2018 Corpsmember of the Year: Kiara Alexis, Civicorps

Every year, at The Corps Network’s National Conference in Washington, DC, we honor a select group of exceptional Corpsmembers from our member Service and Conservation Corps. These young men and women have exceeded the expectations of their Corps by exhibiting outstanding leadership skills and demonstrating an earnest commitment to service and civic engagement. The Corpsmembers of the Year are role models; their personal stories and accomplishments are an inspiration to Corpsmembers nationwide. Learn more.

As the lead driver for Civicorps’ Recycling Team, Kiara Alexis has worked hard to achieve the goals she had coming into the Corps.

Kiara first applied to the Corps in 2011. At the time, she was, as she puts it, “out of work and almost out of hope.” She had her high school diploma, but was looking for a training program that would help her find a path to a well-paying career. She had applied to numerous jobs, but only received a couple interviews. Newly married and with a one-year-old daughter, Kiara wanted to find a job that would allow her young family to move out of her husband’s grandmother’s house.

“I went to Civicorps to get an application and they called back quickly with an interview date. I had no idea what possibilities the Corps was about to offer me,” said Kiara. “It all sounded great, but I didn’t know how I would fit in, or if I could even last. All I knew is that I needed a job.”

But Kiara did fit in. Her supervisors say she “is an excellent team player and a quiet leader. Her positive attitude is recognized beyond the Recycling Team and the energy she brings to support her teammates is appreciated and admired by both staff and fellow Corpsmembers.”

Kiara was an active member of the Recycling Team for two and half years, receiving forklift training and her Commercial Driver’s License Permit. She took a break from the program for a couple years when she had her second child, but returned to Civicorps to finish what she had started.

Kiara obtained her Commercial Driver’s license, with both passenger and airbrakes endorsements, and has recently been accepted into the Civicorps-Waste Management Teamsters Apprenticeship Program, which is only offered to two drivers every two years. Upon completion of the program, Kiara will be assured a Teamster position, starting at $70,000 a year, plus all the union benefits. She and her family will be positioned for financial sustainability well into retirement.   

Kiara has supported several other Corpsmembers in obtaining their Commercial Driver’s Licenses and permits. One thing she is known for is completing her routes ahead of schedule and immediately checking in to see who she can assist. She also takes great pride in her recycling truck and keeps it clean and shiny, which reflects well on her and on Civicorps.

Outside the Corps, Kiara tries to inspire young women and girls to be bold and brave. When she is skillfully navigating her huge recycling truck through narrow streets and collecting material from schools and local commercial districts, she has had many interactions with women, both young and old, who are impressed by her abilities and her confidence in a job that most consider only for men.

Asked about the impact of Civicorps on her life, Kiara recalls, “Every other Friday my boss would hold meetings with the staff and Corpsmemers in my department about ‘real life’ and making grown-up decisions for the betterment of our families and ourselves. I would be sitting in my seat thinking, ‘Wow! This is where I need to be!’ I knew I wouldn’t be able to get that from anywhere else. A lot of other Corpsmembers thought it was boring, but not me, I was fully engaged. I felt fortunate to be in that position and I wished other people I knew could be alongside me. That, along with the love I was shown, really helped me grow.  Just the thought of knowing I had so much support made me feel like I couldn’t fail.”

The experience of being in a space where she felt appreciated and respected has confirmed Kiara’s commitment to one day create a community center; a safe, positive space where children and families can play and learn. She says, “When you get love, it helps you grow. It is impossible not to grow.”

Kiara is taking this message to heart. She has already written a book for her children and plans to write more books to empower children and young adults and teach them to acknowledge their positive attributes.

Kiara has used her AmeriCorps Education Award to help support her studies at Merritt Community College, where she is pursuing her dreams of being a writer. 


Hurricane Maria Recovery: A Washington Conservation Corps Story from the U.S. Virgin Islands

Washington Conservation Corps members with All Hands, a disaster response organization.

In early November, 12 Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) AmeriCorps members finished a 30-day disaster response deployment to the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Corpsmembers assisted communities affected by Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that made landfall in September. An additional 18 WCC AmeriCorps members were deployed recently and will be on the ground through mid-December. Korey Nuehs shares a personal account from serving on the first wave of responders to communities on St. Thomas.

By Korey Nuehs, WCC AmeriCorps member

Another day of rain. I see the homeowner grab an old leather bag from the bed and clutch it in her arms. 

"This needs to be saved," she says.

"It's wet and moldy," her daughter responds.

"It was your father's."

The mother grabs the bag and walks outside without saying another word. Both she and her daughter are wearing white M95 masks to protect against the mold. It's still raining, there is a hole in the roof, and I'm tearing down the daughter's bedroom. 

I tear down her bed and move it outside to be thrown into a dumpster. I come back to tear down the shelves that used to hold the daughter's belongings. They are empty now. I see a quote stuck to the middle shelf. I tear it off and set it aside. I grab the shelves and move them outside to the trash heap beginning to form. 

Only it's not trash. It is years of memories and attachments that can't be saved. I walk back into the house. My boots and socks are wet from walking through the foot of standing water inside the house. As I walk back into the daughter's bedroom, I see her hunched over, reading the quote I pulled from the shelf. I step outside to give her a moment alone. The quote reads:

"The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you."

I served four years in the U.S. Army. I'm used to deploying to foreign countries, used to living in stressful conditions, used to being uncomfortable and dealing with the forces of Mother Nature. But in the Army, there are always barriers between you and the people. Language, culture, animosity, time, and space all help to distance the soldier from the people in their homeland. I wasn't used to stepping into someone's wound, watching it bleed, watching it attempt to heal. 

I wasn't used to seeing a mother struggle to make the choice between which belongings to keep and which to throw away, or watch her try to keep a calm face while a disaster has destroyed almost everything she's owned. I saw both her pain and her resilience. She baked us cookies and blessed us by name.

More importantly, I listened to her story. I listened to her tell us how she and her husband moved out to the island and bought a house. I listened to her tell us that her husband died when the kids were young and how she made the decision to stay on the island. And then a storm hits. Old wounds are cracked open, but somehow, through it all is not an ending, but a beginning.

"The will of God will never take you where the grace of God will not protect you."

I joined AmeriCorps because I needed a job. I know where I am going and where I have been. I want to go to law school. I want to have a family. I want to make a difference. And yet, life happens. It moves without us and shapes us, tells us where we will go, and sometimes, sometimes, we just have to move forward. 

The woman we helped probably had plans like mine. She might have even sat down one morning this summer on the porch overlooking the valley below, letting her imagination run, perhaps coming to similar conclusions about where she was going. And yet, life happens. Two category five hurricanes hit, and all she can do is move forward.

Our AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team is responding to a disaster that will show lasting impacts years from now. We are “mucking and gutting” people’s homes, deconstructing them to remove material damaged by water and mold so people can eventually rebuild.

Yet, a creation of sorts has already begun. Out of the disaster, a web of millions of lives are now intertwined because of these two hurricanes. Now I know this woman and her daughter. I know their story, and, because of that, I share in it, and another story forms. One where individuals no longer move forward alone, but as a community supporting each other. An island and a people form a story of renewal amidst a landscape of devastation. 

A WCC AmeriCorps member on the most recent deployment treats mold.

This Land is My Land? The Legacy of Early Interactions Between Native Americans and Colonists


The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative – supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation – seeks to address bias and structural racism in the conservation workforce and help increase the employment of young adults of color in public lands management and conservation-related careers.

As part of this initiative, we aim to provide information to help people develop a foundation to understand the history, policies, practices and societal dynamics that have shaped our country and the conservation field. This blog will explore the relationships between Native Americans and the first permanent British settlements in the present-day United States. This week, as we celebrate Thanksgiving – a holiday built around the lore of peaceful and mutually-beneficial relationships between Native Americans and Pilgrims – we feel it’s important to add our voice to the growing conversation about the inaccuracies of these stories.

The British – who would later become the first “American citizens” – viewed the indigenous people as subordinate and uncivilized due to their nomadic lifestyles and “underutilization” of the land. The settlers’ hunger for expansion drove them to pursue goals of eradication. They took actions which displaced native peoples and redefined tribes’ relationships with ancestral lands. Over a period of 300 years, from 1609 to 1900, Native American tribes went from inhabiting the entire land area, to living on specifically defined “native reservations.” Long before the founding of the United States, countless acres were taken through illegal treaties, trickery, and bloodshed.

These preliminary encounters between Native Americans and colonists laid the foundation for a tradition of land grabbing that repeated itself through the Revolutionary War of 1776, and later through policies of the United States federal government. The phenomenon of taking land from the Native Americans under the banner of supremacy is highly relevant to the Moving Forward Initiative. European settlement of North America altered the way people had interacted with the land for millennia, and proved devastating for indigenous communities and their people.

The structural dynamics responsible for the erosion of indigenous land sovereignty continues to the present. Today, exposure to environmental degradation is a concern for Native Americans residing on reservations. However, barriers, including explicit and implicit biases, have historically prevented native voices from participating fully in conservation and preservation discussions. Meanwhile, their historical and sacred sites are celebrated as treasures of America’s “public lands.” 


Native Americans arrived in the Americas about 15,000 years ago. It’s difficult to quantify the population of indigenous people inhabiting North America prior to European arrival in the late 15th century; estimates range from 4 million to over 100 million. What is certain, however, is that their numbers greatly dwindled following contact with white settlers.

The greatest threat to Native life came from diseases, such as measles and small pox, unknowingly carried by Europeans. These diseases spread farther and faster than Europeans themselves. Despite this fact, it’s important to examine the direct impact of European imperialism and colonization on the indigenous people of the present day United States. In the Americas, modern society was built on land-grabbing.


European Contact Pre-1600s: Glory, God and Gold

European empires began exploring the New World over 500 years ago, laying claim to land and riches for their respective crowns. Dutch and French settlers established mutually-beneficial trading relationships with indigenous people in present-day Canada and the Ohio River Valley. In contrast, the Spanish initially treated the native peoples of South and Central America as enemies to be eradicated in order to take control of the region’s natural bounty of gold. However, the Spanish turned toward a policy of assimilation through Christianity in the early 1500s. By the mid-16th century, Spanish priests were successfully “missionizing” the native people in established communities. Much intermingling took place between the two groups through marriage and reproduction, creating a majority population of mestizos.


The Coronation of Powhatan - John Cadsby Chapman (1835)

The Settlement of Jamestown

While the British were nearly a century behind other European countries in colonizing North America, they did not follow their counterparts’ policy of missionizing. Britain created its first permanent settlement at Jamestown in 1609, primarily as a temporary venture to amass wealth. Most of the early colonists came from upper-class English families and arrived heavily backed by private investors. In contrast, Pilgrims formed the colony at Plymouth in 1620 not for riches, but to escape religious persecution in England. Although differing in motivation and social organization, the English settlers at Jamestown and Plymouth both engaged destructively with indigenous peoples

The English at Jamestown and the Algonquian-speaking tribes inhabiting the area, led by Chief Wahunsunacawh, lived in relative peace for the first few years after English settlement. Unfamiliar with the Algonquian language, or simply unwilling to learn, the white settlers used the name “Powhatan” for Wahunsunacawh and called the tribes of his kingdom “Powhatans.” Neither group desired military conflict, as fighting would distract from other goals, mainly wealth accumulation for the English and maintenance of chiefdom for the Powhatans.

Conflict arose at the end of 1609 when the English found themselves without enough food. Attempts to raid the Powhatans’ food stores proved largely unsuccessful; nearly all of the settlers died of starvation in the winter of 1609-1610. With supplies and numbers depleted to almost nothing, and the sobering realization that Virginia would not yield the same mineral riches as discovered by the Spanish in Latin America, the Jamestown settlement abandoned the colony and sailed back to England in 1610. But, while journeying down the James River, the group encountered Lord De La Warr, sent from England with ships of supplies.


The Anglo-Powhatan Wars

The arrival of De La Warr changed the relationship between the English colonists and the native people inhabiting present day Virginia. De La Warr, experienced in warfare from his time spent colonizing Ireland for the British, soon took control of Jamestown and launched aggressive military assaults against Chief Powhatan and the Powhatan people, known as the First Anglo-Powhatan wars. The series of conflicts temporarily ended in 1613 when John Rolfe married Pocahontas, the daughter of Powhatan.

Although peace negotiations appeared temporarily successful, skirmishes continued between the English and native peoples as settlers continued to push westward. Opechancanough, who assumed leadership of the Powhatans following the first Anglo-Powhatan War, orchestrated a major surprise attack on English settlements in the spring of 1622, inciting the Second Anglo-Powhatan War. This maneuver killed nearly one-third of the settlers in Virginia. For the next decade, the English continuously attacked and raided North American settlements, greatly depleting the number of indigenous people living in the area. When a peace agreement was finally reached in 1632, the Powhatans found themselves permanently displaced from the present-day Chesapeake Peninsula.


This map indicates the domains of New England’s native inhabitants in 1670, a few years before King Philip’s War. Image credit: "English Settlements in America" by OpenStaxCollege, CC BY 4.0. - Via Khan Academy

The Pilgrims

As Opechancanough prepared to launch his ambush in Virginia, the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts in 1620 and were met by Natives belonging to the Wampanoag Nation, which contained numerous distinct tribes.

At first, certain sects of Wampanoag and the Pilgrims worked together under Chief Massasoit; the tribes needed allies for defending their territory from rival groups, and the Pilgrims desperately needed help learning how to survive in their new environment. Not all Native Americans supported an alliance with the Pilgrims, namely the Massachusetts and Narragansetts, as they saw the settlers’ occupation as a threat to their way of life.

An uneasy peace between Natives and Pilgrims lasted for over forty years until Metacomet succeeded Massasoit as chief of the Wampanoag people in 1662. Metacomet, similar to his Massachusetts and Narragansetts counterparts, viewed the increasing number of settlers as hazardous to Native land.

Cultural differences and misunderstandings played a large role in the conflicts over land. When treaties were signed between the Pilgrims and Natives, the Pilgrims sought to own the land through privately held property rights. Meanwhile, the Natives thought the Pilgrims simply wanted permission to hunt or farm the land, as Native property values centered around communal use by and for the group.

Throughout the 1660s, tensions rose sharply between the two cultures as Native American sovereignty waned due to the loss of land from European encroachment. In 1671, Metacomet, whom the Pilgrims called King Phillip, was ordered to the town of Taunton where the settlers forced him to sign a new peace treaty. History tells us that a humiliated Metacomet returned to his tribe and commenced organizing an inter-tribal resistance against the colonists.

The details of the events taking place in the four years following the incident at Taunton in 1671 remain unclear. However, in the Spring of 1675, all-out warfare commenced between Metacomet’s faction of tribes and the Pilgrims. Known as King Phillip’s War, fighting only lasted fourteen months, but brought unspeakable damage and loss of life. The war ended in August of 1676 when the British beheaded Chief Metacomet.

Of the roughly 4,000 individuals killed over the fourteen-month period, three-quarters were Native Americans. The handful of Natives surviving either fled west, were executed, or sold into slavery. Similar to the outcomes of the Second Anglo-Powhatan war, this defeat of the New England indigenous populations essentially ended their inhabitance of the New England region.


The Lasting Consequences

Between 1700 and 1775, the British population, including their enslaved persons, increased ten-fold, from 250,000 to approximately 2.5 million. An expanding population requires expanded land holdings on which to settle.

The history of warfare, trickery and misunderstandings outlined above are not unique to Jamestown and Plymouth. Beginning with Jamestown, a 350-year pattern of near-constant conflict brought all but a handful of native lands under the jurisdiction of the United States. Over the course of the nineteen and twentieth centuries, a series of legislative actions and legal mandates attempted to distribute, and in many cases, shrink, the land held by indigenous peoples. Of the 2.3 billion acres composing the United States, Native American reservations comprise approximately 56 million acres, or less than 3 percent of total land mass.


For Your Consideration 

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider: 

  1. Read this opinion on Native American Heritage Month by a citizen of the Blackfeet Nation. What are your feelings on the observance of cultural and ethnic recognition “holidays?” What is their purpose? How are they useful, and in what ways might they be problematic?  
  2. What do you know about the indigenous people of your state or region? What do you know about their culture, traditions or beliefs?
  3. Spend some time on this interactive map which chronicles the loss of Native American land from 1784 to the present. You can click on specific tracks of land to learn when and how it was seceded, or designated a reservation. As you familiarize yourself with the map, what stands out to you?
    • Research: Were there any Native American settlements in your town or city? What became of these places and people? Where are they today? 
  4. What do you know about the relationship between the U.S. Government and Tribal Governments?
  5. In American schools, many of us grew up learning “sanitized” versions of historical events and inaccuracies about Native peoples and their cultures. What can be done to correct some of these past teachings and increase awareness? What can schools do today to better educate students?
  6. For Corps working on Public Lands: How, if in any way, does this narrative conflict with the traditional narrative surrounding public lands? What role can you play in ensuring an honest and holistic conversation about the historical formation of America’s public lands system?

Finding a New Mission: A U.S. Army Veteran on Connecting Veterans and Public Lands for the Benefit of Both


Learn more about Veterans Conservation Corps in Veterans Service and Conservation Corps: Career Pathways through Continued Service, a publication of The Corps Network (November 2017). 

By Joshua Tuohy, Government Relations Coordinator at The Corps Network
(pictured below with U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke)

Military veterans representing all branches of service gathered in Washington, DC last week to join the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Restore America’s Parks campaign in advocating for ways to address the infrastructure needs of our national parks. 

The connection between veterans and parks might not immediately be obvious, but there is a strong bond. The individuals who came to Washington don’t just identify as veterans; they are hunters, anglers, hikers, kayakers, wildlife photographers, and outdoor enthusiasts who found renewed meaning and peace in their lives through the Great Outdoors.

About a third of all national parks commemorate and interpret military history, including 25 battlefields and 14 national cemeteries. Some of these parks manage decommissioned forts and bases that once trained our military and protected our country. These 156 sites document and educate future generations, yet they account for nearly half of the National Park Service’s more than $11 billion in deferred maintenance.

For two days last week, veterans voiced their concerns to 25 Members of Congress on issues ranging from the accessibility of parks for those with disabilities, to underfunded infrastructure maintenance and ways to enhance the visitor experience. The efforts reached a high point with a candid roundtable discussion convened by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, himself a former Navy SEAL. I applaud the Secretary for his strong support for increased engagement of veterans and military families on public lands, and his commitment to veterans at the Department of the Interior. I am encouraged that we have a veteran at the position of Secretary overseeing our public lands.

I am a six-year U.S. Army infantry veteran.  I’ve always loved the outdoors; some of my fondest memories are of hiking and snowshoeing through Mt. Rainier National Park while stationed at Ft. Lewis, WA. Places like this would play an integral role in my recovery after a roadside bomb took the lives of three of my comrades and my leg in Afghanistan in 2009.  I’d eventually find myself standing on the literal edge of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, taking off my leg to cliff dive into Crater Lake. I’d once again meander through the fog in the elevation of Mt. Rainier. These moments fostered necessary self-assurance and forged new conviction. It was only out there that I rediscovered a virtue I had previously known in the military: that I am connected to something far greater than myself.

The importance of our public lands and national parks to veterans cannot be understated.  They offer an opportunity for catharsis for the wounded and those seeking new adventure and a sense of belonging.  Such experiences are so important to the transition process from service member to civilian – a process without any defined timeline or blueprint. 

One way to ensure more veterans benefit from time in the Great Outdoors and have an opportunity to continue their mission of service to country is through Veterans Corps. Veterans Corps are locally-based programs that connect veterans to parks and the outdoors by giving them the opportunity to train for careers in resource management through national service and AmeriCorps projects conserving our public lands and forests. Many former service members experience a lack of purpose, lack of civilian job confidence, and lack of peer support. Service in Veterans Corps offers an opportunity to purge these notions, renew a sense of purpose and mission, and author a new chapter in life.

Since 2009, Veterans Corps across the country have engaged former military in projects ranging from invasive species removal and the preservation of historic properties, to trails restoration and wildfire management. Many of these projects take place at national parks, forests and refuges and help reduce the maintenance backlog. All while engaging former military members in quality mission-driven and skills-based service and apprenticeship programs.

Veterans Fire Corps members with Conservation Legacy

The Corps model benefits veterans in a range of ways: it provides a similar structure and sense of purpose as the military; offers the therapeutic benefits of getting outdoors and working with fellow veterans; and helps participants re-acclimate to civilian life through skills development and other supportive services. In a 2016 survey, 90 percent of Veterans Corps alumni surveyed indicated that Corps opportunities helped them transition from the military.

Veterans Corps are part of a larger Corps movement – the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps: a national initiative, through public-private partnerships, to spread the word about modern-day Corps and annually engage 100,000 young adults and veterans in AmeriCorps and national service to strengthen our infrastructure, rural and urban communities, and public lands.

21CSC is part of a solution to fixing the maintenance issues faced by our resource management agencies. With their talents, commitment to service, and passion for the outdoors, recent veterans are a critical element.

Let us, as a nation, continue to support our public lands with the kind of zeal we put into supporting our veterans. Let us support the engagement of veterans in the Great Outdoors. Let us recognize the values we display when we properly manage our public lands, as well as the values we demonstrate when we let parks, and our sense of service to others, fall into disrepair.

Veterans Corps can answer the call for a new mission. Let us hope our lawmakers and leadership answer our calls to address deferred maintenance and support veterans, and citizens generally, in restoring our parks and public lands. As a nation, let us all value service to America’s lands and communities.

Learn more about Veterans Conservation Corps in Veterans Service and Conservation Corps: Career Pathways through Continued Service, a publication of The Corps Network (November 2017).  

Moving Forward Initiative Guest Series: Interview with Dr. Andrew W. Kahrl on African American Leisure and Recreation Spaces in the Era of Jim Crow

Dr. Andrew W. Kahrl is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the social, economic, and environmental history of land use, real estate development, and racial inequality in the 20th century United States.

Dr. Kahrl is the author of The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South (UNC Press: 2016), as well as the forthcoming book, Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline (Yale University Press: 2018).

As part of The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative, we spoke with Dr. Kahrl about the outdoor leisure and recreation opportunities available to African Americans during the era of Jim Crow. Read our conversation to learn how policies, events and social practices shaped the way African Americans recreated and utilized outdoor spaces in the first half of the 20th century. We also discuss historical influences on the modern conservation and outdoor recreation movements. 

Click for Moving Forward Initiative homepage


Tell us a bit about your area of study and how you came to focus on the intersection of race, the environment and the economy in 20th century America?

I wrote a dissertation, that then formed the basis for my first book, that looked at the history of African American outdoor leisure spaces in the Jim Crow South. The question that framed my first book was, “how did African Americans develop parallel social spaces in a segregated society?”

We’re familiar with whites-only swimming pools and parks, but there was less information available about how African Americans created alternative social spaces in a Jim Crow world. What types of spaces – especially outdoor spaces – were available?

I realized early in the research how extensive the network of black social spaces was. The importance of these spaces didn’t just reach into the world of recreation and leisure, but also into black economic life. Two of the main things I uncovered were, 1) just how widespread African American landholdings were in coastal areas, which was something I initially wasn’t expecting. And 2) how critical African American leisure spaces were to local black economies.

In my mind, these findings spoke to how we should look at people’s interactions with the outdoor world not just through the lens of environment, but also through the lens of economy. Furthermore, we should think of Jim Crow not only as a racial regime, but a land regime. Jim Crow profoundly influenced the built and natural environments of the South, both in the way whites excluded people, and in the way African Americans carved out spaces of their own.

For my first book, I gravitated specifically towards the history of black beaches because, for one, there were so many of them scattered throughout the South. These beaches were a product of opportunity: African Americans having land that they owned and could then turn into enterprises.

Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University - via Grist.org


Can you discuss why, in the first half of the 20th century, there was a need and desire to create black-owned leisure spaces?

In the era of Jim Crow, the types of activities from which African Americans were fully excluded tended to involve more intimate spaces: funeral homes, barber shops, restaurants, and leisure spaces, too. These were spaces where segregation was so complete that African Americans’ opportunities to carve out parallel institutions was greatest.

When we think about what people want when they seek out leisure, they want relaxation, comradery. Unless you are seeking to engage in a form of protest or challenge the social order, the last place you as an African American would want to spend leisure time is surrounded by hostile, racist white folks. It stands to reason that African Americans who had the time and resources to carve out moments of leisure would want to find welcoming environments.

It’s important to note how, especially for many working class African American families, it was rare to find moments of respite, and rare to find moments when you could rest from having to deal with white people. Daily interactions with white people in the Jim Crow South could be frustrating, hostile, humiliating – everything that leisure is not. So that gives you a sense of why it was so critically important for African Americans to have spaces of their own.


Can you talk about what the Green Book was? What was its purpose and what information did it offer?

The Negro Motorist Green Book was a guide – published from 1936 to 1967 – that provided a list of welcoming restaurants, hotels, and other accommodations for African American travelers trying to navigate a Jim Crow world. It was geared towards providing information on a town-by-town, state-by-state basis. If a certain town was not listed, that was a signal to keep driving.

The Green Book primarily provided names of small, black-owned businesses, but, as you get into the last days of its publication – you begin to see corporate chains making it known to readers – who were mostly middle class African Americans – that their business was welcome.

The Green Book existed because America was a racist country. It responded to a need among African American consumers for information about places they could go where their money would be accepted and they would be treated with dignity.

An important point for many African American mothers and fathers with small children was a desire to shield their families from racism. Not to try to create a fantasy world where racism didn’t exist, but to try and prevent any humiliating or dangerous encounters if possible. This need was part of what the Green Book aimed to serve. By patronizing businesses in the Green Book, families would not need to experience rejection.

In doing interviews for my book, one thing noted by African Americans who grew up during this time was that, if their family was travelling a long distance or going through the Deep South, they would leave in the dead of night so they could get to their destination while the kids were asleep. This was to avoid situations where the kids might say, “let’s stop here,” or “I have to use the restroom,” and the parents would need to have a difficult conversation where they’d explain why they couldn’t stop.


The Idlewild Club House, Idlewild, Mich., September 1938. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images) - via NPR.org

Where were black-owned outdoor leisure spaces? Were they predominantly in the South, where racism and segregation would have been more overt?  

A lot of African American leisure spaces grew up informally. Many of the black beaches I write about began with black families who owned land who would let it out to picnic groups, church groups, and people seeking a place to relax on the weekend. If you flip through the pages of the Green Book, you’ll find that many of the locations listed as lodging are people’s homes – or what are called “Do-Drop-Ins.” These are places where a black family that owned a house would let out an extra room. It was sort of like an early version of Airbnb.

As you might expect, black-owned leisure spaces grew up around areas with large concentrations of African Americans. They followed the demographic changes that unfolded during the 20th century. In the nineteen-teens and twenties, as the black population grew in northern cities, you began to see black vacation communities sprout up in places like rural Michigan or northern Indiana. In Michigan, there was Idlewild, which was a famous vacation destination for black doctors and professionals who lived in Chicago.

In the South, there were both formal resort communities, as well as destinations that would more resemble a space for local folks or the working class.

Black outdoor leisure spaces were as varied and diverse as black America itself. There were places for the highly educated or, as they were sometimes called, the “aristocrats of color.” These were places like Highland Beach, which is outside Washington, DC on Maryland’s western shore. This was where Howard University professors and the black cultural elite of Washington would go. This was a place where working black families would not feel welcome. The families that lived at Highland Beach worked just as hard as white elite resort communities in excluding certain people from their spaces. On the other hand, you had places that very much catered to working families. Class segregation or separatism was very pronounced in black America, especially when it came to leisure spaces.


Archival photo from Shenandoah National Park - National Park Service historic photos


Would African Americans have frequented national parks? In our research, we came across an archival photo from Shenandoah National Park of a sign pointing towards the “negro area” for camping and picnicking.

I’m not an expert on this, but, from what I’ve read, African American presence at national parks was very, very small. Especially in the South, there was certainly a climate of hostility towards African Americans seeking out these types of spaces. State parks in the South were segregated across the board. There was a great book about this – Landscapes of Exclusion, by William O’Brien – that tells the story of a whole parallel world of black state parks that developed throughout the South. Some of these parks were areas of existing state parks, while some were separate places altogether.



Could you tell us a bit more about African American beaches in the Jim Crow South and what became of these spaces?

The story I tell in my book is one in which many of these places – and, consequently, one way in which many African Americans interacted with the natural world – declined quite dramatically from the 1960s to the present as waterfront properties in the South became highly coveted. African Americans who owned this land often found themselves being swindled out of it or forced off the land by the courts or public officials.

The story of black land ownership in the South in the 20th century is one of decline. The high watermark for black land ownership in 20th century America was 1910. It’s a time we conventionally associate with African Americans lacking political rights and opportunities in the workplace, but part of the story is that, because there were so few avenues of opportunity, black Southerners worked extraordinarily hard to acquire land. Land ownership was a means of liberation. However, this freedom increasingly eroded over the course of the 20th century, even as African Americans gained political rights.

At the time when many African Americans acquired these coastal lands, they were not valuable. In fact, they were probably some of the least desirable properties in the South. Coastal properties were remote, hard to get to, and were often not conducive to largescale agriculture. Additionally, they were, and still are, subjected to violent storms. These were places that, by and large, white Southerners avoided.

As an example, the South Carolina Sea Islands became home to the largest concentration of African American landowners anywhere in the South. This was land that was essentially abandoned by slave owners during the Civil War. Edisto Island was the birthplace of “40 acres and a mule”: the idea of taking land that had been captured or abandoned during the Civil War and redistributing it to the slaves who had worked on it.

In short, these coastal properties were cheap and readily available. Also, if you’re an African American seeking to create as much physical distance between yourself and white society, this was the type of place you would gravitate towards.

Now, of course, things change dramatically over the course of the 20th century as we begin engineering shorelines, building roads and bridges, and taking other steps to make these areas conducive to largescale development. That’s an important story of the 20th century: the story of the increased effort to bring land under control and make it profitable at a time when more and more Americans have the time and means to vacation and buy second homes. That’s the story of how these places became so highly coveted and how African Americans who owned land often found themselves in the crosshairs of speculators and developers.



Most of the black-owned outdoor leisure spaces you write about have died out. Can you talk about why this happened? What would you consider to be the legacy of these spaces?

One of the most obvious examples of the legacy of black beaches and resorts was that these spaces nurtured a whole generation of black performers who would later go on to become some of the most famous artists of the 20th century. James Brown, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Moms Mabley – these were African American performers who would cross over into the mainstream and become world famous, but many of them got their start performing at black leisure spaces.

The important lesson of these spaces is one that I stress in the subtitle of my book: “how black beaches became white wealth in the coastal South.” With the Civil Rights movement and the end of segregation, there is a demise of black Main Streets and other African American cultural institutions and businesses that segregation had necessitated. When this happened, what was the loss to the sense of community and camaraderie these spaces fostered?

Highland Beach Picnic Group, 1930. Image Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution - via BlackPast.org

One thing that was undeniably lost was wealth. The places I write about – like the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands, Maryland’s western shore, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi – these are places where the land that African Americans owned in the first half of the 20th century is now some of the most valuable property in the United States.

Property that’s worth in the tens of millions of dollars used to be owned by African Americans and it was taken from them, often through various forms of chicanery and deceit, if not outright theft. The black families that owned that land never saw a dime.

When we have these conversations about the origins and persistence of the racial wealth gap in America, many times people seek to identify all the opportunities that African Americans have been denied. And that’s important, but we often lose sight of what was taken from previous generations. This was wealth that was in their hands, but they were never able to fully realize it. Instead, it became someone else’s wealth. It became the wealth of corporate developers who acquired the land for very cheap. African American families are now sometimes cleaning the bathrooms and tending to the lawns of land that their ancestors owned. That should give us pause when thinking about the legacy of these spaces.



As part of the Moving Forward Initiative, we hope to examine why there is a persistent lack of diversity in visitation at parks and participation in outdoor recreation. Do you see any historical context for this disparity?

Well certainly there’s the role of urbanization and the concentration of non-white populations in inner cities. During the 20th century, you saw African Americans being systematically excluded from becoming homeowners in the suburbs, coupled with the lack of public transportation options to access areas outside the urban core. This severely limited the ability of African Americans living in the urban North to have access to outdoor space.

Additionally, the natural environment has a whole different meaning in the collective memory for African Americans than it does for white Americans. Historically, spaces that for many white Americans provided a sense of adventure were, for some African Americans, a place of fear and uncertainty. These were places where their ancestors or own family members were terrorized. Outdoor areas in the rural South are littered with stories of lynching, violent deaths, unsolved murders – all sorts of crimes were committed against African Americans in these places.

Then, you combine that with the fact that many outdoor destinations that were once familiar to African Americans disappeared with integration. For some African American families, part of why they may have little direct experience with outdoor recreation is because the places that were once a part of their family tradition are gone.



Relatedly, do you see any historical context for the lack of diversity in the mainstream conservation movement?

The conservation movement has, throughout much of the 20th century, been white-dominated and defined by issues that concern white Americans. At the very least, the movement has certainly been oblivious to the concerns of black Americans.

There has been a sense among African Americans that the conservation movement was not for them, it was not in their name. There’s a perception that the interests of the conservation movement are directly in opposition to the interests of African Americans; this is due, in part, to the way opponents of conservation have tried to exploit division

To give you an example, there was a famous controversy in the area around Hilton Head over the efforts of BASF – an international conglomerate – to locate a plant along a waterway. The plant would’ve brought lots of jobs, but also would’ve polluted rivers and streams. Folks in the environmental movement, who were dead-set against this plant being located there, were framed as an enemy for blocking job creation. Part of this was BASF trying to work-up divisions and appeal to African Americans for their support.

That’s just one example of how, particularly in struggling African American communities that need jobs, many have come to see, either through direct experience or perception, that the interests of the conservation movement come at the expense of their own pocketbooks.



You have another book coming out soon regarding race and beaches in America. Could you tell us a bit more about the issues this book explores?

This is a story of the Northeast, and particularly Connecticut. In a way, I’m looking at the flipside of the story that I write about in my first book in that I’m telling the story of exclusive white beaches along Connecticut’s Gold Coast. These are communities that worked diligently to exclude the public.

Alongside of that, you have the issue of segregation in the North. The children of those who migrated north during the Great Migration are, by the time we get to the 1960s and ‘70s, living in very concentrated urban neighborhoods with very little practical access to the great outdoors due to a whole host of factors.

So that’s setting the stage for the story that unfolds, which is one in which a social activist – Ned Coll - started an anti-poverty organization that was dedicated to improving the living conditions within Hartford’s black neighborhoods. He was also trying to engage the support of white America – specifically liberal white America: the folks that expressed their solidarity with African Americans, yet often lived in all-white suburban communities and had very little direct contact with African Americans. Coll was trying to break down those walls separating white and black America.

One idea that he latched onto was to get black children in Hartford and other cities out of the ghetto in the summer and down to the beach. This would provide opportunities for them to venture into new places, and would help foster better understanding among white Americans.

But when he tried to bring a busload of city kids down to the Connecticut coast, he discovered there was nowhere to go. Almost the entire state shoreline was closed off to the public. At that point he became an activist, a very creative and inventive one, for the cause of open beaches.

He would do amphibious landings where they would come ashore and kids would get off the boats and play on the beach. Legally, the beach belonged to the public, but you had to get creative if there was no way you could get to the shore from land.  

He was trying to draw attention to this lack of access to the shoreline. Also, he was trying to draw attention to the real deprivation of the urban poor, especially in regard to outdoor spaces and outdoor leisure. He wanted to challenge the liberals that liked to talk a lot about concern for the poor, but did very little in their own lives to improve conditions for marginalized populations. 


For Your Consideration 

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider: 

  1. Scroll through copies of the Green Book using this digital collection from the New York Public Library. Do you notice any patterns in the advertisements or listings? How does the Green Book change over the years and what might these changes say about society?
  2. What do “the great outdoors” mean to you? What comes to mind, or what do you feel, when you hear that term? What has shaped your thoughts and feelings about the outdoors? 
  3. In the modern day, have you witnessed any racial or ethnic division in how people choose to (or are able to) recreate and spend leisure time? If so, why do you believe these separations exist? How might these divisions be problematic? In what ways might they not be problematic? 
  4. When you were growing up, or in your own family and friend groups today, where did/do you go to vacation or recreate? To what extent were/are your leisure decisions based off traditions with which you were raised?
  5. For Corps: When working with Corpsmembers who may have limited experience living and working in the wilderness, what do you do to support them? What are reasons why these Corpsmembers might have limited exposure to camping, hiking, boating or other outdoor activities in which your crew engages? Have you ever had a discussion with Corpsmembers about barriers to outdoor access?


Resources & Supplemental Readings

View the complete Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library here.


Douglas, Leah. “African Americans Have Lost Untold Acres of Land Over the Last Century: An Obscure Legal Loophole is Often to Blame.” The Nation, 26 June 2017. Web, https://www.thenation.com/article/african-americans-have-lost-acres/, 07 November2017.

A look at how African Americans gained land following the Civil War, but gradually lost it throughout the 20th century due to a variety of reasons, including legal loopholes, forced buy-outs, discriminatory lending practices, and the Great Migration.


Engle, Reed. “Segregation/Desegregation,” Resource Management Newsletter, January 1996. Web, https://www.nps.gov/shen/learn/historyculture/segregation.htm, 07 November 2017.

Cultural Resource Specialist Reed Engle looks at the segregation and desegregation of Shenandoah National Park.


Goffe, Leslie. “How the 1964 Civil Rights Act Cost Black America,” New African Magazine, 08 May 2014. Web, http://newafricanmagazine.com/how-the-1964-civil-rights-act-cost-black-america/, 07 November 2017.

A look at how the Civil Rights Act led to the movement of African Americans to white suburbs and the decline of African American businesses, cultural institutions and community in urban areas.


“The Green Book.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/collections/the-green-book#/?tab=about. 12 September 2017.

Digital copies of the several editions of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide published annually from 1936 – 1967 that listed lodging, restaurants and businesses that catered to African Americans.


 “Idlewild, Michigan (1912 - ).” BlackPast.org, http://www.blackpast.org/aah/idlewild-michigan-1912. Accessed 07 November 2017.


Kahrl, Andrew W. The Land was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South. Oxford University Press. 2012.

By reconstructing African American life along the coast, Kahrl demonstrates just how important these properties were for African American communities and leisure, as well as for economic empowerment, especially during the era of Jim Crow in the South.


Leland, John. “Investors Move Next Door, Unsettling a Black Beachside Enclave,” The New York Times, 25 August 2016. Web, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/26/nyregion/new-neighbors-unsettle-black-enclave-sag-harbor-hills.html?_r=0, 07 November 2017.

Some residents of Sag Harbor, NY have grown wary of an increasing number of investors sweeping up properties in the area.


O’Brien, William E. Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South. University of Massachusetts Press. December 2015.

From early in the twentieth century, the state park movement sought to expand public access to scenic American places. During the 1930s those efforts accelerated as the National Park Service used New Deal funding and labor to construct parks nationwide. However, under severe Jim Crow restrictions in the South, African Americans were routinely and officially denied entrance to these sites. In response, advocacy groups pressured the National Park Service to provide some facilities for African Americans. William E. O’Brien shows that these parks were typically substandard in relation to “white only” areas.


Winerip, Michael. “A Legend and his Catskills Resort for Blacks,” The New York Times, 15 July 1985. Web, http://www.nytimes.com/1985/07/15/nyregion/a-legend-and-his-catskills-resort-for-blacks.html?pagewanted=all, 07 November 2017.

A look at Peg Leg Bates Country Club, a resort for African Americans in the Catskill Mountains of New York that operated from the 1950s to the 1980s. The business closed two years after publication of this article and now sits abandoned.

Hurricane Harvey Recovery: Firsthand Account of Relief Efforts in TX from Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa AmeriCorps Member Caleb Bell

AmeriCorps members gut homes damaged in Hurricane Harvey.

In response to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, several member organizations of The Corps Network have sent crews to Texas, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Cooridnation of most of these deployments has been through the AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team (A-DRT) program.

Corpsmembers from across the country have assisted with a range of activities, including clearing debris, coordinating volunteers and donations, conducting damage assessments, and helping muck, gut and tarp homes. Below, read the firsthand account of Caleb Bell, an AmeriCorps member from Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa who deployed to Texas.


By Caleb Bell

My name is Caleb Bell. I was born in Des Moines, IA, raised in Colorado, and I went to Iowa State University for college.

My AmeriCorps term this year has been great. I joined Conservation Corps Minnesota and Iowa (CCMI) for the professional experience of leading a crew and learning new land management skills. I wanted to get more field and leadership experience and I have received both during my AmeriCorps term.

One big reason I joined AmeriCorps is because I didn’t know what to expect. It was something new and unpredictable. My home base is in Western Iowa. All I knew going into my term was that I would be doing land management: using chainsaws, brush sawing, treating invasive species, and hopefully having the chance to work on prescribed burns. I ended up doing a lot of burning. My crew completed over 6,000 acres of prescribed burns in about three months. Before being deployed on disaster, my plant identification skills increased and my professional communication and leadership skills grew.



Heading to Texas

When I found out I would be deployed for disaster response, I was excited. I knew there would be a lot more to learn; that’s a huge reason I joined AmeriCorps.

Going into the disaster response deployment, all I knew was that I was leaving for Texas. I knew that I would be in Austin for training, but had no idea what would come after that. I was told either Corpus Christi or Houston were the most likely locations, but I wasn’t told what I would be doing. I left my shop in Honey Creek, IA at 7:00 am on September 5 for Ames, IA; then I drove from Ames to St. Louis, MO that same night. I arrived in Austin just before midnight on September 6.

When I got to Austin, I thought my deployment would only be for 30 days. Three weeks into my deployment I was told I could stay until November 13. This would make 72 days of deployment. When I arrived, six of the seven people from my crew were deployed to Texas. In total, there were 52 Corpsmembers from CCMI.



We were originally sent to Houston. We lived in an old Wal-Mart that had been turned into a FEMA responder camp. The space had a capacity of 1,400 cots and a small dining area. We had shower trailers and were doing laundry at the laundromat.

Houston was definitely different than I expected. It was a shock at first to see how much devastation the flooding caused. In the neighborhood where we served, there were people who had experienced four or five feet of water in their homes. The people we helped hadn’t started mucking and gutting at all; the water had just receded a few days prior to our arrival.

I was in one house that really needed help. The homeowner had belongings in every room, floor to ceiling. At first it was extremely difficult to work on her home. I had a really hard time believing what I was seeing, and she had a hard time letting things go. The more I worked on the home and talked to the owner, the easier it became to help her. She knew that things needed to go, and began to let us throw things away, even though it was hard for her.

The most rewarding part of helping this survivor was when she thanked my team for helping her. She told me she hadn’t seen her walls in 25 years. It was so moving for me when we finished the house. Just before I drove away, the trash collectors started picking up the 200+ cubic yards of debris we had moved. It really showed how 10 strong backs and three long days can really change someone’s life. In the case of this survivor, she would never have been able to remove everything herself. Both physically because of her health condition and mentally because it was so hard to let things go.

Around the time this house was being started, our living situation changed. We moved from the responder camp at Wal-Mart to Hilton Americas in downtown Houston. The Hilton had been rented out by another agency and they didn’t want the rooms to go to waste, so, for five days, all 52 of us had our own room in a Hilton. I would say the Hilton offered a huge attitude boost. I was exhausted. Mentally, it was hard to see everyone’s lives affected so much by the storm. Physically, I was tired from working 14-15 hour days with a 110+ heat index. I needed the break, and the rooftop pool didn’t hurt.


Brazoria County

Right before our day off, we were told that we would be leaving Houston and going south to Brazoria County. The news that we were leaving Houston was really hard for me. After canvassing and working in the neighborhood, I knew there was a huge need for us in Houston; it was really hard to wrap my head around the fact that we had to tell homeowners that we wouldn’t be able to stay in Houston. I know that Brazoria County fit with AmeriCorps’ mission, but I still had a hard time. I was happy being deployed because I had a really good chance to help people who truly needed our assistance, and in Houston we found just as much need as I found in Brazoria County.

In Brazoria County, it was definitely easier to find a place to stay, laundry facilities, food, and there was a very supportive community, but it was much harder to find people who needed help. The first day in Brazoria County, my team drove around for four hours canvassing and didn’t find any homeowners who needed our help. Part of this was because we were later in the recovery process in this county, and part was because it is a lot less densely populated than Houston.

We have been able to find survivors who needed assistance, it just took more looking to find the ones who were hardest hit. There are some homes in Brazoria County that had 10 - 11 feet of water in them. A lot of homes here had water sitting in them for 10 days before the flooding receded. These homes were in really rough shape; the ones we found in the last week that hadn’t been touched yet were so full of mold that even ceiling panels needed to come out. Most houses being mucked and gutted now need full floor to ceiling mucking.


Change of Responsibilities

With the move from Houston to Brazoria, I transitioned from strike team lead to the assessment team. As a member of the assessment team I was often one of the first AmeriCorps faces these survivors met. This was definitely a change of pace. In the city, there was an attitude that everyone was all promises; we definitely weren’t the first group that had showed up offering help. In the county, we were often the first group that had stopped to even ask if people needed assistance.

After a week or so, I switched from assessments to AmeriCorps Liaison. As Liaison I really helped to build relationships within the community. These relationships have led to continued community support and a lot of help from the community in feeding and housing the AmeriCorps members here, and helping find high-priority homes for us to clean.

The relationship with United Way has been extremely helpful. The Long Term Recovery Executive Committee voted to donate money towards our food needs, helped us relocate a survivor whose home hadn’t been worked on at all, and continues to help us with our needs. We also help them by doing assessments and muck-and-guts for some of their cases. This kind of teamwork is making it so this community has a really good chance at recovery. As Liaison I have also really learned to talk to people. Whether it is asking for help, asking someone if they need help, or just starting small talk, I have definitely grown as a communicator because of my role with A-DRT (AmeriCorps Disaster Response Team).

One role I’m really proud of is helping to create an AmeriCorps presence in Little Cambodia. Some of the connections I made at the Long Term Recovery meetings asked me one day if I could help bring some pallets of food to the refugee village. The process of moving the food and helping the survivors unload the food was amazing. It really felt like I was doing something meaningful. Since the first food delivery, I have helped with a water delivery and a second food delivery. Each time I went to the village, more of the residents recognized me, and I just felt like I was doing the right thing. Between my donation visits and the assessment team spending time there, we were beginning to gain the trust of the village. I believe A-DRT has a few houses scheduled for roof tarps in Little Cambodia soon. I’m definitely glad that I was able to be part of such a unique opportunity.


A Learning Experience

In the community, I have met people from all walks of life. There have been people who always see the positive, even though their life was flipped upside down, and there are also those who only see the negative, even when their lives haven’t changed a lot. It is really interesting to see the effect that just listening to people’s stories has on their outlook. I have definitely found that some people who are having a hard time with everything that has happened tend to do a lot better after you just listen to their story. This is definitely something I will try and take with me after deployment.

My interactions with survivors have been really good for the most part. Most people are really happy to receive help, and I had only a couple of negative encounters. I think the people who I had rough encounters with were just at a really tough point; after we helped them, they really opened up and were very happy with the work we were able to do.

I think I have learned a lot about people during this deployment. I’ve learned that a lot of people who seem strong and confident have a hard time during times of crisis because they aren’t used to things not going well. I’ve also learned that a lot of quiet, more reserved people really shine during situations like this. However, I’ve also learned that neither of these things are true for everyone. Each person deals with stress differently.

I’ve become a lot more comfortable talking with people I don’t know. I can talk to someone I meet on the street about the work that A-DRT is doing here, or just about how their day is going. Before deployment I wasn’t much for small talk. I tended to avoid social events and had a really hard time talking to strangers. Now I can talk to anyone about almost anything.

I think that everyone should take the opportunity to help with disaster response if they have the chance. This deployment has definitely been life-changing for me. I wish that I had been able to stay longer. It’s hard for me to know that there is no more work to do here, but I have to go home and have three weeks off. I think there is a lot I would change about this deployment, but I am really happy with the difference I feel that I’ve made here.

Single Identity-Based Crews Research: Update from the Road No. 3

Members of Southwest Conservation Corps' Ancestral Lands program

As part of her studies at the University of Oregon, graduate student Jordan Katcher plans to create a toolkit that provides resources for increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,I) within Conservation Corps programming. To do this, Jordan hopes to combine academic research with insights from the field.

During the summer-fall of 2017, Jordan is traveling throughout the country to visit several Corps that operate identity-based programs (e.g. Veterans Crews, ASL Inclusion Crews, Native Youth Crews, LGBTQ Crews, All-Female Crews, etc.). She'll be conducting interviews and gathering information about innovative and effective practices. The Corps Network is hosting a blog where Jordan will share her experiences from the road.


By Jordan Katcher

Hello all! My name is Jordan Katcher and I am a current Community & Regional Planning graduate student at the University of Oregon. For my master’s degree, I’m focusing my research on increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (D,E,I) within the outdoors. This summer, I traveled across the country, and conducted site visits with conservation corps that have implemented/are implementing single identity-based initiatives for marginalized populations within the conservation world. To read more about my research project, check out my first blog post here, and my second blog post here.

For my third trip, I ventured through the Southwest region to conduct site visits with Conservation Legacy, Utah Conservation Corps, and Idaho Conservation Corps. Below is a brief snapshot from the visits:



Conservation Legacy (CL) Site Visits – Durango, Colorado

As a previous program coordinator for Conservation Legacy, I was so excited to visit Durango and see so many familiar faces! Given Conservation Legacy’s large size, I was also eager to learn about their multiple single identity-based crews: Ancestral Lands, Veterans Fire Corps, and their brand-new Wyoming Women’s Fire Corps.

Ancestral Lands began in 2008 with an emphasis on local relationship-building for Native American communities located primarily in the Southwest. For Conservation Legacy, the need for this program was born out of an equity initiative to meet the needs of tribal youth, while also providing them with the necessary technical and professional development skills to potentially launch careers in natural resource conservation. This goal, however, is met with a handful of barriers, one of which is: will natural resources career opportunities be located within these reservations, or would these opportunities require Corps alumni to leave their homes in hopes of employment? Understanding the end goal of these crew opportunities is crucial in providing skills and professional development experiences that are desired by the Corpsmembers themselves.

Ancestral Lands is very intentional about promoting cultural awareness for their members and staff. For example, members serving during the recent eclipse were given the day off for their traditional beliefs. The program would also like to expand into increased language immersion with their staff, but funding creates limitations for this. They’d also like to develop professional certificates for native restoration and “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK) that recognize the importance of Indigenous knowledge within the environment. A large asset that has grown out of this program is the embeddedness of storytelling, especially across multiple tribes that historically may not have seen eye-to-eye. These barriers are being broken down through relationship-building, shared experiences, and crew work.

The Veteran’s Fire Corps initially ran just like other crews within Conservation Legacy. Over time, however, staff realized that the needs of their veteran crew members required a shift towards professional development and certifications. Additionally, in recognizing the challenges veterans face when reintegrating into civilian life, it seemed ideal that this transition could be accomplished within a safe space, serving on a fire crew. Conservation Legacy has also been intentional in raising the stipends for their veteran crew members, as they understand the limitations that come with such low incomes. The organization also takes great strides in their recruitment and screening processes, and asks necessary questions to ensure that potential members are both emotionally and physically ready for the program.

After ongoing conversations about gender balances, especially regarding a need for increased diversity within the Bureau of Land Management, an opportunity arose to create an exclusive Wyoming Women’s Fire Corps. In the 10 years that the Veteran’s Fire Corps has been running, only about five of their members have been female veterans. The launch of this new crew is essential to providing a place for female veterans to connect with one another within the intersection of their female and veteran identities.


Utah Conservation Corps (UCC) Site Visits – Logan, Utah

In 2005, Utah Conservation Corps had a crew leader, Andy Zimmer, who, while riding his bike back from dinner in downtown Logan, UT, was hit by a car. The accident resulted in a C6 spinal fracture, thus paralyzing him from his shoulders down. After Andy underwent physical therapy, he came back to UCC with the intention of completing his assignment. This tragic accident was the impetus for UCC’s Disability Inclusion Crew, where UCC had to ask themselves: What would this experience look like for a member serving in a wheelchair? What unmet needs can they serve through this experience? And how can they bring the traditional conservation corps experience to a member with a physical disability?

At the time, UCC was a fairly small program, yet they had a combination of experience and passion to help get the program off the ground. Assistant Director Kate Stephens had served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Options for Independence (and helped start Common Ground Outdoor Adventures, which does adaptive outdoor work for members). Additionally, Program Director Sean Damitz had the personal experience of growing up with a father who had MS. The two of them shared inherent values that pushed them to really examine their organization and ask themselves how to move beyond the typical “burly, white male” crew member, and make UCC a more welcoming and inclusive space for a diverse population of corps members.

To UCC, a successful inclusion crew starts with having really meaningful projects that involve a dedicated, passionate sponsor that sets goals and takes ownership of the project (which leaves program expansion up to the sponsor base). The inclusion crew integrates both members with disabilities and members that are able-bodied, which utilizes the strengths of all crew members. Members with disabilities are trained through the Forest Service with iPads to assess campsites and trails and input USFS database information, and the members that are able-bodied undergo chainsaw training for trail development. What’s so fascinating about this crew is that not only are the members with disabilities creating access within these sites for themselves, but they’re also transforming trails, campsites, restrooms, and more to provide access for tourists with disabilities to experience these areas as well.

In the beginning, the crew members were about 50/50, but lately, it has been imbalanced given the difficulty of recruiting individuals who may have physical disabilities. Recruiting locally has really been the best solution, since members with disabilities have ADA-compliant living quarters and are familiar with the area. Asking someone to move to a different state, secure ADA-compliant temporary housing, and ensure that their medical needs are met (especially for a 300 to 500-hour service positon on an AmeriCorps living allowance) is truly a large struggle.

UCC said that they’ve heard of other corps thinking about starting Disability Inclusion Crews, but they also understand that it’s a steep learning curve that requires a great amount of resources, time, and consideration. For these crew members, though, these crew experiences have made a considerable difference in their lives, which makes it all worth it in the end.


Idaho Conservation Corps (ICC) Site Visits – Boise, Idaho

The idea for the brand new ICC Women’s Crew came from an assistant crew leader-turned program coordinator- who realized the change in dynamics when more females were involved in crew positions. With approval from Northwest Youth Corps, the Women’s Crew was designed with the intention of creating spaces where everyone can have an equal share in their own growth and development.

It was noticed that on co-ed crews, things that were more technical (lifting rocks, working on engines) were often taken on by the men of the crews. The designated Women’s Crew was a space for females to learn those same skills and apply them on their own. The hallmarks of a successful Women’s Crew, while similar to other crews, focuses on getting more women into leadership positions, which don’t have to necessarily be within ICC, but within any land management agency, or at whatever previous job they were in.

Due to the constraints of losing a fellow program coordinator before the launch of their summer crews, some of the goals of the Women’s Crew did not come to full fruition. For next year, however, they’d love to hire a female crew leader months in advance to set up relationships within the broader community and ask female leaders to conduct lessons or just discuss their professional journeys as women in the natural resources workforce.

During the interview process for potential crew members, a main question that was asked (and not asked for any of the other crews) was, “Do you have a very specific reason to enter this space?” The program coordinator was looking more for someone that had a specific experience of feeling uncomfortable in male-dominated spaces, someone that wanted to grow their technical skills, or someone looking to get into land management positions; and for the most part, those that reached out to her were those kinds of applicants.

The biggest struggle they encountered during their first run this summer was retention. The crew went through eight different members that quit, which resulted in only two members staying on. However, those two remaining members were promoted to leadership positions, which was truly at the heart of this new crew. There are a few speculations of why retention was a struggle this year, but the hope for next year is to restructure the experience from perhaps seeming like a summer camp to, instead, focusing on leadership building. Moving forward, ICC would like to have more input from members themselves on what specific skills they’d like to develop, and would also like resources on marketing this crew to a population that isn’t already in the corps world; because some their most solid corps members were previous bank tellers, and now they’re using chainsaws in the woods, which is awesome.

Now that I’m back in Eugene, OR, I’ll be conducting Northwest site visits throughout the fall term, so stay tuned! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions related to my research, always feel free to reach me at jkatcher@uoregon.edu. Thank you for reading!

Photos of the Month - September 2017

Keep updating those Facebook photos! We'll collect some of our favorite photos posted on Corps social pages within the past month and post them on this blog. Here are some of our favorites from September 2017.

meriCorps NCCC

AmeriCorps NCCC

Knox County CAC AmeriCorps

Canyon Country Youth Corps

Canyon Country Youth Corps


American Conservation Experience (ACE) with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for NPS 101st Birthday (taken August 25) - courtesy of DOI

American Conservation Experience (ACE) with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke at Great Smoky Mountains National Park for NPS 101st Birthday (taken August 25) - courtesy of DOI

Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa with Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke and U.S. Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) at Wilson's Creek National Battlefield - courtesy of DOI

Conservation Corps Minnesota & Iowa and AmeriCorps NCCC with Speaker of the House Paul Ryan in Houston

Chairman Steve Daines (R-MT) and Ranking Member Mazie Hirono of the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Subcommittee on National Parks with John Leong, CEO of Kupu. Mr. Leong testified at a hearing on engaging the next, more diverse generation of park stewards and users.

Conservation Corps of the Forgotten Coast

Conservation Legacy

Conservation Legacy (AZCC)


Greater Valley Conservation Corps

Greening Youth Foundation

Limitless Vistas, Inc.

Montana Conservation Corps

Nevada Conservation Corps

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps - NM

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

Southwest Conservation Corps

Utah Conservation Corps

Utah Conservation Corps

Utah Conservation Corps