DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized five young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants—and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week. Click here to read the other winners' stories.
Getting into the Peace Corps is no small matter. The application process is arduous, and has become more competitive. In the fall of 2008, the Peace Corps said yes to Ohio native and recent Haverford College graduate Mark Rembert. Then 23, the activist and economic-development major was looking forward to traveling to Ecuador, where he would pursue field work helping rural villages with asset-development. But news from his native Ohio sent him in a totally different direction. That November, Rembert read that DHL, the largest employer in his hometown of Wilmington, in rural Clinton County, was shutting down. An estimated 8,200 residents in Clinton County would soon lose their jobs.
Instead of flying to Ecuador, Rembert went home. "When your community has 18% unemployment, its hard to justify going to [Latin America] to help out," Rembert says. In Wilmington, he found Taylor Stuckert, another would-be Peace Corps recruit, and together, they started Energize Clinton County (ECC), a not-for-profit devoted to creating green jobs, investing in sustainable energy, and marketing local industries and businesses. His initiative earned him a $10,000 DoSomething award, money that he says will be plowed back into the community.
With ECC, Rembert and Stuckert are doing the same thing they would have in the Peace Corps: They have helped a rural community take advantage of resources it already had. Though Clinton County had been buoyed for years by the massive DHL facility, Rembert saw that his region had many other strengths it had previously ignored, including a charming downtown, an abundance of farmland, and the benefit of Ohio's tax incentives for green businesses.
Forming a group of town leaders charged with understanding the red tape for green industries, ECC designated Wilmington a Green Enterprise Zone, the first of its kind in the nation. The move—part marketing strategy and part zoning ordinance—has helped Wilmington secure Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants from the federal government's Recovery and Reinvestment Act. These in turn have served to attract private capital from solar energy companies in his small town. Part of Rembert's job is simply to understand how Wilmington's utilities work, to make the job easier for investors, he says: "We spend a lot of time working with utilities, so that when [solar] companies come to town we can tell them where to go."
Recently, ECC's efforts landed Clinton County a Purchase Power Agreement with Gaia Energy USA to install solar panels on the county jail. Gaia will provide more than $300,000 in capital investment to install 65 kilowatts of panels. Once installed, the panels could help the county save more than $25,000 a year on energy costs. Meanwhile a project is being seriously explored to make poetic use of the abandoned DHL facility by installing solar farms on its roofs, while another will use farmland in the county for utility scale solar fields. If successful, the latter would count as one of the largest solar power sources east of the Mississippi.
To spur green-job creation through construction, ECC has also focused on retrofitting buildings. The organization solicited help from a professor at nearby Dayton University to supply line-by-line energy audits on town buildings. The service is key to helping businesses and public works invest in retrofitting, which saves money and creates construction jobs. "Since you can't see energy and you can't see the money leaving your building, it's really difficult to convince people to invest [in retrofitting]," Rembert says. "When we're armed with data, it has a huge impact."
ECC has also designed an easy-to use and professional-looking online portal that promotes 170 locally owned businesses and sends out a weekly email newsletter read by 1,000 people every week. Thanks to a renewed involvement, the downtown commerce area has been completely tranformed. "When we were growing up, downtown was dead. We went to the strip, to Walmart—that's where everyone was. Now everyone wants to be downtown," says Rembert.
He senses that young American designers, economists, and urban planners have shown a renewed interest in rural areas, where projects are easier to initiate and have a much larger impact than in dense and highly regulated city centers. His own ECC is a remarkable case study of development and planning skills, which he intended for use in Third World countries, at work domestically. "We ended up realizing that a lot of the principles used in the Peace Corps—community asset based-development—were what was need in Wilmington."
His epiphany and his subsequent follow-through earned him not just the $10,000 prize but also a trophy given to him live on VH1 by none other than Megan Fox, who grew up in eastern Tennessee. "I think she's really passionate about rural America," Rembert says. Always on-message, he believes he was especially lucky to have been paired with the actress—for exposure's sake: "We have no doubt," he says, "that our video has been viewed many, many times."
[Photograph by Gabriela Herman]
More winners' stories:
Micaela Connery: Knocking Down Barriers With the Power of Performance
Jacqueline Murekatete: Genocide Survivor Embraces Her Ordeal to Educate Others
Will Perez: Med Student Pioneers "Political Medicine" in Rural Haiti