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Civilian Climate Corps: If You Build It, Will They Come?
February 4, 2021 | |

In the three weeks since his inauguration, President Biden has set in motion an almost overwhelming number of progressive transformations targeted at creating a healthier, more equitable future. There is much to celebrate, but at the top of my list is the executive order to develop a Civilian Climate Corps.

The executive order, which calls for the Secretaries of Agriculture and Interior to mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers, provides an exciting opportunity for us to rethink the historical shortcomings of traditional corps models and open the door to a new, more diverse generation of environmental leaders. Having worked to build one of the most diverse corps programs in the country, I see the enormous potential behind this effort. I also know from experience that unlocking this potential will take creativity, a willingness to think outside the box, and an investment far beyond the standard “one-and-done” Corps experience.

The good news is that there is already a wealth of knowledge from organizations, like Groundwork USA, with decades of experience engaging youth of color in environmental work. From our experience, here’s what we know the Civilian Climate Corps will need to do if those designing it genuinely wish to provide a transformative experience:

  • Meet youth where they are – both figuratively and literally. 

Research has shown that people of color have a significantly greater concern about the future of climate change and the environment. Despite this interest, people of color represent only 20% of the workforce in environmental organizations and agencies. To close this gap, we need to show youth of color a real, relevant, and accessible way to translate their passion into a career.  At Groundwork USA, we do this by meeting youth where they are – both figuratively and literally. We intentionally begin engaging youth at home in their urban communities working on projects that are timely, aligned with community priorities, and make a visible difference. Once our youth have gained a greater appreciation for their ability to directly shape the natural and built environment in their community, we bring them out of their communities to complete work in national parks. Working in national parks helps contextualize their work at home within the broader conservation community and helps youth learn new ways of connecting with nature. At every stage of their journey, we surround youth with mentors from a variety of interdisciplinary fields that work collaboratively with youth as partners to complete science, engineering, and public health projects. Most importantly, we provide a wage for their work to emphasize that caring for the environment is not just a volunteer activity. These core elements are essential to our youth’s success and will be critical to the Climate Corps’ ability to meaningfully engage youth of color.

  • Think beyond parks and public lands. 

To engage diverse youth, and to achieve the initiative’s bold goals of bolstering community resilience and addressing climate change, the corps program will have to think beyond parks and public land. Climate-related extreme heat and flooding are worsening rapidly in urban neighborhoods, and there is an urgent need to directly confront climate change in these hard-hit regions. While repairing and strengthening our infrastructure on public lands addresses long-term resilience challenges, it needs to be coupled with place-based, equity-driven approaches to climate resiliency. This local approach has multiple benefits:  investing where climate infrastructure has the most significant impact, engaging with new audiences, and strengthening the leadership within these communities to support long-term sustainability.

  •  Invest fully in the next generation. 

For corps programs to live up to their promise as a pathway out of poverty, we need to ensure that corps members are prepared for high-paying jobs after their service. Many of the traditional skills youth learn from these programs – gardening, landscaping, construction, trail building – are miss-aligned with the skills needed to fully participate in the emerging greening economy. The Civilian Climate Corps will need to include STEM training and that training needs to start well before the corps experience and extend long after. The experience gained by corps members will need to be complemented with additional funding for early STEM education, increased partnerships with community organizations to provide hands-on environmental education, partnerships with colleges and universities to streamline enrollment in environmental programs, and direct pathways to employment in the tech sector. And, there needs to be a network of mentors – both formal and informal – that supports youth every step of the way. At Groundwork, we’ve seen the greatest success in our corps participants when they’ve been engaged for multiple years in a variety of environmental education programming. Maximizing the impact of the Civilian Climate Corps in diverse communities will likewise need to be a multi-year experience.

Quite simply, without an intentional focus on building long-term connections with young people, we risk creating yet another program that sustains inequities in access to careers in conservation and the future green economy. This moment represents a once in a lifetime chance to course-correct, and the good news is that we don’t have to build from scratch. There is a lot to learn from organizations already working to engage diverse youth in conservation efforts eager to share their expertise. By working collaboratively, we can make sure that the Civilian Climate Corps becomes a vehicle for a better future for everyone.

Interested in learning more? Check out our Guide to Engaging Diverse Communities for the Long-Term.