Supporting the development of an equitable green workforce
Columbia Land Trust’s nine-member stewardship team is tasked with caring for 30,000 acres spanning the many diverse ecosystems of the lower Columbia River region, and every year the number of acres grows.
One thing is certain: we can’t do it alone. Each year, we rely on support from seasonal field staff, interns, volunteers, and contractors. Heavy civil construction firms, engineers, forestry crews, junk haulers, and watershed technicians are just a few of the contractors we now routinely hire to carry out our land management and restoration efforts. From our humble beginnings, we now embrace our role as a significant employer in the region’s growing green economy.
With that power comes responsibility. Looking to our equity commitments to guide us, our stewardship team has recognized opportunities to the development of an equitable green workforce, to envision a sector whose diversity reflects that of the communities in which we work, across all levels of employment.
“We asked ourselves, ‘What is the racial and cultural composition of our team (it is predominantly white), and who have career development opportunities in our field historically been designed for?’” says Emily Matson, a land steward on the stewardship team. “We want to improve the professional pathways that determine who becomes a land manager at the Land Trust and, more importantly, who goes on to have a career in restoration and land management in our region.”
To meet this responsibility, the stewardship team began shifting its practices and building new partnerships to remove barriers and increase access to careers in the field.
Wisdom Workforce Development Crew
In the realm of skill building, the Land Trust is partnering with Wisdom of the Elders, a nonprofit dedicated to Native American cultural sustainability. The nonprofit recently formed Wisdom Workforce Development, LLC (WWD), a restoration contractor that provides Native American adults with employment opportunities and skill development throughout the Portland-Vancouver area. In the past year, the Land Trust has contracted with WWD crews on stewardship projects, including vegetation mapping, brush cutting, and replacing cattle fencing with newer, wildlife-friendly fencing.
Bruce Amick, a crew leader with WWD, has enjoyed his experiences on Land Trust projects led by natural area manager Dan Friesz. “It’s been really awesome. Dan has helped us gain a lot of experience in the field, whether it’s fencing or tree maintenance, and it allows us to learn, try new things, adapt, adjust, and always improve.” Amick points out that from a business perspective, the Land Trust contracts pay well, which allows the LLC to build a foundation, purchase new equipment, and invest in growing the company. He also appreciates Wisdom’s vision for WWD. “You hear a lot about programs for youth. But what about adults who need a second start? I certainly count myself in that category.”
Green Jobs Program
In 2020, the Land Trust also partnered with Forest Park Conservancy (FPC) in the pilot year of its Green Jobs Training and Internship Program. FPC launched the program to provide access and career pathways into the green workforce for young people of color.
“In Portland, and across the US, the green jobs sector has historically been, and still is, extremely white and hard to break into,” says Katrina Montoya, fieldwork and internship coordinator for FPC. “We are working to make space for people who have felt like a career in conservation and stewardship would not be welcoming or even an option for them.”
Through the program, four Green Jobs team members, ages 18 to 25, are working with Columbia Land Trust as part of rotating placements with environmental organizations around the Portland-Vancouver area. In addition to the Land Trust and FPC, program partners include the Blueprint Foundation, Wisdom of the Elders, Ecotrust, and West Multnomah Soil & Water Conservation District.
Though the pandemic has made both field and office work more challenging logistically, the Green Jobs team members have still been able to gain hands-on experience in the field and shadow seasoned professionals, while earning a living wage and developing a professional network. They have supported planting and restoration efforts as well as vegetation management and fuels reduction, working alongside members of the Land Trust’s stewardship team.
Montoya has served as the Green Jobs team’s point person in navigating rotating assignments with multiple organizations, in addition to the challenges of working during a pandemic and a social reckoning with pervasive, systemic racism. “We have to decide what kind of culture we want to be,” says Montoya. “We can bring empathy and compassion for the world. We need connection to the land to help each other heal, and we all need healing. It’s time to elevate voices we’ve not heard before.”
Ahmed Yusuf, a member of this year’s cohort, is eyeing full-time employment in land stewardship when the 2020 Green Jobs pilot ends in December. “Because of COVID, my experience this year hasn’t been exactly what I pictured, but that’s probably true for most people. It’s still been a positive, different kind of experience being creative, finding ways to contribute from home. I just want to be outside doing the work on the ground. Hopefully people see me as an example out there.”
Yusuf supports the goal of the Green Jobs program to help diversify the field. “No matter which sector, you want the people serving a community to look like that community.”
Looking ahead, the Green Jobs team is preparing for their next career steps by creating résumés and action plans, with support from Matson, Montoya, and the other program staff. We are excited to see what comes next for the 2020 cohort, and we will be here to support them in their journey.
These partnerships and programs are new, and we won’t be able to fully evaluate their impact for years. In the meantime, we are grateful for the leadership and vision of our partners at FPC, Wisdom of the Elders, and many others. We are committed to challenging ourselves, making mistakes, and learning how much more work awaits as we support a vision of a Northwest that is nature-rich, culturally vibrant, and thriving.