Harry Bruell, formerly of Conservation Legacy, is a 2023 winner of The Corps Network Legacy Achievement Award. The Legacy Achievement Award is one of the highest honors The Corps Network grants and recognizes exceptional leadership and notable achievements within the national Service and Conservation Corps community. Honorees are those who have worked for at least 15 years in the Corps world, served in a senior leadership position at a Corps, and made significant contributions to the national movement.
Harry Bruell has been a leader in the nonprofit sector for 30+ years. He made a lasting impact during his 26 years in the Corps community through his leadership, organizing abilities, and tireless work to advance growth strategies for the Corps movement. Harry came to the Corps world in the early 1990s, starting at the Durham Service Corps and then going on to work at The Corps Network for almost 10 years. He eventually moved to Colorado in the early 2000s to lead Southwest Conservation Corps. He was instrumental in developing Conservation Legacy, an organization that now represents eight Corps programs that annually engage more than 2,000 participants in stewardship projects and workforce development across the country. During his time with Conservation Legacy, Harry served on The Corps Network’s Board of Directors and was appointed by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar as chair of the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps federal advisory committee, which focused on exploring strategies to expand Corps programs. Harry stepped away from the Corps community to focus his career on mental health. He has led PathPoint in Santa Barbara, CA since 2017.
We interviewed Harry to learn more about him, his experience in the Corps movement, and his current endeavors.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you become involved with Service and Conservation Corps.
I studied civil/environmental engineering in college and found out very quickly after graduating that I didn’t like working for a corporate consulting firm. I saw a newspaper advertisement for the Work Project Coordinator at something called the Durham Service Corps. Before my interview, they had me watch a VCR tape of a news story about the East Bay Conservation Corps (now CiviCorps), which I thought was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. I ended up second in the job selection, but fortunately the number one choice left in his first week, and I eagerly accepted when they offered the job to me in 1991. My great education in Corps began with three years at the Durham Service Corps which led to nearly 10 years at The Corps Network (called NASCC back then) and then 13 years at Conservation Legacy.
What is the primary piece of wisdom you’d give to Corps staff working today and to young people service in Corps today?
I have two suggestions, and they would work for any job or pursuit:
- Follow your passion. We all do better when we like what we are doing. Work should be fun. As Kahlil Gibran said, “work is love made visible.” Follow what you love to do and you will be more successful and happier.
- Lead with kindness. Promote acceptance. Build your empathy and compassion skills. Treat others with respect. Practice kindness in all interactions, remembering that clear is kindness. We really can make our workplaces and the world better places.
What developments would you like to see in the Corps world?
I would love to see establishment of the Civilian Climate Corps. The idea of a modern-day version of the CCC has had a few different iterations starting with the American Conservation Corps in the 80s and more recently with the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. This concept has proven so successful at addressing multiple national priorities. The Corps Network got so close in the recent reconciliation bill and I hope this might be the year to make it happen!
Other priorities include “filling in the map” so that all communities in the country have Corps opportunities, fully implementing and maximizing opportunities for Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps, sustaining and expanding opportunities for veterans, and replicating Corps internationally.
You are no longer directly in the Corps world. Can you tell us a bit about what your work entails today?
I work for PathPoint, a nonprofit organization that supports people in living the life they choose. The organization supports 2,300+ people in southern and central California with a staff of about 500 and a budget of $30M. We partner with people with disabilities, people with mental health diagnoses, and young adults to pursue their hopes and dreams through strengthening workplace abilities, building life skills, and developing meaningful relationships.
Do you see any crossover between your previous work in the Corps world and your current work?
There are several similarities. PathPoint and Corps: 1) have a business model based on earned income; 2) have multi-site operations; 3) focus – at least partially – on job development; and 4) are mission-based organizations that support and prepare individuals to live the life of their choosing.
Is there anything you’ve learned or realized in your current role that you wish you knew when you were a Corps Director?
I’ve learned the value of human resources professionals, which – at least in my time in Corps – I didn’t understand. In my experience, this is a necessary function as Corps grow and evolve. I joined a movement with a much longer history than Corps and organizations that were established 30+ years before most Corps.
I also see a coming focus from funders on value-based payments rather than fee-for-service. In my work, we are in the midst of a massive transition of payment models that reminds me of a similar focus years ago in youth development around outcomes. I wonder if – at some point – federal funders such as AmeriCorps or even public land agencies will look more to value-based payment models rather than cost reimbursement or fee-for-service.
You were on the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Federal Advisory Committee. These days, there is renewed talk of expanding the national Corps community by creating a Civilian Climate Corps. Do you have any advice for those working today on efforts to grow the national Corps movement?
Yes, I was Chair of the 21CSC FAC but the political climate and other conditions were certainly different a decade ago. Here are a few thoughts to consider:
- Focus on sustainability so that the efforts can outlast the current administration. With 21CSC, we attempted to embed Corps as the preferred workforce for public and tribal land and water management agencies for the ongoing and essential work that they had to accomplish.
- Align with the priorities of the Administration (or Congress). Corps are such multi-dimensional programs that they can be a solution to many disparate issues: youth development, outsourcing, job training, national service, self-development, streamlining/shrinking government, conservation, climate change, hunter/angler support, fire protection, etc. Make Corps relevant and an integral solution to today’s priorities such as the current challenge with workforce shortages: Corps address this by providing workers to complete work on public lands/waters while also preparing the next generation of workers. I’m sure that TCN is already all over this one!
We understand that youth mental health is a subject that is very important to you. Many Corps today have expressed feeling overwhelmed and unprepared to help the number of young people today who are experiencing mental health challenges. What advice would you provide to Corps staff? To Corpsmembers?
I left Conservation Legacy after I lost my 14-year-old daughter Taya to suicide and undiagnosed borderline personality disorder. I decided to devote my remaining time to help other young people and their families have a different outcome to their stories. Part of this has been sharing Taya’s story and part has been to work in the mental health field.
In reading my advice below please understand that I am not a clinician. If you are reading this and are thinking of hurting yourself, please seek help immediately. The national 9-8-8 hotline is the quickest way to get support.
In my experience, there are two critical areas where Corps can get involved with mental health support: awareness/response and skill-building.
- Awareness/Response. Corps typically do not have therapists or clinicians on staff. However, Corps can identify when a young person (or staff) is dealing with a mental health challenge and get help. Two very worthwhile trainings for all Corps staff and all Corpsmembers are Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) and Psychological First Aid (PFA). PFA was developed to support people in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, which these days could include the pandemic or even personal crises. At PathPoint, we arranged for five staff to become MHFA Instructors and they have been training our employees as well as people in our services. Every Corps could launch a similar effort.
- Skill-building. Corps can help Corpsmembers – and staff – develop and grow skills that buttress and support their mental wellness. One way to do this is replicating the work of Dr. Alec Miller and his colleagues’ Dialectic Behavioral Therapy (DBT) skills in schools. This approach, which currently involves more than 100 schools, builds students’ skills in distress tolerance, emotional regulation, and interpersonal effectiveness. The curriculum (a 50-minute session once a week for 16 weeks) could easily be incorporated into a Corps’ education program, even on spike. The results are astounding: Lincoln High School (Portland, OR) started the program when suicide was the leading cause of death with an average of one to two students dying of suicide each year. In the nine years since starting, there have been zero suicides. Additionally, data shows statistically significant decreases in anxiety, depression, internalizing, and anger. We started a DBT skills pilot project at PathPoint and are expanding it now after successful results from the pilot. Every Corps could launch a similar effort.
The US Surgeon General warned of a youth mental health crisis in late 2021. Corps can play a significant role in addressing this through awareness/response and skill-building efforts.