The Great Outdoors taught me unexpected lessons about people who volunteer – and how to handle a wood saw. After completing my university degree and before starting graduate school, I hopped on a flight to the Pacific Northwest to get hands-on experience as a crew leader with Northwest Youth Corps, a conservation organization offering youth ages 15-19 the chance to volunteer outdoors. Little did I know the impact my summer experience would have on my career.
In addition to carrying out invaluable tasks including invasive species removal and fixing trails, members are taught an outdoor education curriculum that earns high school credit hour. Northwest Youth Corps works to diversify the outdoor industry by prioritizing placing youth from backgrounds that historically have been marginalized in outdoor spaces, including Hispanic and Native American populations, ASL users and the LGBTQ+ community.
Today, there are more than 100 conservation corps operating in the US, with a handful of opportunities for youth under the age of 18 and the possibility to join specific identity-based crews such as LGBTQ+ and ASL crews.
After my experience, I decided to focus my master’s dissertation on the role conservation corps have in AmeriCorps members’ personal and professional development and to inspire young people to pursue a career in the outdoor industry.
My research highlighted the importance of these programs not only in helping to diversify the outdoor workforce, but also providing valuable transferrable employment skills to those AmeriCorps members.
Outdoor programs are essential in connecting young people to the natural environment around them. They foster Significant Life Experiences, a term used to describe the process by which a single experience can have a lasting impact on an individual. Program alumni expressed time and again that their service help make distant theories on forest ecology and conservation real. A significant number of the outdoor classes were led by professionals in their respective fields, including herbal medicine experts and staff from a local wolf sanctuary.
Even if youth were not exploring a career in conservation, they developed a range of skills from woodworking and learning to use a cross-cut saw to interpersonal communication and teamwork that makes AmeriCorps members more employable. During the outdoor classes, crew leaders also provided résumé-building workshops and interview preparation
One of the most rewarding aspects of writing my dissertation was finding the positive narratives of individuals from backgrounds that have previously been excluded from outdoor spaces or have not considered a career in the field. Too many studies focus on outdoor programs whose participants are mostly white, middle-class Americans who voluntarily choose to get involved. While these studies are certainly not unimportant, there is a need to focus on the experiences on those who didn’t necessarily join a program on their own accord or weren’t motivated by the work done by the organization. At Northwest Youth Corps there were young people who were signed up to the program by their parents or chose to participate due to the financial gains on offer. However, a significant number walked away with a range of skills and a new-born passion for the outdoors. Only by removing barriers so that all youth can participate will we truly change the face of the outdoor workforce to make it more representative of American society.
Simply putting together people from different backgrounds in a group will not help increase understanding between them. Programs need to create meaningful interactions, where participants work toward a common objective as a team. AmeriCorps programs do just that. The youth corps accommodates specialized crews, such as ones that recruit youth who identify with the LGBTQ+ community and ASL users. These groups provide a space to reflect and discuss issues they face in society, regardless of whether that is related to the outdoor industry or not.
National Parks and National Forests were established to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of background. However, the great outdoors remains a playground and classroom for white, heterosexual citizens. Indeed, a study conducted in 2014 found that only 5.4% of visitors to National Forests were non-white. By engaging young people from all walks of life in conservation corps programs, we can better develop the next generation of stewards for America’s wilderness areas—and their appreciation for all that our country offers.