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Thrive New Orleans creates a pipeline of economic opportunity with climate resiliency training program

American Cities

Eve Abrams

Eve Abrams

This is the first entry of a two-part series, With Water, highlighting the impact and importance of American Cities Program grantee partner Thrive New Orleans.

Part 2: Living with water: Thrive New Orleans is working to make residents safer through green infrastructure

Thrive New Orleans started well over a decade ago — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The nonprofit had a different name back then: the St. Roch CDC.

“We started in the Saint Roch community,” said Thrive’s Executive Director Chuck Morse. “And we saw some success there. But we said, ‘You know what? We want the whole city to thrive.’”

But instead of thriving, Morse saw communities barely surviving. “And we know they have the capability. They don’t have the opportunity. And they’ve had some historical trauma. But they can thrive,” Morse said. “And so we said, ‘We should call ourselves Thrive New Orleans.'”

Trainees earn while they learn with Thrive Works Green paid cohort model. (Photo courtesy of Thrive New Orleans)

The rebranding also came with a new focus: preparing the city for an uncertain climate — particularly in the realm of water infrastructure — by building a trained workforce so good-paying jobs go to New Orleanians, and New Orleanians are part of the solution. In other words, Thrive creates economic opportunity via a pipeline in the climate resiliency workforce.

“Usually, in the water space and the environmental space, you don’t see many people of color,” Morse said. “We know those future jobs are there. We want to educate and make sure people of color and people in underserved communities have the acumen and skills needed for these future jobs.”

Fast forward to today, and Thrive has two academies. One is for small businesses — helping them build capacity in green infrastructure jobs. The other, the Green Workforce Academy, trains people to work in the field of green infrastructure. “It’s like a great marriage,” Morse said.

Finding a career in green infrastructure

Twenty-year-old New Orleans native Skyler Blackman is one beneficiary.

“Growing up, as a kid, I was always in front of a screen,” Blackman said, “I liked video games. I liked cameras — just doing what kids do, entertaining myself.”

Blackman also enjoyed coding and building websites. “When I was in high school, I was thinking about going the technology route, becoming a computer science major. That was what my goal was.”

But once he was in college, something changed.

“I just started wanting to be outside and just feeling the air,” said Blackman. “Being in the sun and seeing what it was like.”

Blackman said doing physical work outside gave him self-fulfillment. “Like I’m doing something with the earth and for the earth.”

He was just two when Katrina happened. “I have no recollection of it,” he said. “All I have memories of is everybody telling me how bad it was and how lucky I was to just be that young and not be able to remember it.”

Even though he doesn’t recall the devastation firsthand, it changed Blackman’s life all the same.

“Being a person of the following generation after Katrina that saw the effects and the toll that it had mentally —  like over time, I started looking more toward nature and learning about life and plants.”

After Blackman’s first semester in college, he realized coding and technology weren’t the route for him. That’s when he found Thrive and began delving into an all-new subject: stormwater retention and water management.

Blackman has now graduated from Thrive’s academy and holds many certifications, including Clean Water Certification (CWC) for constructing and maintaining green infrastructure projects; Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), enabling him to work offshore; and a license to operate heavy machinery. Since graduating from Thrive, Blackman has worked for a green infrastructure company in New Orleans, doing jobs all over the city.

The need for green infrastructure in New Orleans

Blackman recently led a tour of Thrive’s educational space in the Upper 9th Ward — the place where he got his official start in green infrastructure. His classes took place inside a community center in the Desire neighborhood, but his training occurred across the street. Blackman pointed to it. “That right there is the school they’re building,” he said.

Let's stay in touch Sign up for our newsletters SubscribeThe tour heads that way, and Blackman spots a familiar face.

“What’s up, Justin? I see y’all doing something different now.”

“Yeah, getting this driveway done,” Justin said.

“Wasn’t this supposed to be bioretention, bioswale as well?”

“This is a bioretention, bioswale,” Justin said. “It’s basically a rain garden.”

Justin Morris is 27 and a foreman at Thrive. “Basically, I line up the jobs, set up the crews, and help train everybody,” Morris said. “My whole life has been green infrastructure.”

Blackman sizes up this latest project: a patch of ground about the size of a hotel swimming pool. When it rains, one spot holds a tremendous amount of water, keeping it in the ground rather than in the streets and people’s homes.

“Do you have any idea how much water this is going to be able to hold?” Blackman said.

“Oh, man. It’s going to hold over 300,000 gallons of water, this whole property,” Morris said.


“Yeah,” Blackman said. “It holds a lot of water for sure.”

Morris explained how the bioswale works. “On that side,” he pointed, “we have a perforated pipe so the water runs from the walkway. Then it goes into the bioswale. Then it comes out, and we tap into the stormwater drainage system over there, so it holds the water and slowly releases it to help the city pumps.”

Morris and Blackman describe intricate layers of materials below the surface—first, dirt, shells, and more dirt. Then, workers fill the space with gravel and rocks of different sizes so that water can easily seep in.

“All the porous openings between the gravel and grades allow for water storage containment essentially,” Blackman said. “Whereas if it were just to be soil, it would take much longer for water to soak all the way into the ground and to absorb all of it.”

“This acts like you’re pouring it through a Britta filter into a cup,” Blackman said.

“This street used to flood a lot,” Morris said. “But now it don’t flood at all like that.”

The need for this sort of infrastructure has everything to do with New Orleans’ geography.

“Almost the whole lower half of Louisiana is below sea level,” Blackman said. “We are a city below sea level — kind of like Atlantis, but we’re still staying afloat. We’re keeping it there. And that’s what my goal with all of this is: to help keep our city looking green and keep water in the plants and not on the street.”

“We are not standing in the water right now,” Morris said. “That’s the purpose of it; we’re not swimming. We’re standing on top of it.” He looked around. “We should have had this around when Katrina was here. We wouldn’t be swimming on it. We’d be standing on it.”

“I think that’s probably the biggest reason a lot of people are doing this,” Morris said, “because of what happened after Katrina with all of the flooding. They really saw the damages that came with it — with not having this kind of preparation or understanding of the environment that they inhabit.”

Learning about water management altered how Morris and Blackman see their city. Doing this type of work — driving around and looking at people’s driveways — Morris said he often thinks, “Ummm…they should get some permeable pavers over there.”

“Yeah!” Blackman said. “When you start to change the way you look at things, things change. You just think of what could have been done better exactly.”

“Down here,” Morris said, “if everybody does this, this will help a whole lot because we are already under sea level.”

“And that’s the biggest thing,” Blackman said, “it’s to try to spread this awareness and get it installed throughout the city. Things like this would be amazingly impactful. It’d be, I’d say, almost culturally changing.”

Thrive is about community

This envisioning of a healthier city directly results from the knowledge they’ve gained and given through Thrive.

“At Thrive,” Morris said, “we actually pay you guys to come out here and learn, get skills and get certifications.”

Thrive also helps its graduates find jobs working in green infrastructure. But the support doesn’t end there. If someone needs help locating housing or paying tuition for required continuing education, Thrive does this too.

“They’ll make sure that you get to the goals that you want,” Blackman said “That you are where you want to be and that you feel that you fulfilled every step needed taken to get there.”

Thrive is about more than jobs, or even careers. It’s about community: strengthening the ties that bind people to one another and to a place.

“It’s a real community,” Morrris said. “It’s a family.”

Thrive New Orleans Executive Director Chuck Morse
Thrive New Orleans Executive Director Chuck Morse

“They ensure that you can do the greatness that you aspire to do,” Blackman said.

“We need to be good stewards of our environment, our land, our natural environment,” Morse said. “But we also know historically that we have left people behind economically, and this can help both the natural environment and ensure people are not left behind economically.”

Thrive has set a path for creating economic opportunity, racial equity and climate resiliency at the same time. Morse calls it “an on-ramp to opportunities,” and he couldn’t be more pleased with their successes thus far.

“Oh, I’m like a proud father,” he said, beaming.

Eve Abrams is a radio producer, writer, audio documentarian, and educator in New Orleans. Eve currently produces the award winning audio project Unprisoned, which tells stories at the intersection of the criminal legal system and human lives. Abrams’ 2015 documentary “Along Saint Claude” received the Edward R. Murrow award and a New Orleans Press Club Award. Her radio stories have aired on a host of national programs.