A Chesapeake Bay workforce training program borne out of the Great Recession is expanding its footprint — and focus — to address emerging challenges.

For 12 years, the Chesapeake Conservation Corps has deployed young adults to serve one-year stints at environmental organizations across the watershed. In addition to being paid stipends for the work, these 18– to 25-year-olds get on-the-job training, mentoring, and networking opportunities that often launch them into environmental careers.

Avery Farrell and Samina Soin-Voshell paddle a canoe during their time as members of the Chesapeake Conservation Corps. Credit: Chesapeake Conservation Corps

In return, the organizations that host them — from nonprofit groups to government agencies — get an extra set of hands to do work central to their missions.

Participants “find themselves more inspired and motivated,” said Erica Anthony, a department chair at Morgan State University and a governor-appointed board member for the Chesapeake Bay Trust, which runs the corps program. After the corps, “they know exactly how they want to contribute to make the world a better place.”

Maryland legislators this year acknowledged the corps’ success by voting to more than double its capacity. The 2022 Climate Solutions Now Act included an additional $1.5 million for the program annually. The measure also directs the corps to expand its focus to train participants for careers in climate-benefitting sectors, such as clean energy and climate mitigation, through additional job placements. (Legislators did this instead of establishing a new climate-focused corps, which early language in the Senate bill had suggested.)

Spearheaded by the longtime president of the Maryland Senate, the late Thomas V. Mike Miller, lawmakers established the Chesapeake Conservation Corps in 2010 to buffer young people seeking environmental work from the lingering impacts of an economic recession. The first year of the program recruited 16 participants. The corps now places about 30 young people a year in environmental positions, a number that will grow with the additional funding, said Kacey Wetzel, the Bay Trust’s vice president of outreach.

Katie Kavanaugh, a participant in the 2021-22 cohort of the Chesapeake Conservation Corps, completes field work during her time with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. Credit: Chesapeake Conservation Corps

In addition to funding from the state, the program receives money from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, the National Park Service, and BGE, an Exelon Company. While most of the positions are based in Maryland, some positions with the Park Service are in Virginia and Pennsylvania. Organizations that have received a corps participant for several years are also asked to contribute funds to the program.

Wetzel said the Corps would be changing its name to include the climate aspect of its mission, but the details are still being worked out. The latest group of 33 young people began work with their host organizations in mid-August, and staff is reaching out to new organizations that could host participants in the coming year.

“It’s a never-ending cycle,” Wetzel said.

That cycle increasingly includes extra steps to ensure the program engages a broad swath of young people. The latest legislation encourages the corps to engage underserved communities and to find partners working in regions disproportionately impacted by climate change, moves that Wetzel said were already in motion. The measure also increased the stipend paid to participants to $15 per hour, higher than Maryland’s minimum wage, or $31,200 for the year — a nearly $11,000 increase over the previous annual stipend.

After the corps

Carol Wong, 36, was among those who graduated into the Great Recession in 2008. She had a degree in engineering from the University of Maryland — and a desire to pursue environmental work.

After graduation, she worked at an engineering firm and then applied to the Conservation Corps “to validate that I wanted to get a degree in environmental issues.” She landed a spot in the 2011 program.

After serving in the corps for a year with the South River Federation in Anne Arundel County, MD, Wong went on to get a master’s degree in environmental engineering and science from Stanford University. She returned to Maryland in 2014 for a job as a water resources engineer at the Center for Watershed Protection, where she’s been ever since.

Samina Soin-Voshell worked at the Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve during a job with the Chesapeake Conservation Corps that ended in the summer of 2022. She is now pursuing a doctorate degree from Northeastern University. Credit: Chesapeake Conservation Corps

“I had a lot of contacts from CCC, so it was fairly easy for me to find a job once I decided to come back,” Wong said, after getting experience on both coasts. “The work we do here is leading the charge regarding stormwater management. A lot of people look at the Chesapeake and say, ‘I wonder what they’re doing.’”

The corps matches participants with host organizations through a process that Wetzel compared to speed dating. The corps member and the organization must want to work together for the placement to succeed.

“We prioritize the young adults and where they’re excited to go,” Wetzel said. “If they’re excited, they’ll show up ready to work daily.”

For Briana Yancy, her year with the corps gave her the on-the-ground experience she was looking for and the connections she needed to eventually land a position at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Chesapeake Bay Program office.

Yancy spent 2019–20 with the corps, monitoring underwater grasses in Bay waters with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. She spent some days scooping grasses into baskets in waist-deep water and other days conducting research. Yancy was getting her master’s degree in biology from Miami University online, and some of the research she did with the corps also applied to her studies.

During her time with the Chesapeake Conservation Corps in 2019–20, Briana Yancy monitored underwater grasses with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. She now works at the U.S. EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program office. Credit: Briana Yancy

“It was great for me to get my feet wet, literally, and be out on the water,” Yancy said. “Coursework is great, but experience and connections mean much more for getting positions.”

The Maryland-based corps program is different from others across the country. Most corps programs are modeled after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps, established in 1933 to help put millions of people back to work with conservation and infrastructure projects during the Great Depression. (See Civilian Conservation Corps: Tough times led to lasting legacies at Chesapeake region’s parks.) Most modern corps programs also deploy team members to tackle projects, such as building a new trail or addressing aging infrastructure.

The Chesapeake Conservation Corps, instead, disperses its participants to organizations that match their interests. In this way, it mimics the types of jobs participants may later have in the environmental field more closely.

“They learn real, on-the-job skills and build the capacity of these nonprofits and agencies,” Wetzel said. In that respect, “it’s very much a ‘green’ workforce pipeline.”

In Yancy’s case, her mentor Brooke Landry at DNR, also chaired the Bay Program’s workgroup on Bay grasses. When positions opened up at the Bay Program, Landry sent them to her and encouraged her to apply. Not long after her time with the corps, Yancy became a coordinator with the Bay Program’s Diversity Workgroup.

“Now, I hold onto all those PowerPoints and resources and contacts, and I share them with people through the work I do with the Bay Program,” Yancy said.

Climate connections

Madeline Talnagi got a taste for tagging turtles during her time with the Maryland Coastal Bay Program as a member of the Chesapeake Conservation Corps, 2020–21. She now tags sea turtles for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida. Credit: Chesapeake Conservation Corps

For Humon Heidarian, a stint with the corps in 2017–18 helped to define his career interests. It also set him on a trajectory that has him addressing climate and equity issues as a policy manager for the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA.

Heidarian studied environmental science at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and was involved in gardening clubs at school. Getting placed with ECO City Farms in Prince George’s County, MD, allowed him to combine those interests and put his finger on a career path.

Working at a farm focused on food access, climate change, and social justice “solidified a lot of the things I was thinking about,” Heidarian said.

During his corps year, Heidarian also volunteered on the Prince George’s County Food Equity Council, where the issues he was interested in were being worked out on the ground.

Humon Heidarian, a 2017-18 member of the Chesapeake Conservation Corps, is a policy manager for the Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA. Credit: Chesapeake Conservation Corps

“[It] showed me that my little effort can make some difference in food equity and breaking down the barriers of food,” he said.

Corps participants can apply for additional grant funds from the program to complete capstone projects during their year.

For Heidarian’s project, he built on existing efforts to increase the farm’s food forest, designing and installing part of an expansion and developing a maintenance guide. 

Heidarian went on to work in a variety of farm– and food-oriented jobs, including a year as manager of Waterkeepers Chesapeake’s Fair Farms Campaign, before recently landing at RAFI-USA. He was happy to hear that the corps is expanding its focus to include more training for climate-oriented jobs like the one he now has.

“I think what legislators and foundations are seeing now is that climate is something everybody needs to focus more on, especially at the intersection of agriculture and equity,” Heidarian said. “We’ve seen how it’s all connected.”

This article was originally published on BayJournal.com and is republished with permission.

Whitney Pipkin

Whitney Pipkin is a Bay Journal staff writer based in Virginia. You can reach her at wpipkin@bayjournal.com.

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