Affordable solar power is coming to low-income minority neighborhoods Lower electric bills are the big attraction for financially stressed families

In the predominantly African-American neighborhood of Broadway Heights in San Diego, nearly half of the 192 homes have rooftop solar panels. Neighbor after neighbor talks about what they could now afford. They were paying $200 and $300 a month in electric bills. Now they’re paying zero to $50.

“Now I can get my air conditioner!” said Thresia Route, 62, an information technology administrator.

In Southern Homes and Gardens, an affordable townhouse cooperative in predominantly African-American Southeast Washington, 55 of 90 residences have rooftop solar panels. On-site manager Telana Felder calls solar “my best friend” to escape her former monthly bills of $150 to $200.

“Last month the bill was $4, then this month it was $14,” Felder said. “It was so low I said something was wrong, so I called. They said it was because I had credits from the solar.”

These are among the thousands of moderate- to low-income families and fixed-income retired seniors who are the vanguard in communities of color that are now enjoying solar power. Under a wide variety of state and federal policies and funding mechanisms, and under both nonprofit and for-profit business models, such families are changing the face of renewable energy, broadening the diversity of solar customers with respect to race and income.

For most families I interviewed on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists, the original attraction was less about getting away from fossil fuels than getting away from the high-energy bills associated with those dirty fuels. According to a 2016 report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Energy Efficiency for All, households under $25,000 in median income have an “energy burden” more than triple that of households of at least $90,000 in median income. Energy burden is the percentage of income a family spends on energy.

The potential savings from solar are significant enough that improvements in quality of life are abundant and instantly come to mind in home after home, from funding college for children to creature comforts and consumer goods that wealthier families take for granted. In their own way, these residents appreciate solar with all the verve of eco-celebrities Johnny Depp, Julia Roberts and Leonardo DiCaprio.

In the affordable Latino and Hmong home-owner development of Little Long Cheng in Fresno, California, 35 of 42 homes have solar. Construction truck driver Jose Rodriguez, 52, and homemaker wife Arcelei, 50, said their $1,000 a year in savings from their 2009 rooftop system helped pay for a son’s education at Fresno State.

“I got my solar at a perfect time,” Jose Rodriguez said. “With the recession, my boss told me I could only work part time. I could keep putting my money toward education instead of the bills.”

In the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, Eric Pritchard, 64, said he was in his third month of solar power atop his home in the historic Nehemiah Houses. About 155 homes have contracted for solar in the affordable development, which was built in the 1980s. A collaboration of churches, community groups and the city worked out an unprecedented plan to sell homes for $43,000 with donated city land, tax abatements and below-market-rate mortgages.

Homes in the Latino and Hmong home-owner development of Little Long Cheng in Fresno, California

A former Wall Street back-office official who physically received and delivered millions of dollars of bonds to clients, Pritchard said, “I wanted to [go solar] 20, 30 years ago. I remember seeing the small panels on U.S. bases. I have a friend who is an engineer, and we’d talk about wind turbines out in the country. Solar you can have in your own backyard. It’s special that it’s in these homes. We’re actually pioneers for the second time in the same place.”

The likely current per capita champion of affordable solar is the New Orleans area, where post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction has it atop an estimated 7,500 to 8,000 homes. In St. Bernard Parish, auto mechanic Vien Tran, 35, and wife Quynh Le, 29, a server at the famous Café DuMonde beignet coffee shop, said solar power and weatherizing of his home have sliced old bills of up to $300 a month down to about $200. The $100 a month in savings is big money in a household with an annual dual income of about $30,000.

“It goes to toys for the kids,” Tran said, holding one of his small boys. “Each one has their own iPad. I’m pretty sure he can use an iPad better than you.”

In Jefferson Parish, Diane LePree-Williams, a 66-year-old retired passport agency manager, said last December, “I love my little power plant. It’s the first Christmas in a long time where I actually spend on gifts for relatives.”

She rattled off things such as a Crock-Pot, a bubble-bath beauty set and a virtual reality game. “I couldn’t afford any of these things before.”

There are yet no national figures for the number of solar homes owned by working-class and other moderate white-collar and low-income residents. But there is growing evidence of a major class shift in states that now target renewable energy policies toward less affluent families. In Fresno, in the premier solar state of California, 70 percent of installations were in ZIP codes where the average household income is below $55,000, according to a study by Kevala Analytics.

Kevala said the trends indicate that “the market for solar is strongest among people where a 10 to 20 percent savings in their electricity costs is meaningful enough to drive investment in alternative electricity supplies.”

The potential of serving this market is immense. According to a 2015 report by George Washington University’s Solar Institute, rooftop solar on all low-income households could save those families up to a collective $23 billion a year, and its installation could spark nearly $19 billion in local economic activity. The institute said such activity could create 138,000 jobs, most of which could easily employ residents. The solar industry hit a new record of 260,000 jobs last year, according to the Solar Foundation, surpassing the 187,000 jobs that the Department of Energy says are in the oil and gas industry.

Various models have emerged to get solar panels atop homes where owners can’t shell out $10,000 or more for a typical home solar array. In Broadway Heights, Fresno and many other neighborhoods in California, the nonprofit GRID Alternatives is the program manager for the state’s Single-family Affordable Solar Homes program (SASH). Beginning in 2009, with a commitment of $108 million set aside from utility ratepayer funds, philanthropic gifts and in-kind donations from the solar industry, GRID has been identifying homes in communities largely under 80 percent of area median income to install rooftop solar at little or no cost.

A major component of GRID’s program is job training and community volunteering. At one installation site in San Diego, five Latino high school students carried panels across a backyard to hoist up to the technicians. Student Jason Olvera said, “My first choice is to join the military, but I may do this. It’s fun, and you get to help people out.”

In New Orleans and Brownsville, for-profit models are generating power and satisfaction. Both PosiGen in New Orleans and Level Solar in Brownsville bank on private investment, bolstered by either favorable state incentives or state green banks funded by utility bill fees. That allows for mass-purchased solar equipment to be installed on homes regardless of income and without credit checks. The homeowner pays back the cost of the installation through monthly lease payments, with money from savings on the utility bill.

The Southern Homes and Gardens townhouse community benefits from city-driven policies and programs. Washington, D.C., has some of the most aggressive renewable electricity goals in the country and a sustainable energy department funded by a surcharge on energy bills. Some of that money has been used to contract for more than 500 no-cost solar installations in the city’s poorest wards over the past four years.

In the process, solar is changing lives well beyond the pocketbook. In D.C., 21-year-old solar technician Ramo Herbert never considered college because of its cost. He went to a city office looking for a summer job two years ago, and the two choices were a sandwich shop or WDC Solar, an installation firm owned by former professional basketball player Mark Davis.

WDC Solar’s office was just four blocks from Herbert’s house. It opened a world to him that he has come to love — despite summer days of standing on black rooftops in the humid Washington summers.

“As a kid, I didn’t get on too many roller coasters or look over bridges,” Herbert said. “But on the roof, I felt like I was on top of the world. When I tell people what I do, they say, ‘For real? You really do that, lifting all those panels?’

“I remember one day in training, Mr. Davis said, ‘For anyone who is serious, I have a job for you.’ Then one day he told me, ‘You toughed it out. I have a job for you.’ I feel proud of what I’ve done.”

And residents are proud of what they have, with the help of organizations and companies like GRID Alternatives, PosiGen, Level Solar and WDC Solar, as well as the widening array of city and state policies along with federal tax credits that Congress, in a rare bipartisan move, extended through 2022.

In San Diego’s Broadway Heights, Robert Robinson, 68, the community council president and longtime city activist who helped prisoners readjust to society and organized gun buy-backs, led the effort to urge neighbors to take advantage of GRID Alternatives’ program. With 26 panels atop his ranch-style house and many other homes visibly adorned, Robinson said he wants Broadway Heights to be a public face of the solar revolution.

San Diego is the largest city in the United States that has committed to all renewable energy by 2035, and it has begun to designate some neighborhoods as “eco-districts” for their sustainability efforts. Robinson said he wants Broadway Heights to earn such a designation.

But in neighborhoods like his, the real attraction of solar is the lowering of the energy burden. Asked the most important thing that solar has done for him, he exclaimed, “I feel like I gave myself a raise!”

LeBron James Family Foundation and Akron Public Schools establish the I PROMISE School Innovative and family-centered education proposed for some of Akron’s lowest-performing students

The LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF) will partner with Akron Public Schools (APS) and a committee of local leaders, educators, parents and experts to design an I PROMISE School (IPS), a new Akron public school.

“This school is so important to me because our vision is to create a place for the kids in Akron who need it most — those that could fall through the cracks if we don’t do something,” said James. “We’ve learned over the years what works and what motivates them, and now we can bring all of that together in one place, along with the right resources and experts. If we get to them early enough, we can hopefully keep them on the right track to a bigger and brighter future for themselves and their families.”

The LJFF is consistently working to find on-the-ground work and research-based interventions to help keep students in school and on track in their educations. The proposed vision for the I PROMISE School is an expansion of curriculum with a STEM, hands-on, problem-solving learning focus infused with LJFF’s “We Are Family” philosophy to create an innovative and supportive learning environment.

A committee will work over the next six months to determine how students will be selected for the school using multiple criteria. The targeted eligible population will be similar to LJFF’s current students: students who are at risk in reading and who are in need of additional academic intervention before falling further behind their peers.

There will also be an intentional effort to engage the entire family to create a supportive environment both in the classroom and at home. In addition, the University of Akron’s LeBron James Family Foundation College of Education is aligned to provide integrated curricular support, research and continuous assessment.

“We are excited about the potential of the I PROMISE School to provide specialized programming and invaluable resources for our students,” said David James, superintendent of Akron Public Schools. “We’ve seen the positive influence of the LeBron James Family Foundation on our students, and we look forward to continuing to do everything we can to put our students in a position to be successful.”

Once the planning committees complete their work, they will submit a master plan to the APS Board of Education for approval in October. If approved, the I PROMISE School would open its doors in the fall of 2018 with newly identified third- and fourth-grade classes while adding first and second grades the following year. By 2022, the school will be complete with first through eighth grades. Eligible students will be selected for IPS by a random lottery system.

Founded in 2004, the LeBron James Family Foundation’s mission is to positively affect the lives of children and young adults through education and co-curricular educational initiatives. Recognizing the life-changing importance of education, the foundation invests its time, resources and attention in the kids of James’ hometown in Akron, Ohio. Through its Wheels for Education and Akron I PROMISE Network programs, the foundation serves more than 1,100 Akron-area students by providing them with the programs, support and mentors they need for success in school and beyond.

In 2015, James partnered with the University of Akron to guarantee four-year college scholarships to all eligible students who graduate from high school and complete the criteria in the classroom and in the community.

Peter Buffett reveals $90 million plan to help young women and girls of color in the U.S. The grant-making strategy will focus on highlighting everyday issues girls of color face

Peter Buffett, son of billionaire Warren Buffett, is taking a page from his father’s philanthropic playbook and using it to focus on girls and young women of color in the United States.

On April 13, Buffett and his wife, Jennifer, unveiled a seven-year, $90 million strategy through the couple’s NoVo Foundation, a philanthropy-based organization created in 2006 to catalyze a transformation in global society, that will “support efforts defined and driven by girls and women of color to address the deep systemic, societal, and institutional challenges girls face.” This strategy is the largest commitment ever made by a private foundation to address issues facing girls and young women of color, according to the press release.

“We believe that girls of color are experts in their own lives and wield immense power to transform their communities and the country,” Jennifer and Peter Buffett said in a statement.

“We are excited to partner directly with girls of color and their advocates so that they can live in safety and peace, dream and imagine all the possibilities of their futures, access all that’s necessary to live in dignity and fulfill their dreams, and feel celebrated and seen through love and connection.”

The idea to focus on girls of color originally rolled out last March. The Buffetts, along with NoVo Foundation representatives, spent the year talking to advocates, movement leaders and community organizers, and listening to the thoughts and concerns of girls of color across the country to get a better understanding of their needs. These conversations led to the grant-making strategy that primarily concentrates on building partnerships with existing groups for young women and girls of color. The strategy is set to provide flexible funding to community-based organizations; partner with regional grant-making, movement-building infrastructures; and invest in select national efforts dedicated to changing harmful narratives and shifting negative systems surrounding girls of color.

In November 2015, the White House Council on Women and Girls released a report, Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color, that took an in-depth look into the challenges women of color face in areas including education, work and family life. According to the statistics, black girls are suspended at higher rates in school (12 percent), and African-American girls are detained and committed at higher rates (32 percent) while representing only 14 percent of the U.S. population. Of the 73 million women in the U.S. labor force, 24.8 million are women of color. Black women face the highest rate of unemployment in longer periods compared with Latina, Asian and White women. Taking a look into the home lives of girls of color revealed that black and Latina girls are still more than twice as likely as white girls to become pregnant during adolescence, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Through research and conversations with young women and girls of color, representatives also learned that issues such as sexual violence, anti-black racism and solidarity building are often overlooked or receive little to no investment from philanthropic organizations. The NoVo Foundation is aiming to curb this trend.

Adidas, Shinola honor Jackie Robinson with style Items commemorate the 70th anniversary of No. 42 breaking the color barrier

April 15 marks the 70th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball, and two apparel lines have released commemorative items to celebrate.

Adidas created a series of special-edition baseball cleats and turf trainers that feature Robinson’s signature. The cleats and trainers sell for $120 and $100, respectively, and are available at, and

The company also built a new baseball and softball field at Robinson’s alma mater, John Muir High School in Pasadena, California. The school’s athletic facilities are also used by the community’s Little League teams.

Detroit-based watch company Shinola has released a limited-edition Jackie Robinson timepiece that features his famous “42” jersey number. The 42 mm stainless steel watch retails for $1,500 (available at and in Shinola stores) and is sold as part of a limited-edition gift set that includes a mini-pennant, a set of three pins and a four-pack of postcards. The watch is the fifth installment in Shinola’s Great Americans Series, which honors inspirational figures such as Maya Angelou and the Wright brothers.

Robinson is, of course, one of the most important race men to have ever played professional sports. Before Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jim Brown, there was Jackie Robinson. After being signed to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, Robinson shouldered the burden of being the first — and, for a time, only — African-American to play in the major leagues. Over the course of his outstanding 10-year career, he and other Negro players faced open hostility from teammates, fans and media.

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of Robinson’s signing with the Dodgers, the team is planning to unveil a statue of their most iconic star Saturday at Dodgers Stadium. Rachel Robinson, 94, and two of her children, Sharon and David, are expected to attend the ceremony along with nearly 200 friends and family members.

The fate of the ‘Furious’ director F. Gary Gray From Central L.A. to the world of superfast cars — and supersuccessful films — Gray has got a ticket to ride

The last time F. Gary Gray directed a movie, the world got an in-depth look at the area he grew up in. It was his 2015 Straight Outta Compton, the origin story of one of the best hip-hop collectives to ever step inside a recording booth. Rock & Roll Hall of Famers N.W.A. launched the careers of producer/impresario Dr. Dre and film star and mogul Ice Cube, both of whom have created multimillion-dollar empires and influenced not only hip-hop music, but Hollywood and culture as a whole.

Straight Outta Compton was a dream come true for Gray. It was one of 2015’s best reviewed films and it was the No. 1 movie in the country for three weeks in a row. This got the industry debating — again — the merits of black films, and how well they can do around the country and around the world. Gray had his pick of projects; certainly his name was tossed around as a contender to direct Marvel’s Black Panther. Then quite ceremoniously — on Twitter — Gray announced he’d be directing the next installation of the The Fast and the Furious franchise.

“The story and the challenge,” Gray said, explaining why he went with The Fate of the Furious, which opens on Friday. “Dom [Vin Diesel] going rogue is something that you’d never expect, if you follow the franchise at all. Dom goes into Darth Vader mode and does something that’s really surprising for a lot of the fans.” The story line is a major twist in the franchise, which this time is set in New York City, Cuba, and Iceland. “Then you combine all that with the biggest action heroes in the world, and sprinkle in a couple Oscar winners. I think that’s a great recipe for a fun ride.”

“Shooting in Cuba was profound for me.”

It’s also a recipe for another record-breaking box-office success story: $380 million globally is the prediction. The Fast franchise — this is the eighth film — destroys the notion that people of color can’t carry a film overseas. The films star a bevy of brown actors in various hues — Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris and Michelle Rodriguez — and does some of its best work in coveted international markets. The film’s seventh installment was its best (it also was the last for franchise star Paul Walker, who died in a 2014 car crash) and was, in terms of box office might, the fifth biggest film of all time.

Gray has done some of his best work telling diverse, well-rounded stories: 1995 cult classic Friday, 1996’s Set it Off, 2003’s The Italian Job, and 2009’s Law Abiding Citizen. “Globally, a lot of the fans can see themselves as one of the characters in these stories,” Gray said. “It feels inclusive and diverse.”

The success of the Furious film series didn’t scare Gray. It energized him. “I always want to top myself,” he said. “I always want to see what I can do that I’ve never done before.” He knows fans expect a certain spectacle from a Fast movie and believes he and his crew delivered on that. “But I wanted to push the limits of the story, the performances, the drama, and the humor. And add my twist to it. Am I nervous? Maybe a little,” he said. “But once you’ve defined what your goal is, it’s just about hitting that. How can we make this franchise, this movie, each installment, fresh — not only for the fans, but for newcomers? That was the goal.”

“Globally, a lot of the fans can see themselves as one of the characters in these stories,” Gray said. “It feels inclusive and diverse.”

Another goal? To challenge himself personally. And that mission was absolutely accomplished.

“Shooting in Cuba was profound for me. Sometimes as Westerners, you get comfortable, and when you go to a place like Cuba — you realize what things we take for granted,” he said. “Although you’re being creative and you’re shooting a movie, you walk away slightly changed, and hopefully better as a person, as a director, a storyteller.” He said he watched the Havana residents see Havana from the air for the first time as it brought tears to their eyes. “To see their beloved capital from a bird’s-eye view was profound for them, which made it profound for us.”

And if he can sharpen himself professionally, that’s the cherry on top.

“I’m walking into a franchise that has existed for 15-plus years. Actors who know their characters. And while I’ve worked with more than half of the principal cast, I had to change my approach. I had to adjust my approach to get performances,” he said. “I like to think I’m better for all of that.”

From ‘The Wire’ to ‘The Breaks,’ Wood Harris always wins Most Authentic The former college basketball standout talks about Archie Bunker, persistence and why he loves watching — and playing — basketball

If it weren’t for yet another sports-related injury, Sherwin David “Wood” Harris might be out there on a professional court with the best of them.

“I don’t really think I can play these new guys one-on-one,” he said. “I tore my Achilles last year playing basketball.”

The actor laughs a bit — he’s joking — but only slightly, as Harris actually is a basketball player. He portrayed ballplayer Motaw in 1994’s Above the Rim while also playing in real life for Northern Illinois University, where he earned a degree in theater arts from its School of Theater and Dance (he later earned a master’s degree from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts). Wood Harris — whose brother, Steve Harris, has appeared in many series, including Friday Night Lights and The Practice — portrayed drug kingpin Avon Barksdale in HBO’s seminal The Wire and acted alongside Denzel Washington as high school football player Julius Campbell in 2000’s Remember the Titans. Fresh off his role as New Edition’s beloved choreographer Brooke Payne in the BET biopic, the Chicago-born Harris currently stars alongside Mack Wilds in VH-1’s must-watch The Breaks, which airs its finale this week.

What are you looking forward to in 2017?

This year’s been pretty special already, you know? There’s a lot of great work I’ve been aligned with. I have a lot of prosperity around me. I love it, and I think I’m probably due for it. It’s not like my first go-around in show business. I’m excited to see what happens.

This has been a big year for you.

Honestly, I think it’s about timing. I did the New Edition miniseries and [got] so much attention from that. There’s talk of Emmy nominations for myself, that’s a very positive thing for me. … I’m very fortunate. I think I have a certain amount of talent which you can’t ignore. I’ve also worked with very talented people … just real high-caliber talent. Remember the Titans, that was Denzel [Washington]. Even my first [film] was with Tupac [Shakur]. Every basketball season they play [1994’s] Above the Rim because I had a relationship with Tupac. I believe in myself, and I think people see more of me because it’s that time.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Advice is energetic. If you trust somebody and they give you a direction, and it leads you somewhere that helps you to be an optimal version of yourself, I feel like I’ve gotten those things from mentors throughout the years. Talent won’t get you as far as persistence.

There’s no TV but basketball and sports. I don’t watch acting.”

What’s your favorite throwback TV show?

All in the Family. Carroll O’Connor is a big influence of mine, even for The Breaks: Archie Bunker in All in the Family. That guy’s a great actor. He’s so real, we think he really is Archie Bunker. There’s so much rhythm that he has; he’s so free as an artist. Patience and freedom at the same time is a deadly, powerful thing.

What’s the last show you binge-watched?

The wild thing about me is I don’t watch TV that much anymore!

You’re too busy making TV!

Yeah! I’m making TV! You know how you cook food and you’re not as hungry after you cook it?

Describe who you are during NBA season.

All I watch is sports. Sports and maybe documentaries. During NBA season I’m one of the ballers out there. Man, I’m out on the court! I’m on the floor. I’m a Chicago Bull. There’s no TV but basketball and sports. I don’t watch acting.

Who’s your favorite athlete?

LeBron [James]. But it’s a toss-up between LeBron and Russell Westbrook. Westbrook … he’s my size. I’m really impressed by him averaging a triple-double for the season. Westbrook is unbelievable, but LeBron is my favorite because of all the integrity he has as a person. He’s the best athlete, but I kind of just like him. He’s amazing at taking the high roads. I think people are envious of him, too, so they ridicule him for his hairline and nothing that has to do with basketball. I’m a fan of him because he is … a pro. Black people, we need a lot of that, and I love that. I really do.

And you’ll be playing a basketball player again soon?

[In] the film about the first black guy to have a contract with the NBA, Nate Clifton. We called him “Sweetwater.” I’ve been slated to do that for a while now. I’m excited to get to depict basketball players. I love the fact that basketball players have to watch me play basketball!

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.