. He not only distinguished himself as a strong organizational leader, but also as a visible and outspoken advocate for worker and environmental safety. In the late 1980s, while employed by Westlake Chemical, Ringo began working with residents of Mossville, an African American community west of Lake Charles. Before Hurricane Rita hit Mossville with a 20-foot storm surge, the little community was surrounded by 17 chemical plants and refineries so close that the unmistakable odor of heated chlorides and cracking petroleum was ever present. The term “environmental justice” wasn’t yet coined, but Ringo’s work to organize the Mossville Environmental Action Network and call for strict limits on chemical emissions and public exposure put him at the front of Louisiana’s growing movement to rein in the chemical industry.

Louisiana Activist for Justice
Mossville’s struggle eventually became the subject of a movie, “Blue Vinyl” and the focus of a federal study that confirmed residents had elevated levels of chlorinated compounds in their blood and tissues. It also led Ringo’s employer in 1989 to intervene, offering him a five-year assignment, which he accepted, to train workers at another plant in……Malaysia.

“I knew and the people close to me knew why they sent me to Malaysia,” said Ringo. “They needed me out of their hair. They would never publicly admit it. I never made an issue of it in public. But that’s why they sent me. They sent me to get me out of their hair. And for a period they did.”

When he returned to Lake Charles in 1994, Ringo went right back to organizing to improve the safety of communities outside the chemical plant fence lines. One of his most important strategic moves was joining the 20,000-member Louisiana Wildlife Federation, becoming an active member and the only African American in the largest conservation group in the state.

The move put Ringo in contact with health specialists and national green leaders interested in the consequences of chemical pollution in Louisiana’s “cancer alley.” Ringo’s company, recognizing that they employed one of their chief adversaries, encouraged him to retire from the industry.

Ringo soon became a well-known force in the conservation and environmental justice communities. In 1995 he was elected to the board of the National Wildlife Federation and 10 years later became its chairman, the first African American to lead a national conservation organization.

Joining Clinton, Kerry, Kennedy on Capitol Steps
In September 2005, in his capacity as the chairman of the NWF, Ringo joined Bobby Kennedy Jr., and Senators Hillary Clinton and John Kerry on the steps of the U.S. Capitol to address a crowd of 5,000 people who opposed opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife to oil and gas drilling.

Among those listening on C-Span was Dan Carol, a co-founder of the Apollo Alliance. Carol, a cause marketing consultant specializing in environmental and energy issues, called Ringo to talk about the two-year-old organization and its work to tie together environmental, labor, social justice, and business organizations to pursue jobs and economic development that were good for the environment. What Carol wanted to know was whether Ringo was interested in joining Apollo? The two talked on the same day that Ringo was heading back to Louisiana to evacuate his family during Hurricane Rita.

Apollo’s two other co-founders, Bob Borosage and Joel Rogers, agreed that Ringo’s background would be a perfect fit to take Apollo to the next stage, and joined the negotiations.

“Jerome is the embodiment of the Apollo vision,” said Carol. “Look at his background. Worked in industry. Union member. African American. Environmental justice. Avowed environmentalist. Understands the need for green jobs and how they transform lives and deal with climate change. His story just fit with what Apollo was trying to do.”

Ringo listened and soon after accepted their invitation. “They were looking for someone to be the pied piper, to build the coalition around green jobs,” he said.

“I saw Apollo as being the ultimate blessing,” Ringo said. “In my years in the conservation movement I saw the need for diversity. I wanted to see the movement look like America but I did not feel like I had the mechanism for engagement to bring everybody to the table. Apollo embraced an idea that had the potential of bringing America together in a fashion that had not been done since Dr. Martin Luther King brought America together during the civil rights movement.”

“Bob Borosage and Dan Carol formed Apollo as a program that would last about 10 years, an organization that framed the message and would go off into the sunset,” Ringo added. “Apollo has been more successful than they ever imagined.”

— Keith Schneider

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