Black Green History: Growing Opportunities from Within

During Black "Green" History month, it's important to highlight and recognize individuals in the community who are actively making progress toward change within sustainability and environmentalism. This year, our theme focused on those "making" history, and changing the way we do things within the green community to improve efforts for the future. In an interview with Suncatch owner, Brad Boston, we asked about his unique experience and history working in electric and solar construction. With SunCatch, Brad advocates and facilitates opportunities for workforce development and education, bringing awareness and jobs to the clean energy field. 


When did you get your start in electrical and solar construction?

I come from a family of electrical contractors, James Frank McKay being the first licensed African-American electrical contractor in New Orleans. I am a 4th generation electrical contractor, so it was a natural progression since my family has been working in the field since 1914. I’ve been on job sites since I was 5 years old. Out with my grandfather and uncles and great uncles doing electrical work; except I never thought of it as work—it was natural. In middle school, I already had customers. People who would look me up to do work for them like hanging lights, installing new outlets-you name it.  I got my first license in electrical construction in the state of California in 1988. In 2010, I made the transition from regular electric construction to solar construction. It seemed like the best progression considering where the market was going, and in this field it’s good to get in before you get left behind. I started Suncatch in 2016.


Were you always interested in solar?

I’ve always been a sustainability-minded person, so solar was a natural transition. I grew up in California and was a vegetarian before being a vegetarian was cool. Going solar not only aligned with my personal values, but the values that are necessary to save our planet. There is only so much air and water to go around, but the sun provides more energy than we’ll ever need. So by harnessing solar power we have a resource that doesn’t cause pollution, instead we create an alternative energy source that can help to reduce it. We have to make the most of that. One day I’ll have grandkids, and I want to leave this world better than the way I found it for them. And part of that depends on what we do now.


What was the motivation to launch your own solar business in 2016?

I’ve always been independent, and starting my own company was part of getting back to my roots. I worked in our family business for years and I wanted to get back to enjoying the independence and creativity of owning my own business. The exponential growth that was taking place in solar created an emerging market in the electrical field that I knew would offer a lot of great opportunities, not only for the environment, but for my professional development as well.


Suncatch prioritizes workforce development of its employees. Has that always been an important aspect of your business?

In the early days it wasn’t called workforce development. My grandfather was always a second chance kind of guy. He fostered returning citizens to help them out and give them opportunities to get back on their feet. People who were in halfway houses, had psychological problems, or needed assistance in other ways-- he would bring them on. My grandfather simply felt it was the right thing to do for the people who needed it the most; a hand up, not a hand out. That spirit became ingrained in me; I witnessed first hand the positive ripple effect that came with giving people a second chance and helping them to help themselves. Back in 1914, my great grandfather and uncles weren’t thinking about what I would be doing in 2019, but they taught me how I can help and touch others lives in the way that I was touched, it just makes things better for everyone and the environment at the same time.


For those who benefit from the workforce development program you offer, are there any perquisites or required experience?

Typically, the individuals who take part in the program have no experience, or almost no experience with work. It’s a matter of bringing them in and putting them next to someone who knows what’s going on and having them model how to do it correctly. It’s an on-the-job learning situation. For those that are interested, we help them find avenues towards additional education and certifications. Learning through doing can be better for some people who are new to the workforce; multiple opportunities for building self-confidence is critical. I believe that starting in the classroom may cause us to lose those who are weak in one learning modality.


How many people have benefited from workforce development through Suncatch?

In the District, I’d say about we’ve helped 12 individuals or returning citizens. In California, we worked with about 20 or 30. It’s all about bringing forward opportunities, regardless of whether they choose to make it a permanent career.   Maybe 10% stick with it, but if all you get is one person who makes that change then it’s worth it. With that one person, think how many lives can be changed. It’s that ripple of positive change I talked about earlier. Their improved life will hopefully help to improve the lives of those around them and so on and so forth.

If you look at the black community, traditionally you will see that trades are what held everything our community together. Masons, roofers, carpenters, etc. When there wasn’t money in the South, we went to where there was work—North or West to California, Chicago, Philadelphia, etc. Times have changed, and now we’ve gotten to the point where some parents may not want their kids to work as hard as they did. College isn’t for everyone though, nor does it have to be. If you are willing to learn, work hard and have a good worth ethic, you can learn this trade and be successful. You have to get out where the money is, and solar has that opportunity. There is a shortage of trades people nationwide, and people don’t care who you are if you can do the work. That has been my experience, and the experiences of people of color that I know that work in the trade. Starting anything new can be intimidating and uncomfortable, but we have to deal with a little discomfort to move ahead and succeed.  


How do we showcase the career opportunities that are available to younger generations in our community and get them engaged?

I think it would be helpful to have a trade program in a high school that introduced students to the various aspects of solar and the technical skills involved. Direct exposure is the best way to advocate for opportunities and positions. Even if they don’t pursue it, they are exposed to what’s out there in the industry. You have to see what possibilities are in order to imagine yourself taking advantage of it. Maybe you start at $15 an hour, but four years later you could be making $35-$40 an hour if you take full advantage of the opportunity. You must take advantage of the opportunities before you, even if it takes time to gradually get there, time well spent. It can be hard to deal with financial and social pressures of our society, but it’s about working hard now in order to create a positive future.


Groundswell is celebrating your positive contributions to both our community and our planet as part of Black Green History month. What part of your work in giving back to the community resonates the most with you?

It would be the whole notion of reintroducing minorities or the African American community to trades. We have had great success in this arena in our recent past, and it makes me think back to my experience with my grandfather, who was from New Orleans and went to Tuskegee Institute to attend their technical training program. Booker T. Washington was the first president of Tuskegee Institute, which started as a technical trade school. I remember his notion was that coming out of slavery, the best thing that blacks could be given were technical trade jobs. Something the masses could do and be accepted as doing. You look at that experience, how those opportunities have grown and improved over time, and it’s still alive through me and in what I’m doing. That is a big part of why I am doing what I do and why it’s important for me to give back and keep that energy alive for future generations.