Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa

Report date
September 2016

What has been most instrumental to your progress?

We facilitated regular meetings with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR), University of Minnesota, and U.S. Forest Service to define how the path to professional employment would be forged for our youth participants. These discussions with project partners allowed us to shape our training and curriculum to include experience necessary for educational and career paths in the environmental science and natural resource fields. These meetings also helped build a collective understanding of the larger problem. This has led to increased commitment from our partners, encouraging them to help us spread the word about this program, as well as affirming their commitment to work with and mentor our participants.
Twelve youth in the Bridges Project worked alongside natural resource professionals and scientists over the summer session, guided by Corps staff. We partnered on this initiative with the Minnesota DNR to offer more advanced training and science-based natural resource projects in the Twin Cities and surrounding area. In addition, during the school year as part of the Bridges Project, our college and career coordinator worked with interested Youth Outdoors participants in good academic standing, as well as their high school counselors, to support them in taking natural resource and environmental science courses through Postsecondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) or other dual enrollment options such as Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate and College in the Schools concurrent enrollment. This program enhancement has reduced barriers and established pathways for diverse youth to enter college and the natural resources field. Minnesota DNR professionals have committed to working with and mentoring this group of trained high school students to help jump-start their careers.
Starting with the spring 2016 session, all Youth Outdoors initiatives began offering Geographical Information System (GIS) training to youth participants, with the most intensive training offered to Bridges Project participants during the summer session. Youth Outdoors GIS training, including a PowerPoint presentation and field exercises, was developed by two Conservation Corps young adults who are serving in yearlong GIS internship positions with the Minnesota DNR. GIS training introduces students to a wide variety of digital mapping applications that natural resource professionals use in the field. GIS positions are in high demand, and this training gives our participants skills applicable in several other fields, including engineering and architecture.

Key lessons learned

One of our challenges, which Corps face nationwide, is the recruitment of AmeriCorps members in an improved economy. Although unemployment is still relatively high for youth of color, the young adult job market in Minnesota has improved significantly and the AmeriCorps service stipend amount limits our ability to be competitive. Because we were not able to hire as many qualified candidates to serve as youth leaders as anticipated for program growth in the first semester of 2016, program staff worked to remedy the situation by leasing larger vans to increase the number of youth in each crew and to slightly increase the ratio of leaders to youth from 1:3 to 1:4, which is still an excellent ratio for assuring a safe, quality experience for all participants.
PSEO is not the best option for all participants. Youth have to meet certain acceptance criteria in order to be eligible to take classes from the University of Minnesota. Additionally, transportation can be a barrier to youth participating in PSEO. We learned that the key is to adapt our programs to include all available options that would give youth a head start towards higher education. We encourage our students to take courses that are college credit worthy that will give them opportunities to test out of college courses. We also expanded our focus to assist participants with other dual enrollment options such as Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate and College in the Schools concurrent enrollment.

Reflections on inclusive, collaborative or resourceful problem-solving

Collaborative. Creating an educational and career path for young people of color in the environmental science and natural resource fields cannot be accomplished by our organization alone. We rely on collaboration with our partners to co-create a path to professional employment and to provide the necessary training and skills to prepare our participants for further education and future jobs.

Other key elements of Community Innovation

It has been important for us to understand the broader trends that have affected employment in our community. The new overtime wage regulations as well as the general decrease in unemployment have affected our ability to hire qualified candidates to serve as youth leaders and have caused us to think creatively about how to serve our youth participants with fewer leaders.

Understanding the problem

In preparing youth for college success and meaningful careers, we have recognized the importance of offering training in real-life, marketable job skills that apply to a variety of fields. This resulted in adding GIS training to our curriculum in order to provide our participants with a high-demand skill that will be attractive to both colleges and future employers. We hope to continue to add other concrete skills to our program in the future.

If you could do it all over again...

It is important to be open to other ways of accomplishing our goals. This has been especially true in regards to PSEO and looking for other options that reduce barriers and establish pathways for college enrollment. It has been vital for us to understand that when we are met with rigidity, we need to find other ways of moving forward that will continue to meet our goals and connect our youth with the right opportunities.

One last thought

YO is offering our participants not only pathways to college and real-world job skills, but it is exposing them to new opportunities they wouldn’t otherwise experience. Vue Pao, a high school senior in the Bridges Project, was excited to go camping for the very first time this summer. When asked why he signed up for the program he said, “I like to be outdoors and I hear there’s a lot of camping.”

High school senior, Cindy, participated in YO during the spring semester and the Bridges Project this summer. Her favorite part of the program? “Traveling. I like seeing new places,” says Cindy. She had the opportunity to work in parks throughout the Twin Cities as well as work sites within Superior National Forest.

You can read more about Vue Pao and Cindy’s experiences online: