Cultivating a new generation of conservationists

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Community investment: green initiatives in Chicagoland

Last edited: 20 January 2016

BP America is donating $1 million over two years to the nonprofit Student Conservation Association (SCA) for environmental projects in Chicago and Northwest Indiana. Meet one all-female SCA crew, whose work is helping the environment and giving them the skills to forge a career in the conservation field

For nine young women in Chicago, protecting, restoring and enhancing the city’s natural environment is all in a day’s work. Five days a week, the crew of full-time conservation students tackle projects across the Calumet region near the south shore of Lake Michigan, not far from BP’s Chicago and Naperville offices and its refinery in Whiting, Indiana.  

It’s just one of several new programmes the SCA is piloting as a result of BP’s donation, which also has allowed the organization to double its ongoing conservation efforts at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. The projects are being launched as part of the US Department of the Interior’s 21st Century Conservation Service Corps, a national initiative to engage young people and veterans in restoring and enhancing public lands, waterways and cultural heritage sites.
	
“When we looked at different possibilities for this investment, connecting conservation of Lake Michigan’s shores and parks with engaging young people in science and conservation seemed like a natural fit,” says BP’s Tom Wolf, director of communications and external affairs in Chicago. “Protecting the environment and supporting our future leaders are two important ways that BP can give back to the local communities in which we live, work and play.”

New partnerships

The company’s support also enables the SCA to advance its relationships with Chicago-area conservation organizations, as well as develop programs with new partners. 

“It helped us create new partnerships but also expand into the city, and then also expand with the demographic that we were working with,” says Carina Ruiz, a programme manager with the SCA. “Where in the past we were just focusing on high school youth, now we have the capacity to create opportunities for young adults.” 

The female student crew, whose members range in age from 18 to 24, plant trees, build community gardens and remove invasive plants that could disrupt local ecosystems. In addition to hands-on conservation work, they learn about the local environment through outdoor activities such as hiking and camping. 
“Protecting the environment and supporting our future leaders are two important ways that BP can give back to the local communities in which we live, work and play.”
Tom Wolf

Beyond the urban jungle

There’s more to the environment of the nation’s third-largest metropolis than a bustling concrete jungle. In fact, the county in which Chicago sits is home to a variety of habitats, including wetlands, forests and prairies.  

“Out of the 102 counties in Illinois, Cook County is the most ecologically diverse,” says Raquel García-Álvarez, stewardship program coordinator at the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. “Many people think they have to go to Michigan or Wisconsin to experience nature, but the truth is nature is part of their everyday environment here. It’s just about getting them outdoors.” 

The crew is working with the Forest Preserves and two other SCA partner organizations, the Chicago Park District and Openlands. By participating in projects in different habitats, including urban environments, they’re gaining exposure to a range of restoration tools and techniques. 

Building future conservation leaders

For many of the crew members, their work with the SCA is their first step to pursuing a career in conservation — an industry in which women are historically underrepresented. Working on a single-gender team can help young women gain the confidence and experience they need to succeed. 

“This programme is specifically designed to help give them the skills, some of the certifications, and the experience they would need to start a career working in the conservation field,” says Jackie Grom, who co-leads the crew. “I think it can be a bit intimidating for some women to get involved in this industry. But this is a good place for us to be able to explore and build our skills as women, and we can try things that we might not be comfortable trying or even have the opportunity to try otherwise.”  

The programme combines field work with other educational components focused on advocacy and networking. It also includes a résumé-writing workshop and learning about how nonprofits collaborate with government agencies to accomplish shared goals. 

“The most memorable project I worked on was with Openlands’ Space to Grow programme, where we planted plants at a local school. It was really rewarding to watch the kids get excited about what we were doing for them.”

Sabrina Williams

A new experience

Sabrina Williams, 23, was born and raised on the south side of Chicago. She joined the SCA last fall to learn more about conservation and for the opportunity to work outdoors. 

“I love being able to help the environment and the simple fact that I can help with my community garden,” says Williams, who lives near a site where the crew planted trees. She says her work on urban greening initiatives has been one of her favorite parts of the job.  

“The most memorable project I worked on was with Openlands’ Space to Grow programme, where we planted plants at a local school. It was really rewarding to watch the kids get excited about what we were doing for them.” 

Spending 36 hours a week together, which can include stretches of intense physical work such as burning woody brush and digging holes for planting trees, has created unexpected opportunities for Williams and her crewmates to form new friendships. Indeed, the support and encouragement among the crew goes beyond their day-to-day work.

 “My favorite thing is just getting to know everybody,” says Williams. “With other jobs, I just go to work and then go back home. Here I can actually talk to my crew members, get to know them, and bond with them.”

Whether it leads to a new career, new friendships or simply a new outlook on conservation, the work this crew is doing can have a lasting impact — on both the young women and the environment.   

“Conservation is the glue that brings us all together, but there is so much more that comes with this experience,” says Grom. “And for different crew members, it’s going to be different things because they’re all at different stages in their lives. But it’s what you can’t foresee that ends up having the really big, lasting benefits.”  
Photo credit: Hawa Images

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