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The Future Burns Bright

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By LA Allen, Outreach and Volunteer Coordinator, The Nature Conservancy in Georgia

For those of us who work for non-profits, learning to quote our organization’s mission is a first-day-on-the-job task, and after almost two years here, I can say with confidence that the mission of The Nature Conservancy is to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends.

LA Allen © The Nature Conservancy

LA Allen © The Nature Conservancy

Yet as the daily grind of meetings, conference calls and the slog of travel takes hold, it is easy to lose sight of the why – to see the mission as just words.

Any time I start to feel like that, I think of Luis.

When his mother lost her job, Luis Carrasco dropped out of high school to help pay the bills. In 2013, a friend told him about Job Corps, a federal job readiness program. Luis signed up to finish his diploma so he could realize the potential he knew he had in him.

Luis and I are part of a team of people leading a multi-state initiative to save iconic and disappearing longleaf pine habitat across nine states including Georgia, The Nature Conservancy is collaborating with Job Corps to provide controlled burn training and jobs to urban youth like Luis. The Student Conservation Association is bringing their expertise in working with young people in natural resources careers to the project too — connecting these new conservation practitioners to a broader network. The unique partnership began in Jacksonville, Florida in 2014 and has taken root—with more than 50 Job Corps students having participated so far.

Luis Carrasco uses a drip torch on a controlled burn at Osceola National Forest in north Florida. He is a part of The Nature Conservancy’s job training partnership with Job Corps. The program increases the amount of prescribed fire being used to improve the health of forests across the Southeast. Learn more about Luis and the program.

Luis Carrasco uses a drip torch on a controlled burn at Osceola National Forest in north Florida. He is a part of The Nature Conservancy’s job training partnership with Job Corps. The program increases the amount of prescribed fire being used to improve the health of forests across the Southeast. Learn more about Luis and the program. Luis Carrasco © The Nature Conservancy

Another thing I learned on my first day: people who work at The Nature Conservancy really like to set things on fire. Did you know that many types of forests need fire as much as they need rain and sunshine? It is a part of the cycles of nature. I didn’t know this before I started working with the Conservancy. And neither did Luis.

The partnership between the Conservancy and Job Corps is one of the first of its kind and one we hope can be a model for conservation career recruitment. Job Corps is a free education and training program funded by the Department of Labor that helps low-income 16- to 24-year-olds gain technical and soft skills needed to start a career and secure financial independence. While it offers traditional trade programs such as masonry, carpentry and electrical work, there’s a push to also provide greener job training to meet employment trends.

Those who successfully complete the Conservancy-led fire program, which includes classroom training and physical tests, earn their Red Card – a certification that qualifies them for jobs working on controlled burn operations and responding to wildfire emergencies. The program includes significant hands-on experience working with some of the best fire crews in the country, and program graduates are getting in front of hiring managers from a wide variety of organizations.

Despite many long days and lots of blisters, Luis made it through the training and is now a full-time employee with the Conservancy. Providing young people from all different racial, economic and social backgrounds the opportunity to explore a career path they might not otherwise be exposed to, and where they can bring their ideas, is so important.

A new cohort wrapped up training in fall 2016 and 20 new recruits were trained and deployed to join established Conservancy fire crews for 20 week assignments in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. Thanks to new grant funding from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, The R. Howard Dobbs, Jr. Foundation, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, Inc., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Forest Service, 2017 will be the program’s biggest year yet.

I grew up mostly in Hawaii, so tropical forests, volcanoes and beaches are the backdrop of my life. I honestly never really thought about my personal connection to the environment because honoring and respecting nature is an underlying element of Hawaiian culture.  It was always there, like other values – a fundamental element of my existence.

Now I am a part of helping young people discover their own connection to place. I’m proud of how this work is changing our organization. The Nature Conservancy is known for natural resources conservation around the world. Celebrating and protecting the diversity of life on the planet applies to people too. This job training program is giving us a reason to confront issues of diversity that are hard to understand in the abstract and making them real. Talking about diversity – and in particular, issues of economic class – can be uncomfortable. But if Luis can do it, so can we. As a former teacher and a lifelong educator, I am proud of my role in this program that is giving diverse, urban youth new options for the future.

 

Bryony Wardell contributed to this column.

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