Low-income communities in North Carolina have borne the worst of our industrial society, from factory pollution to waste dumps and treatment plants, their advocates say. Now they’d like to be on the receiving end of the benefits of a dawning “green society.”

That was the idea behind “Growing a Just, Green Society,” a conference in Durham Saturday.

“The question,” said the Rev. William Barber, president of the N.C. NAACP, “is whether the new green economy will be the same unjust economy that generates wealth for the few as the old economy [did].”

Organized by the N.C. NAACP, numerous environmental groups including the N.C. Conservation Network and the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, the N.C. Association of Community Development Groups and other economic development organizations, and social justice groups such as the N.C. Council of Churches and N.C. Fair Share, the conference attracted a diverse gathering of about 250.

The organizers intend to build an alliance of environmental and community development groups to assure that, as federal and state funds are appropriated for “sustainable energy” projects, they flow to grassroots efforts that produce jobs and community empowerment.

“Build it ‘just’ from the beginning,” Barber urged, “don’t build it first and then try to make it just.”

The conference heard a model for green, grassroots empowerment from keynote speaker Majora Carter, who won a MacArthur Foundation genius award for her work creating the organization “Sustainable South Bronx” (www.ssbx.org).

Carter started the group to fight off New York City’s then-Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s plan to put yet another waste treatment plant in a South Bronx neighborhood already blighted by pollution, waste plants and dumps.

It’s gone on to reclaim a large dump site for a park that borders the Bronx River; create job training programs for youths, the chronically unemployed and ex-offenders; take on such “green” jobs as insulating old houses, installing green roofs, making and installing solar panels, and fashioning furniture out of wood waste; and landscape the neighborhood.

Citing Guiliani’s theory that broken windows must be policed as a harbinger of serious crimes to come, Carter offered her own “broken branches” theorythat in neighborhoods with healthy trees, “self-esteem goes up and stress goes down.”

Thus, she added, she’s a big proponent of the “crime prevention through environmental design” movement.

Using green jobs to build community strength “is a life-changing thing,” Carter said. “Environmental justice is the civil rights of the 21st century.”

A number of organizers representing start-up groups in Asheville, Charlotte, Tyrell County and Durham (www.cleanenergydurham.org) said they’re trying to emulate Carter’s model. “The core of our work is retrofitting houses and at the same time educating communities” about energy conservation,” said Greg Cole, the Charlotte organizer. “We’re targeting low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and training at-risk youth to do the work.”

Such groups are eyeing federal funds that may flow from a new Obama or McCain “energy independence” initiative, as well as money allocated to energy-efficiency programs in North Carolina from Senate Bill 3, the law that requires public utilities to support alternative energy sources such as solar, wind and conservation.

Said Henry McKoy, a Durham venture capitalist who created Fourth Sector Bancorp to raise funds for sustainable-energy enterprises: “This sustainability sector is still like the wild, wild west; but the opportunity is huge, and North Carolina has the opportunity to be number one in linking the sustainability movement to LMI [low- and moderate-income] communities.”

The alliance “is a movement, not a moment,” says Lynice Williams, executive director of N.C. Fair Share. An organizing meeting is slated for Oct.16 at 6:30 p.m. at N.C. Central University. For information, call: 786-7474 or 857-4699 (Veronica Butcher, N.C. Conservation Network).