This is What the Civilian Climate Corps Can Look Like

Thousands of young people participate in conservation-focused national service programs every year. These programs, and the young people who serve in them, can offer guidance for the Biden Administration’s Civilian Climate Corps.

Top, left to right: Onondaga Earth Corps (based in NY); Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa (MN); Nevada Conservation Corps (NV); Mile High Youth Corps (CO). Bottom, left to right: Fresno Local Conservation Corps (CA); Los Angeles Conservation Corps (CA); Montana Conservation Corps (MT): X-cel Conservation Corps (MA).

On April 5, 1933 — long before April became known as “Earth Month” — President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order to establish the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The program operated until WWII, addressing poverty and land management by putting millions of unemployed young men to work building parks that are still used today. Importantly, the CCC also provided education, skills, and purpose to a generation that had been sidetracked by the Great Depression.

In January, nearly eighty-eight years after the creation of the CCC, President Biden signed an executive order to revive the program as a Civilian Climate Corps. This call to “mobilize the next generation of conservation and resilience workers” comes as we face a pandemic, an uncertain economy, a reckoning on racism, and the increasingly dire effects of climate change.

As we await the Biden Administration’s proposal on how to implement a Civilian Climate Corps, news outlets, academics, and policy organizations have theorized on what a modern CCC program could look like. Many have rightly raised concerns, noting that a contemporary CCC must focus on equity: the original program only enrolled men, discriminated against Black enrollees, and completed projects that largely benefitted white communities.

The fact is, however, that we don’t need to imagine a modern CCC: non-profit and state-run Conservation Corps have successfully operated for decades and offer a blueprint for an inclusive national initiative. Furthermore, the thousands of diverse young people who serve in these programs every year have important ideas for how to build an impactful larger initiative.

Young adults from Conservation Corps across the country.

Yes — Conservation Corps Programs Already Exist

While the Civilian Conservation Corps disbanded in the 1940s, the general concept continued. Nonprofit Corps originated with the Student Conservation Association in the 1950s and state-run Corps started with the California Conservation Corps in the 1970s. If you want to envision how a Civilian Climate Corps will operate, look no further than the more than 130 Corps programs currently operating across the United States. Many of these programs are supported by AmeriCorps.

Every year, Corps provide roughly 25,000 young people the opportunity to participate in conservation work, job training, and education. Corps partner with various organizations — including local, state and federal resource management agencies — to engage Corps participants in meaningful projects. In urban areas, Corps activities often include tree care, growing produce to address food insecurity, or installing energy-saving retrofits in homes. In more rural areas, Corps build backcountry trails, remove fire fuels from forests, and restore habitats.

Over the past year, many Corps pivoted to help communities respond to COVID-19. In addition to helping staff food pantries and set up field hospitals, young people in Corps still managed to plant over 319,000 trees, remove over 141,000 acres of invasive species, and restore nearly 5,000 miles of waterways.

Left to right: GulfCorps, Franklin’s Promise Coalition (photo by The Nature Conservancy); Utah Conservation Corps; Los Angeles Conservation Corps; Conservation Legacy.

Start from Strength, not from Scratch

Today’s Corps — many of which have operated for decades — have experience-based ideas for how to build a larger Civilian Climate Corps initiative. Among other recommendations, member organizations of The Corps Network, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, believe investments must be equitable. Priority should be placed on funding Corps positions and projects in communities of color and areas disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and decades of environmental injustice. Second: funding for a new CCC needs to include money for training and certifications to help Corps alumni on the path to well-paying jobs. Third: Corps participants should be compensated with a $15 minimum wage or equivalent stipend, ensuring that an individual’s financial situation should not preclude their participation.

More important than the ideas of Corps organizations, however, are the ideas of the young people who serve in Corps. These young people are our conservation future. As we look to build a Civilian Climate Corps initiative, it is critical that we hear their recommendations.

Left to Right: Estefany Gonzalez Ramos, American Conservation Experience; Destiny Lewis (seated at center), PowerCorpsPHL; Victor Lopez, San Jose Conservation Corps; Trevor Taylor, Southwest Conservation Corps.

We Need to Listen to Young Leaders in Corps

Today’s Corps participants, most of whom are 16–30, represent a range of socio-economic, racial, ethnic, and political backgrounds. They represent different abilities, education-levels, and gender identities. They have diverse lived experiences, but share the common experience of entering adulthood as our country faces numerous challenges.

At The Corps Network’s 2021 conference, several young leaders from Corps were asked what they envision for the future of these programs. Estefany Gonzalez Ramos, an AmeriCorps alumna from American Conservation Experience in Puerto Rico, helped restore trails and habitats at El Yunque National Forest following the 2017 hurricanes. She emphasized the need to invest in rural youth, provide longer service terms, and provide opportunities to high school-aged students.

Destiny Lewis, an AmeriCorps alumna from PowerCorpsPHL in Philadelphia, served on stormwater infrastructure and urban park projects. As a mother, she spoke about the need for a CCC initiative to address barriers to participation faced by young parents.

Victor Lopez, an AmeriCorps member at San Jose Conservation Corps, helps build sustainable tiny homes for young people experiencing housing insecurity. He emphasized the important work Corps can do to provide young people mentorship and life skills, like how to understand taxes and credit scores.

Trevor Taylor, an AmeriCorps alumnus of Southwest Conservation Corps, detailed what it’s like to work on conservation projects as a person of color. He called for Corps to focus on building inclusive spaces in the outdoors. He is currently working with Conservation Legacy to pilot a “Leaders of Color” Corps program.

Existing Conservation Corps have important experience to support and guide implementation of a national Civilian Climate Corps initiative. People who served in Corps — like Estefany, Destiny, Victor and Trevor — must also help guide how a Civilian Climate Corps is implemented. It is their generation, and the generations to follow, that have the most at stake. It is important to build a Civilian Climate Corps program that serves our environmental and economic needs, but also serves our young people.

Mary Ellen Sprenkel is the President & CEO of The Corps Network, the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps.

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