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PRC Oral Storytelling Project: Power52 Foundation


In this episode, listeners will hear from Power52 Foundation‘s president and CEO, Cherie Brooks, and director of workforce development, DeAndre Wiggins. 

Power52 Foundation (Power52) is an organization in Maryland that provides workforce development training and skills to historically disinvested communities for careers in Maryland’s clean energy sector. There are over 5,000 people employed in Maryland’s solar energy industry – more than their well-known crabbing industry. Recently, Maryland passed the Clean Energy Job’s Act to become 50% clean energy reliant by 2030 and forecasts 20,000 new jobs for residents. Power52 has ramped up its workforce development efforts so that residents in historically under-resourced communities are eligible for careers in the clean energy sector. Power52 launched Power52 Energy Institute Baltimore City (PEIBC), the first clean energy private career school in Maryland approved by the Maryland Higher Education Commission (MHEC). PEIBC delivers the Energy Professional Training Program to residents of historically disinvested communities.

Power52 has also opened a Power52 Energy Institute in Howard County to expand its service footprint. Since its founding, the Power52 Energy Institute has graduated 122 people with an 83% employment rate in Maryland’s clean energy industry. Many graduates are also ambassadors of equitable employment opportunities in the clean energy sector and role models in their communities. Power52 also works with communities to build out resilience hubs – community centers that residents can use during climate emergencies – in the communities they serve in partnership with Living Classrooms. The resilience hubs will offer disaster relief support to their communities. Power52 joined the Howard County Chamber of Commerce and the Long Reach Community Association to broaden its impact in Maryland.

Full Transcript


Cherie Brooks Wallace [00:00:00] My name is Cherie Brooks Wallace. I grew up in West Baltimore City, the 21215 zip code and currently I reside and Ellicot City, Maryland. Well, I would like to think that I got involved with this kind of work because helping others is who I am. I call myself a GPK. What that means is a grand preacher’s kid. So usually people refer to preachers’ kids as PK, but I’m a GPK. I lived with my grandparents up until I was about in the second or third grade. My grandfather was a bishop in the United Holiness Church, and he built his own church. Eighty-seven years ago, and it still stands to this day. I remember being a little girl out reaching to the community with my family. I always knew I would be serving the community in some capacity when I became an adult. At that time, my family had a solar development company and I knew that the renewable energy sector was in need of skilled workers. And then I see a city who, you know, the individuals living here are in need of employment that pays a livable wage. So I figured, “Hey, let’s marry the two”. Needless to say that Monday I started planning out First Solar Summit, and that’s where my story began. With all of this work is kind of like flying the plane, building the plane while flying it. So I just said, I need to, you know, do something to get people together to talk about the renewable energy sector. It’s early on. My family is one of the only African-Americans that they’re seeing when they’re at the big conventions and things like that. So I knew that our community had no clue about the renewable energy sector. And the point was to bring everyone together. I started inviting other nonprofits, people who were already tapped into the community, like hospitals and churches and organizations as such, you know, thinking they’re already touching the community, so it’s less work. OK, so we can educate them and then they’ll kind of bring the community members that they’re touching into you know what we were trying to do at the time, but it wasn’t happening. So we would, you know, get the hospitals and churches and all these individuals together and discuss solar. But what we’re finding, a lot of them didn’t know. And so although you know, the solar summit was where everything started or where the seeds were planted, this story goes a different, a different route. Ironically, you know, I had done work early on, communications major in radio and TV and things like that. So I knew some “it” people, okay. And so I knew what I wanted to do again to have immediate impact, it needed to go quick. So there were, you know, a few notable people in Baltimore who I thought of that I said, let me lightly, you know, run my ideas by them to see if they would, you know, pick it up. So my business partner is Ray Lewis. He is a Hall of Famer and played football on the Ravens. So he is very passionate about Baltimore, Baltimore City. And him growing up and having his struggles. He’s always finding ways to remove barriers and give back. And so I kind of felt like, you know, he would be the person to help remove the barriers that were in front of me. And you know what we were trying to do, and it would just be a great partnership. And so, you know, I took my idea to Ray, and me,  Ray and my husband, we sat around the table and, you know, convene for, oh, probably four, six, six plus months or whatever. And so hence Power 52 foundation was formed. So Power 52 to Foundation’s mission is to break the cycle of poverty, unemployment, underemployment in urban communities across the nation through economic empowerment and clean energy access. 

DeAndre Wiggins [00:04:33] Hi, my name is DeAndre Wiggins, I am from Sandtown in West Baltimore, Maryland, and I currently live in Southwest Baltimore County, which is in Maryland as well. So I am Cheri’s director of workforce development. I’ve been with Power 52 Foundation for just over four years now. You know, absolutely loving the work. Although the work is challenging. It has to be. It has to be because there are just so many very deeply entrenched issues that we try to address. Excuse me, I got involved in this work, if you will, I guess at birth, it seems like I’ve been doing it as a professional for over two decades. As I stated before, I’m from West Baltimore. Sandtown, more specifically a housing project known as Gilmore Homes.  And Gilmore Homes, was not known to turn out anything “good” at the time. Like I said, I came of age in the 80s, crack cocaine came into my neighborhood alongside heroin and all the other things that you didn’t want to, you know, get into. And it really devastated families and communities that had lived in that housing project for decades at that time. And because I was in such close proximity to…to all of that, something seemed to happen in me that made me want to, I guess, help people. I’ve realized that very, very young age, very early age, probably even pre-teen, that I had a way of connecting with and communicating to people other ideas, ways of, you know, just thinking about life differently. Escaping from the sadness of poverty and unemployment and drug abuse and alcoholism. And all of those, all of those social ills that we had, you know, growing up that we had around us growing up in that in that community. So music has always been a huge part of my life, but I can’t say that music saved me because, you know, I definitely got my hands dirty, if you will, with some of the activities that were going on in the neighborhood, right? It’s just what you did for one reason or another, I didn’t allow myself to get too deeply entrenched. And what else was going on? I listened to the older people who already were already strung out on drugs. I still had some inkling that they needed to impart to these children who were watching them that this is not the life that you want to live. This is not something that you want to do with your life and they would they would literally threaten me if I came out on the corner standing too close to them. They would say, Andre, everybody calls me Andre, Andre, get out of here, right? This is not for you. You don’t want this life. They wanted to see someone from the community, someone from the neighborhood who…who had the opportunity, possibly right to…to…to…to go forth with that, you know, more…more closely, I guess, to…to me, was my father, the case of my father. And I was in, I was in college. I was in undergraduate school on an academic scholarship. I’m studying biology, right? My original goal was to follow in Ben Carson’s footsteps where I wanted to be a neurosurgeon. I know he was from the rough streets of Detroit. He’s a smart kid. He made it out. And he did pretty well, you know, in science and medicine. And so for me, I thought that that would be the way as well. And my father is…is really ill. My father takes skill. I didn’t have a very good relationship with him all my life. Only then do I, am I made aware by my grandmother, his…his mother, that he has HIV Aids, right? He had been an I.V. drug user for a very, very long time. A brilliant man. Anything in the way of electricity. You know he could, he could teach the class. I mean, you know, to anybody, right? Just an absolutely brilliant man. But he too grew up, you know, in a very, very impoverished area in Baltimore and although he was accomplished in some ways, that thing, you know, he couldn’t he couldn’t lick that. And ultimately, he ended up contracting HIV Aids as a result of I.V. drug use, and it ended his life in 1994. So I’m going to him, he’s in the hospital. I’m going to him all the time, going to see him. Finally, we’re having conversations, although he was extremely weak and couldn’t talk most of the time, those conversations with him really solidified this…this, I guess, this click or this change in my mind to go more full steam ahead and the helping services. I started thinking after he passed, I started thinking about it much more heavily. And I said to myself that perhaps if my father had someone in his life like me who would provide supports and opportunities and information for other outlets. Right? Other…other ways of coping, of dealing with the depression of poverty, drug use and so forth, perhaps, you know, he would have turned the corner and he would still be…be with us today. It quickly went from just that motivation to kind of a discipline, right? Like, I believe that this is what I am supposed to be doing in the nonprofit space. We always talk about helping those who need it most. Well, those people, regardless of race or…or culture nationality, those are the people who will need it most because when they suffer or go through other…other catastrophes or catastrophic events that…that the more affluent in society do, it hits them harder, right? They have a much, much more difficult time of getting through. And I guess showing that resiliency and that buoyancy right, that we see and folks from other communities, when you grow up within poverty, it’s not. It not only affects you physically, obviously it affects you mentally as well. And so for many folks, they simply don’t believe that they can do something that is so impactful. That is so I guess, very different for them, but that it’s so impactful that it has…it has the ability to really change the world. I remember when I first first met Cherie when she was hiring me, and I remember even then telling her because I had so many years in workforce development. This model really has the ability to place success at the feet of the actual trainee by challenging those trainees, by leading them and guiding them along the way, not only while they’re within the within the training course, but at least for one year post-graduation, right, continuing to provide those supports. Which is of paramount importance for anybody to be successful, especially those who grew up in poverty, who are returning citizens, who didn’t do so well in high school and absolutely want nothing to do with higher education at this point. 

Cherie Brooks Wallace [00:12:50] You know what specific…specific role do I feel people of color have in addressing the climate issues? Number one, even though people of color are affected negatively at a higher rate than other races, I feel that people of color are not focused on addressing climate issues simply because so many of us have a bigger, immediate issues to address daily. So that’s number one. Also, many of our people aren’t aware of the climate change. You know, of course, they see things happening, but you’re not focused on it. So they’re not aware. And you know, they have responsibilities and roles in addressing the issues kind of go fall by the wayside because you don’t know what you don’t know. Therefore, organizations like Power 52 exists. And so we are here to provide our underserved communities with knowledge and access that will empower the people of color to do more. So if we have recognized that they don’t know what they don’t know, they don’t realize what their role and responsibility is in this as it pertains to climate change. It is our responsibility, the ones who do know to say, “Hey, let me put this in front of you”. And how do we do that? We do that by way of educating the community. So we’re out in the street pounding the pavement. We don’t just stay here in the office. We’re out there, you know, letting them know their role in the green environment and why it’s important for them to have access and not just telling them how they should have access, but bringing forth the opportunity Power 52 Energy Institute. We’re the first clean energy private career school in the state of Maryland and the first to one of two organizations two ever nonprofit organizations to ever receive approval by the Maryland Higher Education Commission. We are the first organization in the nation, we built the first resilience hub in the nation, servicing a public housing community, Perkins Homes. As we say, and we have coined here at Power 52: it’s not about the power, but empowerment. And then it’s just kind of like twofold. You know, you get to save the planet and then you get to save the planet, it’s at easy as that.  

Cherie Brooks Wallace [00:15:19] OK, if I had to give leaders of color, the younger me, I’m still young, advice just beginning their leadership journey. I wouldn’t change anything about my journey. I just, you know, had a conversation with my mother. I believe it was a few weeks ago and just sitting back reflecting on everything that we do at Power. 52. If it had not been for my journey, I wouldn’t know half the stuff. DeAndre looks and says to me so many times, “how do you know these things?” But is because I’ve taken from my journey. So if you look at your life and say, “ok, how did I get here? And what things that I take from that?”, you won’t have any regret because you were supposed to go through these ups and downs and twists and turns so that you can utilize those things to make you who you are today. The other thing I would say is don’t go at it alone.  If you want to go fast, go by yourself, if you want to go far, do it with others. Also, trust yourself to trust your team. For me, know we’re coming up on our seventh year here and this is like my baby. It did take a lot of time for me to say, “ok, run with this or run with that.” I can’t do it all. I just it would be ridiculous for me to do it all. So definitely, trust yourself to trust your team and definitely your team, my team, I feel trust me. So when I come in here with these quirky little ideas and they’re like, “ok, where are you going with this?” They’re trusting me and always stay true and honest. Be a woman of your word, a man of your word and operate in transparency, and that will get you a long way. 

DeAndre Wiggins [00:17:32] I would say that it’s really about understanding the assignment, right? A lot of us think that we do. But there’s a major piece of the assignment that I think we miss and we…we…we gloss over a lot. And that is as far as I’m concerned, as a person of color, you have a responsibility to ensure to the best of your ability that others who come from your walk of life, who come through your walk of life get the opportunities that you’ve gotten and that you’ve carved out as well. Right? Understand the assignment. Get with as many people, as many think tanks, as many activism circles and spheres of influence as you possibly can. Look for opportunities to teach while learning, right. So that means get a mentor and mentor someone else at the same time. Right. These things are of critical importance. Don’t play politics. Stick to your passions. Follow your heart, right? And push the envelope for the good of all, as opposed to the good of a few. If you follow those few things I think we will be ok.