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In Los Angeles, Environmental Challenges Meet Economic Opportunity for Young People

LA Conservation Corps provides 18- to 24-year-olds with job skills training, education, and work experience in environmental conservation and service projects. This story is part of a series on the innovative ways that 2016 Youth Opportunity Fund community partners, supported by America’s Promise Alliance and the Citi Foundation, are placing low-income young adults on a path toward career success.

In just two years, they planted 31,258 trees, built and maintained 31,570 linear feet of trails, cleared 25 acres of graffiti, restored 18 acres of habitat, and recycled 953 tons of beverage containers. They conducted 7 out of 80 scheduled energy audits for the city’s schools and created 8 community gardens.

Who are they? They’re members of the Los Angeles Conservation Corps (LACC), a workforce development program that prepares 18- to 24-year-old young men and women from low-income backgrounds for careers in environmental conservation.

Seventy-five percent have dropped out of high school, 40 percent are or were involved in the juvenile justice system, 25 percent are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and 10 percent enter the program with gang affiliations.

In the final months of 2016, Corpsmembers planted more than a thousand trees in just one district within the county of Los Angeles, with more planned for 2017.
In the final months of 2016, Corps members planted more than a thousand trees in just one district within the county of Los Angeles, with more planned for 2017.

Most Corps members enroll because of LACC’s tangible benefits – a job paying $10.50 an hour, a path toward a high school diploma, college scholarships, industry-recognized certifications like chipper operation and chainsaw safety, as well as CPR, first aid, construction, and forklift training.

Once in the program, Corps members begin to take pride in their work and see the value of their contributions to the community, said Justin Lee, LACC Corps member and Community Engagement Director.

‘Head, Heart, and Hands’

LACC applies a holistic approach to serving Corps members, recognizing that providing support—with help from partners across the community—is just as important as providing jobs.

This leads staff members to describe LACC as a “head, heart, and hands” operation. The “head” represents the high school diploma members work toward. The “heart” is a symbol for the personal development young people receive from formal case managers. And the “hands” embody the actual, physical labor that members provide to the community.

“We’re not just improving the community,” said the group’s CEO Wendy Butts. “We’re improving the lives of the people in it.”

 

The history of LACC is a story in itself. The program’s roots go all the way back to the New Deal, when President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to provide 3 million out-of-work men with jobs conserving federal and private land. In 1986, former U.S Secretary of Commerce Mickey Kantor founded LACC to employ young people through environmental conservation efforts.

At the Sea Laboratory, which is open to the public, Corps members teach 8,000 youth each year about marine life and the importance of protecting the oceans.
At the Sea Laboratory, which is open to the public, Corps members teach 8,000 youth each year about marine life and the importance of protecting the oceans.

Today, LACC offers members five green-career pathways: land management, zero waste, construction, energy, and manufacturing. Partnerships and relationships with local government, businesses, and education networks have been and continue to be integral to its success.

“The Head:” Education: LACC partners with the Los Angeles Education Corps to give members a traditional high school experience, but one with smaller classes and more individualized instruction, an approach that Corps members say make them feel more cared for by their teachers.

Corpsmembers typically rotate school and work, taking classes for three months and then working for three months until they graduate. When they aren’t working, they receive $75 each week during the school year—an incentive that has increased attendance by 20 percent. 

“The Hands:” Work: The nonprofit is not without its challenges. Resources and funding can be challenging at times, and LACC representatives have to work hard to build relationships with local businesses and contractors to provide projects for their members.

One site supervisor said he works “52 weeks out of the year” to get contracts with different businesses that ensure Corpsmembers always have a steady stream of work.

At Saito High School—a charter school created by a partnership between LACC and the LA Education Corps—small class sizes and hands-on instruction create caring relationships between Corps members and teachers. This mural can be found at the East LA campus, one of two that each serves between 100 and 130 students.
At Saito High School—a charter school created by a partnership between LACC and the LA Education Corps—small class sizes and hands-on instruction create caring relationships between Corps members and teachers. This mural can be found at the East LA campus, one of two that each serves between 100 and 130 students.

“The Heart:” Support for Health and Life: Beyond financial assistance, Corpsmembers need mental health services and day-to-day support. LACC employs formal case managers to offer emotional support and help members address barriers and obstacles they face, like transportation, housing, and childcare.

“It surprised me, how much they cared,” said Paul Gamboa, 22, who has been working in one of the construction pathways for almost a year.

But the single most important thing LACC offered him, Gamboa said, was help covering the cost of transportation to and from work, an example of the kind of instrumental support that Center for Promise researchers found can be life-changing.

‘The Chance to See Who You Are’

By the time most members graduate from the program, which takes about 18-24 months, they’ve gone through a lot of changes—from dropping out to getting a diploma, from struggling with financial insecurity to receiving a steady paycheck, from having few role models to counting on a whole network of support.

But the biggest change CEO Wendy Butts sees can be captured in word: confidence. “The ability to achieve success, achieve a goal, even a small goal,” she said, has a major impact on Corpsmembers’ self-esteem and work ethic.

After a year in the program, Cody Hidalgo, 24, said he was surprised to learn that he is a natural leader. He was recently offered a full-time supervisor position at LACC, which he plans on taking while he goes to college to prepare for a career in the Parks and Recreation Department.

Paul, right, says he likes to see his work and that the program “gives you the chance to see who you are.”
Paul, right, says he likes to see his work and that the program “gives you the chance to see who you are.”

Paul Gamboa plans on going into carpentry after he finishes the program. “I like to see [the end product of] my work,” he says.

Later, he adds another benefit. The program, he says, “gives you the chance to see who you are.”

The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative focused on preparing young people to thrive in today’s economy. In 2014, the Citi Foundation made a three-year, $50 million commitment to boost the career readiness of 100,000 low-income youth in 10 cities across the United States.

For more stories about Youth Opportunity Fund community partners, visit our Medium page.