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Single Identity-Based Crews Research: Update from the Road No. 3
Members of Southwest Conservation Corps’ Ancestral Lands program
As part of her studies at the University of Oregon, graduate student Jordan Katcher plans to create a toolkit that provides resources for increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,I) within Conservation Corps programming. To do this, Jordan hopes to combine academic research with insights from the field.
During the summer-fall of 2017, Jordan is traveling throughout the country to visit several Corps that operate identity-based programs (e.g. Veterans Crews, ASL Inclusion Crews, Native Youth Crews, LGBTQ Crews, All-Female Crews, etc.). She’ll be conducting interviews and gathering information about innovative and effective practices. The Corps Network is hosting a blog where Jordan will share her experiences from the road.
By Jordan Katcher
Hello all! My name is Jordan Katcher and I am a current Community & Regional Planning graduate student at the University of Oregon. For my master’s degree, I’m focusing my research on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,I) within the outdoors. This summer, I traveled across the country, and conducted site visits with conservation corps that have implemented/are implementing single identity-based initiatives for marginalized populations within the conservation world. To read more about my research project, check out my first blog post here, and my second blog post here.
For my third trip, I ventured through the Southwest region to conduct site visits with Conservation Legacy, Utah Conservation Corps, and Idaho Conservation Corps. Below is a brief snapshot from the visits:
VISITS IN THE SOUTHWEST
Conservation Legacy (CL) Site Visits – Durango, Colorado
As a previous program coordinator for Conservation Legacy, I was so excited to visit Durango and see so many familiar faces! Given Conservation Legacy’s large size, I was also eager to learn about their multiple single identity-based crews: Ancestral Lands, Veterans Fire Corps, and their brand-new Wyoming Women’s Fire Corps.
Ancestral Lands began in 2008 with an emphasis on local relationship-building for Native American communities located primarily in the Southwest. For Conservation Legacy, the need for this program was born out of an equity initiative to meet the needs of tribal youth, while also providing them with the necessary technical and professional development skills to potentially launch careers in natural resource conservation. This goal, however, is met with a handful of barriers, one of which is: will natural resources career opportunities be located within these reservations, or would these opportunities require Corps alumni to leave their homes in hopes of employment? Understanding the end goal of these crew opportunities is crucial in providing skills and professional development experiences that are desired by the Corpsmembers themselves.
Ancestral Lands is very intentional about promoting cultural awareness for their members and staff. For example, members serving during the recent eclipse were given the day off for their traditional beliefs. The program would also like to expand into increased language immersion with their staff, but funding creates limitations for this. They’d also like to develop professional certificates for native restoration and “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK) that recognize the importance of Indigenous knowledge within the environment. A large asset that has grown out of this program is the embeddedness of storytelling, especially across multiple tribes that historically may not have seen eye-to-eye. These barriers are being broken down through relationship-building, shared experiences, and crew work.
VETERAN’S FIRE CORPS
The Veteran’s Fire Corps initially ran just like other crews within Conservation Legacy. Over time, however, staff realized that the needs of their veteran crew members required a shift towards professional development and certifications. Additionally, in recognizing the challenges veterans face when reintegrating into civilian life, it seemed ideal that this transition could be accomplished within a safe space, serving on a fire crew. Conservation Legacy has also been intentional in raising the stipends for their veteran crew members, as they understand the limitations that come with such low incomes. The organization also takes great strides in their recruitment and screening processes, and asks necessary questions to ensure that potential members are both emotionally and physically ready for the program.
WYOMING WOMEN’S FIRE CORPS
After ongoing conversations about gender balances, especially regarding a need for increased diversity within the Bureau of Land Management, an opportunity arose to create an exclusive Wyoming Women’s Fire Corps. In the 10 years that the Veteran’s Fire Corps has been running, only about five of their members have been female veterans. The launch of this new crew is essential to providing a place for female veterans to connect with one another within the intersection of their female and veteran identities.
Utah Conservation Corps (UCC) Site Visits – Logan, Utah
In 2005, Utah Conservation Corps had a crew leader, Andy Zimmer, who, while riding his bike back from dinner in downtown Logan, UT, was hit by a car. The accident resulted in a C6 spinal fracture, thus paralyzing him from his shoulders down. After Andy underwent physical therapy, he came back to UCC with the intention of completing his assignment. This tragic accident was the impetus for UCC’s Disability Inclusion Crew, where UCC had to ask themselves: What would this experience look like for a member serving in a wheelchair? What unmet needs can they serve through this experience? And how can they bring the traditional conservation corps experience to a member with a physical disability?
At the time, UCC was a fairly small program, yet they had a combination of experience and passion to help get the program off the ground. Assistant Director Kate Stephens had served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Options for Independence (and helped start Common Ground Outdoor Adventures, which does adaptive outdoor work for members). Additionally, Program Director Sean Damitz had the personal experience of growing up with a father who had MS. The two of them shared inherent values that pushed them to really examine their organization and ask themselves how to move beyond the typical “burly, white male” crew member, and make UCC a more welcoming and inclusive space for a diverse population of corps members.
To UCC, a successful inclusion crew starts with having really meaningful projects that involve a dedicated, passionate sponsor that sets goals and takes ownership of the project (which leaves program expansion up to the sponsor base). The inclusion crew integrates both members with disabilities and members that are able-bodied, which utilizes the strengths of all crew members. Members with disabilities are trained through the Forest Service with iPads to assess campsites and trails and input USFS database information, and the members that are able-bodied undergo chainsaw training for trail development. What’s so fascinating about this crew is that not only are the members with disabilities creating access within these sites for themselves, but they’re also transforming trails, campsites, restrooms, and more to provide access for tourists with disabilities to experience these areas as well.
In the beginning, the crew members were about 50/50, but lately, it has been imbalanced given the difficulty of recruiting individuals who may have physical disabilities. Recruiting locally has really been the best solution, since members with disabilities have ADA-compliant living quarters and are familiar with the area. Asking someone to move to a different state, secure ADA-compliant temporary housing, and ensure that their medical needs are met (especially for a 300 to 500-hour service positon on an AmeriCorps living allowance) is truly a large struggle.
UCC said that they’ve heard of other corps thinking about starting Disability Inclusion Crews, but they also understand that it’s a steep learning curve that requires a great amount of resources, time, and consideration. For these crew members, though, these crew experiences have made a considerable difference in their lives, which makes it all worth it in the end.
Idaho Conservation Corps (ICC) Site Visits – Boise, Idaho
The idea for the brand new ICC Women’s Crew came from an assistant crew leader-turned program coordinator- who realized the change in dynamics when more females were involved in crew positions. With approval from Northwest Youth Corps, the Women’s Crew was designed with the intention of creating spaces where everyone can have an equal share in their own growth and development.
It was noticed that on co-ed crews, things that were more technical (lifting rocks, working on engines) were often taken on by the men of the crews. The designated Women’s Crew was a space for females to learn those same skills and apply them on their own. The hallmarks of a successful Women’s Crew, while similar to other crews, focuses on getting more women into leadership positions, which don’t have to necessarily be within ICC, but within any land management agency, or at whatever previous job they were in.
Due to the constraints of losing a fellow program coordinator before the launch of their summer crews, some of the goals of the Women’s Crew did not come to full fruition. For next year, however, they’d love to hire a female crew leader months in advance to set up relationships within the broader community and ask female leaders to conduct lessons or just discuss their professional journeys as women in the natural resources workforce.
During the interview process for potential crew members, a main question that was asked (and not asked for any of the other crews) was, “Do you have a very specific reason to enter this space?” The program coordinator was looking more for someone that had a specific experience of feeling uncomfortable in male-dominated spaces, someone that wanted to grow their technical skills, or someone looking to get into land management positions; and for the most part, those that reached out to her were those kinds of applicants.
The biggest struggle they encountered during their first run this summer was retention. The crew went through eight different members that quit, which resulted in only two members staying on. However, those two remaining members were promoted to leadership positions, which was truly at the heart of this new crew. There are a few speculations of why retention was a struggle this year, but the hope for next year is to restructure the experience from perhaps seeming like a summer camp to, instead, focusing on leadership building. Moving forward, ICC would like to have more input from members themselves on what specific skills they’d like to develop, and would also like resources on marketing this crew to a population that isn’t already in the corps world; because some their most solid corps members were previous bank tellers, and now they’re using chainsaws in the woods, which is awesome.
Now that I’m back in Eugene, OR, I’ll be conducting Northwest site visits throughout the fall term, so stay tuned! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions related to my research, always feel free to reach me at [email protected]. Thank you for reading!