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HIGHLANDS HIGHLIGHTS: Creating the Environmental Leaders of Tomorrow

NJ HILLS MEDIA // February 20, 2023

In April 1933 President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed The New Deal: the largest public works program in US History. The massive investment promised to revitalize the economy, build critical infrastructure, and provide relief to millions of unemployed, undereducated, and poor Americans caught in the  throes of the Great Depression. Ads appeared across the nation promising men ages 18-25 meals, clothing, and training through the Civilian Conservation Corps: the first federal workforce development program of its kind.

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) program was an instant success, attracting and training over 3 million workers between 1933 and 1942. Over its lifespan, the program was credited with increasing the health, morale, and employability of young adults. It increased civic engagement and inspired a greater appreciation for nature across an entire generation, and many of its projects still endure and are used to this day in New Jersey state parks and forests, a testament to the program’s legacy. Examples include the creation of Lake Absegami and surrounding cabins and trails at Bass River, and the pavilion at Sunrise Mountain in Stokes State Forests.

Though disbanded to free up labor for the war effort in 1942, the program was revitalized in spirit by the Clinton administration in 1993 as the Corporation for National and Community Service, known today as Americorps. Branded as a volunteer-based organization much like its older and more recognizable cousin, the Peace Corps, Americorps members receive training, a living stipend and educational grants in exchange for their service.

The program not only benefits those who serve, but also provides funding, development, and staffing to host agencies. In 2021 for example, New Jersey received over $21 million in federal funding, supporting 3,800 servicemembers and volunteers working across 400 host sites in government and non-government organizations, nonprofits, faith-based organizations, and community service providers.

The Watershed Ambassador program administered by the NJDEP is one such successful program whose positive impact cannot be understated for New Jersey residents. For 22 years, NJDEP has paired 23 Americorps service members each year with host organizations across the state, providing a wealth of benefits to its residents and training for the next generation of environmental leaders.

“The diverse set of program objectives – including education, stewardship, and water quality monitoring – helped me figure out the kind of work that suited me,” recalls Ryan Jiorle, who used his service to launch a mid-career transition into the environmental field. “The sheer amount of networking across the state helped me realize the number of different organizations and agencies that are doing this work.” Today, Ryan is the Community Engagement Coordinator at the Musconetcong Watershed Association, overseeing the program for the Upper Delaware Watershed Management Area, the same program in which he served.

Ryan’s experience mirrors those of thousands of other mid- to late-career adults who, like the recent graduates for whom the program was developed, have used Americorps service to get their foot in the door in the extremely competitive environmental world. Yet, despite the benefits, the program has serious flaws: enrollees must survive on a pittance–usually  around $1,500 per month–often without any health coverage; and they must commit to serving the entire 6- to 12- month program if they want to receive their education grants. A commonly-touted “benefit” of the program is being able to qualify for food stamps. The compensation – well below most states’ minimum wages – makes the program inaccessible to many of those who see it as a gateway into a new career field or to those from low-income families, who often have to dip into savings for basic living costs, or who leave the program in debt. The result is a program that largely fails to meet its goals in training those who would benefit the most.

Like the Peace Corps, Americorps has been claimed by critics to be highly exploitative of its volunteers and has been held up as an example of “voluntourism:” a form of well-intentioned, feel-good “volunteer for travel” work done by unskilled laborers that competes directly with the local workforce.

The program is also claimed to devalue certain services that could be provided locally, especially in the recreation, environmental and nonprofit fields where hiring managers equate seeing “The Big A” on resumes with passionate, service-driven, independent workers willing to settle for rock-bottom wages. The result is an overqualified but underpaid workforce that actually increases, rather than decreases competition in small job markets, and which often leads to career burnout.

New Jersey faces unprecedented challenges ahead as it begins to make real change to address the climate crisis. These challenges need innovative new ideas and a new generation of leaders.

Americorps is a great introduction to public service for both young adults and those making a change into a meaningful career field, yet it is woefully under equipped to attract real talent in our most at-risk low-income, undereducated minority communities. 

It’s been 90 years since the New Deal and 2023 bears more than a passing resemblance to the challenging economic and environmental climate of nearly a century ago. With costs of living far outstripping salaries, a massive backlog of infrastructure projects, and the paradigm shifts brought on by the climate crisis, energy demands, and how we view and use land, it is time we began to invest in a New Green Deal, and with it a new conservation effort: A Civilian Climate Corps to build the infrastructure of tomorrow, reverse two centuries of environmental damage, and create the environmental and energy leaders of tomorrow.

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