DETROIT—Maybe the Ozarks, or Sierra Nevadas, or the even Huron-Manistee National Forests. But Detroit?
Indeed, Detroit is home to a number of projects of the Student Conservation Association, a national conservation corps that creates opportunities for youth to cultivate stewardship and work outdoors, protecting and restoring national parks, cultural landmarks, and green spaces across the United States.
The idea is to build the next generation of conservation leaders, and the Detroit branch has been doing that for six years.
According to Amit Weitzer, Detroit program coordinator for the SCA, the typical SCA model has been for youth to tackle projects away from home. But the model in Detroit is based on projects that are located within the city limits that provide conservation and leadership training for young people who live here.
The Detroit Conservation Leadership Corps summer program, a partnership of SCA and Greening of Detroit with major underwriting from Johnson Controls, has students working in Detroit parks learning job readiness, team building, environmental justice, and, of course, environmental stewardship.
“The students leave the program caring about the environment more,” says Weitzer. “Some start out and don’t want to sit on the ground. By the end, they’re comfortable getting muddy and hanging out with the mosquitoes in Rouge Park.”
In fact, two conservation corps crews worked last summer on the Rouge Park Mountain Bike Trail and Rouge Park Nature Trail. Another crew removed invasive species and cut trails near Belle Isle Nature Zoo, and another crew worked to create new trails around the Brightmoor Edible Forest.
The crews are made up a mix of students and leaders. Crew leaders are at least 21 years of age, apprentice crew leaders are ages 19 and 20, and crew members are ages 15 to 18.
The folks running the SCA in Detroit are particularly excited about the apprentice opportunities for 18- and 19-year-olds, which was new this year. Before, there was no next level available for students who had aged out of the program until they turned 21 and could be a crew leader. So, the apprentice crew leader program filled a gap, keeping young people involved and engaged in the program. The Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan funded last summer’s ACL program.
The five Detroit apprentice crew leaders learned about leadership, facilitated lessons and games, helped with logistics and budget forms, and built community among crew members.
The apprentices spent four days a week on the conservation job sites, with a crew of ten students and one crew leader. One day each week, the apprentices learned about earth friendly careers, like farm manager or other green job positions. They were paid $10 an hour and worked 40 hours each week.
Most of the apprentices are in college or heading there, so the wages help with living expenses. Three apprentices are attending Wayne State University, one is attending Western Michigan University, and one is planning to attend Wayne County Community College next spring.
For Ashley Gomillion, 19, a WSU social work student, learning to lead a crew of youth was one of the best outcomes of the program. She worked with the crew at Brightmoor Edible Forest, where she was expected to help youth create an intersecting trail that led out of the woods through an edible forest walk and back into the woods.
Gomillion believes that conservation work is necessary in any urban area, especially neighborhoods where she sees abandoned buildings, trash on the ground, or massive dumps.
“You feel a sense of self-responsibility because it’s in an area where you live,” says Gomillion. “When I think of conservation work, I think of change, and the change begins with us … we must start somewhere and what better way than to change some of our urban spaces and make them places people will utilize.”
Gomillion hopes to one day return to SCA as a crew leader and lead her own group of youth and apprentices.
One of the highlights of the ACL program was attending the Outdoor Nation Summit in Chicago in July to participate in visioning on how to encourage more young people to spend time outside, pursue green careers, and develop a conservation ethic. Outdoor Nation is an organization with a mission to get youth more involved in the outdoors. It hosts summits for groups with an environmental or outdoor focus and works to get Millennials involved in the outdoors.
Before the summit, attendee groups from around the country created proposals for projects to increase youth engagement in outdoor recreation and stewardship. All of the groups presented their proposals at the summit, and the Detroit ACL team won, receiving $1,500 in funding for their “Party in the Park” project.
“They were shocked when they won because there were so many good ideas,” says Alycia Chuney, apprentice crew leader program coordinator.
Party in the Park will likely happen in the spring of 2014 at Rouge Park and will features local art and music, while showcasing the features of the park, like the mountain bike trail.
Weitzer said that the Detroit Conservation Leadership Corps members recognized that Rouge Park is undervalued and underutilized, unlike a more celebrated park, such as Belle Isle. She applauds the idea of celebrating at a space in the city where people are spending a large amount of time fighting for it.
“Let’s draw out people in the city to remind them that we have this incredible park,” he says.