Donnel Baird Uses Community Power to Generate Green Energy Projects

BY William Harless  February 27, 2013 at 9:00 AM EDT


The rugged setting of Donnel Baird’s youth helped shape his social entrepreneur goals later in life. Baird grew up in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn, N.Y., with his parents and sister in the 1980s.

In the winter, they’d heat their home with a cooking stove, opening the window to let gas escape. They lived among crack addicts, and violent confrontations in their neighborhood weren’t unusual.

The living situation was a shock for Baird’s parents, well-educated immigrants from Guyana who’d left their home following economic collapse.

The neighborhood violence also left an impression on Baird, 31, who runs BlocPower, a social enterprise that aims to provide job training and energy-efficient products in underserved neighborhoods.

“I remember I was six years old, I was walking down the street, and I saw one 16-year-old shoot another 17-year-old in the face and blow his head off,” Baird said. The day his mother decided she’d had enough was when walking home from work “she saw a mother and her baby being gunned down in the street, and she ran into the house and locked the door and decided that we were moving.”

Baird’s parents divorced and his mother took the children to Atlanta where Baird won a scholarship to attend a private high school in the well-heeled Buckhead neighborhood. From there, Baird gained entrance to Duke University, graduated and returned to Brooklyn as a community organizer.

“I think growing up there [in Brooklyn] I was afraid, but then at a certain point I decided that I wanted to do something about it. So that’s why I became a community organizer after college, and that’s why I worked on the Obama campaign [in 2007],” Baird said. “I grew up in a really terrible community like that but felt like I had a lot of resources and opportunities that many other kids, who were just as deserving, didn’t get. So I always wanted to give back.”

He said he hopes to give back with BlocPower, which is operating with a part-time volunteer staff and $70,000 in start-up funds through a Black Male Achievement fellowship from Echoing Green and the Open Society Institute.

BlocPower’s mission is to connect churches and organizations in a community to use their collective power to bargain for discounts on energy-efficient products, from insulation to solar panels, which are then installed for lower electricity bills. A nonprofit arm of BlocPower trains community workers to do the construction work, he said.

Baird based his model on a project he helped coordinate in Washington, D.C., in 2010 in partnership with the Washington Interfaith Network and a local builder’s union. Using about $2.5 million from the city’s federal stimulus funds, the group weatherized 400 houses, while training 20 formerly unemployed workers to do the work. He said the trainees received health benefits and were paid a wage high enough to sustain a family of four.

The job training component is critical, Baird continued. Unemployment was a major problem in Brooklyn, where he worked as a community organizer. “One in three men in that neighborhood was incarcerated, and so many of them who had served their time in jail had come back to the neighborhood and had nothing to do,” he said. “No one would hire them; they were not given a second chance. It was not clear what they were supposed to do with the rest of their lives.”

BlocPower launched in January. Prior to that, Baird was busy raising money to start projects in Harlem, Brooklyn and Washington, D.C. His goal was to raise an additional $350,000, on top of the original $70,000, to pay himself and his staff salaries for at least 18 months and to finance 60 retrofits.

His efforts to equip buildings in those neighborhoods bring him back to the days of the smoky, small apartment where he grew up — but this time he can help.

Slide show by David Pelcyger. The NewsHour’s Agents for Change series highlights individuals helping communities solve problems, build businesses and create jobs. We’ll feature 10 of these social entrepreneurs just starting to make their mark, and invite your recommendations for others — tweet us @NewsHourWorld and use hashtag #AgentsforChange. Or you can post them in the below comments section.