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Charles Callaway

Charles Calloway is the Director of Workforce Development and the head of the Green Institute at WE ACT for Environmental Justice. He focuses on recruiting and training people for jobs in the construction and solar industries, as well as being a community organizer. 

Getting Started

Charles grew up in NYC, born and raised. Although he grew up in the housing authorities, he says he was lucky to go to a prep school in New Hampshire, Proctor Academy, a special school for kids with behavioral issues and learning disabilities, given his dyslexia. After graduating from Ithaca College, Charles moved to Boston and worked at a prep school. He wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do at this point, and eventually moved back to NYC. Charles regrets being arrested after returning from Boston to NYC in his mid-30s. He had enjoyed working with the Hudson Guild organization, which focuses on youth development. After gaining a criminal record, he could no longer work there, so he began working with his church and started a basketball program that has improved the lives of more than a thousand kids since its inception. While he did that, he owned a business selling kabobs and hamburgers in Riverbank State Park, but he really wanted a regular job. 15 years ago, Charles applied to WE ACT. He knew he was good with people and was passionate about recycling and the environment, so he thought it might be a good fit. He started by organizing residents in Harlem around significant issues impacting the community and helping to educate residents. His first major project was the overhaul of the 146th street and Lexington Ave bus depot. This 7 year project (2007 – 2014) was centered around the exhaust and eyesore the bus depot created in the community. They wanted to redo the depot to ensure minimal air pollution, while also making it something that wouldn’t bring down the aesthetic of the neighborhood. They formed a taskforce of 18 people from the community to discuss the issues and make sure the final product was something the community actually wanted.

The Work

Charles has over nearly 2 decades worth of experience organizing community events and opportunities. Besides the bus depot project, he has organized Earth Day events, movie nights, community building events, galas, and outreach. Two of his recent projects are solar power focused. The projects aim to increase the amount of solar in Harlem, while decreasing the cost of energy for residents. One of the projects is called Solar Uptown Now. Initially, WE ACT had just intended to train low income residents, mostly young black men, in solar panel installation. “We trained over 2,000 people,” Charles said, “but they weren’t being hired by any of the established solar companies. So we decided to start our own.” The newly formed organization is partnering with the Housing Development Fund Corp. (HDFC) to get solar panel contracts for low and moderate income housing. They are also working towards installing more solar in uptown Manhattan on HDFCs and other forms of low income housing.

"We need to continue to fight and make sure that minority owned companies get some of the [solar panel] business."

Environmental Justice

Charles believes that communities do have power and can impact how their neighborhoods are run. He said that the most important and interesting aspect of his work is “to empower people in our community, understanding that they have a voice and they can make a change in how their community is operated and how policies are designed in their particular community.” Charles acknowledges that there are always challenges, but that doesn’t mean something is impossible. When they started to train low income, black men to install solar panels, they didn’t anticipate the prejudice these men would face in hiring, despite their certification. Instead of giving up, Charles and the team at WE ACT decided to make their own solar company to hire the trainees. Now, the solar company is facing its own struggles as it competes with the major, established solar companies. “We need to continue to fight and make sure that minority owned companies get some of the business.” That is one of the reasons the company has focused on co-ops and multi-family housing units, since these communities have not been prioritized by traditional solar power companies. Charles and the solar workers cooperative aim to make energy both greener and cheaper for these families, who can spend up to 13% of their income on fossil fuel generated energy.


Communities are capable of advocating for their needs, but being a part of an established organization helped him learn how to organize people into getting the results they want. “WE ACT gave me the chance to grow into the person I am today,” Charles said. “A lot of groundwork needed to be written when I first started, but I learned.” Being a community organizer means growing as a person as well, constantly learning how to do things better. Sometimes being a part of a larger group, working towards the same goals, can help you more than trying to do things on your own.

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