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Corps Story: New Nevada Conservation Corps Program Empowers Women in Conservation
When she started as Director of Operations at Nevada Conservation Corps (NCC), Aurora Pinkey-Drobnis had a goal: launch a program to empower young women in conservation.
In June 2020, this goal became reality with the creation of the Interdisciplinary Women’s Resource Conservation Crew (IWoRCC): a single identity-based program designed to provide women a supportive learning environment in the male-dominated field of resource management.
“For me, the biggest thing was that I didn’t have an opportunity like this when I was getting into conservation,” said Pinkey-Drobnis. “I’ve worked with the National Park Service, as well as for the U.S. Forest Service, on trail crews and wilderness crews. These are primarily male-dominated fields. Every time I was able to be on a crew with another woman – even one other woman – it really felt like I wasn’t alone. I felt a little bit more comfortable to ask questions and try things I thought might be harder for me. The space felt safer.”
Across the Corps community, single identity-based crews are an increasingly popular model to support Corpsmembers who face specific barriers or identify with communities that have been historically marginalized or underrepresented in the outdoors. For example, Corps have successfully operated single identity-based conservation crews for women, Native American youth, LGBTQ+ youth and young adults, veterans, Deaf and Hard of Hearing young people, and other groups. IWoRCC is the first single identity-based program offered at NCC, a program of the Great Basin Institute.
Made possible with support from the National Park Foundation and AmeriCorps, the 2020 IWoRCC program operated at Great Basin National Park. From June through August, the four IWoRCC members engaged in a breadth of park management projects, including habitat restoration, fire mitigation, invasive species removal, hydrology research, and wildlife management. They also participated in trainings across disciplines, receiving S-212 equivalency chainsaw training and Wilderness First Aid certification.
“I think we’re moving towards a better ratio of women to men in the conservation field overall, but there can still be really toxic environments…That excludes women from wanting to participate in the first place, but can also discourage women who do participate from wanting to continue,” said Pinkey-Drobnis. “Giving people the confidence and skills they need so they can go into these positions knowing that they’re capable – that might help them continue.”
According to Pinkey-Drobnis, a major factor in the program’s success was the support of staff at Great Basin National Park. In particular, National Park Service employees Margaret Horner and Julie Long provided mentorship to the crew and underlined for NCC the importance of engaging supervisors with whom Corpsmembers can relate.
Great Basin National Park has a relatively small staff despite having high seasonal visitation and a large area to manage. The IWoRCC members were a welcome addition. While managing COVID-19 safety protocols, the crew repaired over 1.7 miles of fencing, helped expand the defensible space around four park structures, maintained over 2.5 miles of trail, removed over 100 pounds of trash from backcountry campsites, and created educational materials.
As Pinkey-Drobnis indicated, the benefits of engaging the IWoRCC members extend beyond help with projects.
“I think we offer exposure to different models of work crews and conservation crews, but also different models of culture,” she said. “We intentionally worked on building a culture where there’s a lot of positive reinforcement and focus on personal development and relationships. We demonstrate that this is a model for getting things done and it can work for you, too.”
Due to COVID-19, some projects were delayed, leaving NCC with leftover funding to continue the IWoRCC program in 2021. A new crew is currently serving out of the Great Basin Institute Las Vegas office, primarily completing projects at Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and Lake Mead National Recreation Area. NCC hopes to keep the program going in the future and also begin offering single identity-based crews for other groups. In the fall, NCC will launch a bilingual Latinx crew in Southern Nevada.
“Working with the all-women’s crews has been super inspiring and has pushed me to think outside the box and figure out how I can continue to work on making our Conservation Corps a more inclusive space for everyone,” said Pinkey-Drobnis. “Every time that I’m out with them they continue to push me – ‘Hey, how can we include more people in these kind of programs?’ That’s been an unexpected and really exciting piece about this work: the single identity-based women’s crews have been advocates for other underrepresented groups and folks who maybe have other barriers to participation.”
Reflections from IWoRCC Members
“Going into this program, I had no hands-on experience and had never participated in a program like this. Identity-based crews are super important; I am so happy I’ve had the chance to participate in one. This crew has given me the chance to feel comfortable in a new environment. Since everyone has been so welcoming, I’m not afraid to ask questions or ask how to do something.”
“It was easy to be vulnerable, easy to break down, easy to face the thought that maybe this was it – my limit, the end of a rope I could not fathom any further length upon. Every time I gave myself a chance to give up, to feel that horrible fear that maybe this wasn’t something I could do – my crew was there. In the face of one’s weakness we all took the opportunity to show strength and patience to the others. There was always more rope. It wasn’t always mine.
At the end of the day we all acknowledged our privilege. A women’s crew is a special thing: in the face of thousands of years of history, four girls living and working in their own camp, doing the same work as everyone else, led by other women, trained by other women, coordinating with other women…it was a treasure. I am thankful for the opportunities I have been given, for how much I got to learn, and I am going to continue to educate and advocate for the health of the desert. I hope others are given the opportunities I have – that they learn, grow, and evolve with it.”
“For so long, so many types of people have been purposefully excluded from programs, institutions, careers etc.…With these identity-based programs more people from all types of backgrounds are being reached and offered an environment where they can grow, be heard, and feel confident…It’s hard to be what you can’t see, but in these types of programs you can see a spectrum of individuals who now have the opportunity to be in spaces and careers that were hard to break into in the past… I would advise other women considering this program to just do it! And to pack layers and bring lots of snacks.”
“My degree was in a natural resource field, so I had some experience in this type of work. I learned about this program after I had already been hired and placed on a different, mixed crew. I was inspired to join because I had anxiety about not being able to keep up with the rest of the crew. The physical work has been challenging. However, the most rewarding aspect has been meeting and connecting with the other women in my crew. They are exceptional individuals that truly make the work a pleasant experience…To other women considering a term in a Conservation Corps, I would say to do it, even if there isn’t a single identity crew in your area. Don’t be intimidated by the idea of being a weak link because, at the end of the day, everyone is simply trying their best.”
“This job can be hard, but it’s also very rewarding! The challenges have forced me to grow and become even more independent and mentally strong, not to mention physically strong as well… We have done a great job at creating a supportive environment where we can ask, listen, and learn from each other. I don’t feel the same pressure on this crew that I would normally feel working on a mixed crew to already know everything or to have to get something perfect on the first try to prove that I can handle the same challenges even though I’m a woman. Ultimately, this program is a development program and I joined because I wanted to learn, not because I wanted to show off things I could already do, and this crew feels like a welcoming space to develop new skills…[It] helps groups of people who haven’t always had the chance to do this work get out and not only get experience, but to have a positive experience doing it…Feeling like you have to prove yourself constantly because of your identity is never a good feeling, and single-identity crews are a place where you never have to worry about that.”