OPINION: The Youth Green Corps is the “Future of Work” for Seattle Parks and Recreation

by Denaya Shorter

A quick online search of opportunities for Seattle youth yields pages upon pages of available services and programs — summer day camps for children, mentoring groups for tweens, internships for high school teens, fellowships for college students. But what about our young adults? What happens to our young people who make it through the struggle of societal pressures, and the many challenges of the journey to adulthood, and are looking to enter the workforce? How are we supporting these youth?

Nine years ago, Chukundi Salisbury set out to answer these questions. His response: The Youth Green Corps (YGC). As Seattle Parks and Recreation’s (SPR) Trails Program Director, business owner, active, and respected community member, Salisbury noted a lack of opportunities for local youth aged 18 to 24, and recognized a unique collaboration opportunity, to leverage municipal resources while simultaneously addressing a local need.

“There is no well-developed pathway into employment at SPR if you want to work on the land management side of the department,” he said.

Referencing other established pathway programs within SPR, whether outside of the land management sector, targeted towards older adults, or strictly for those younger than 18, Salisbury recognized a gap and set out to do something about it. With the support from SPR staff, backing from local nonprofits, and a commitment to responding to neighborhood youth, the YGC was conceived.

The YGC is a partnership developed by Seattle Parks and Recreation and implemented with The Seattle Trail Alliance that educates and trains young adults (18 to 24) through a mix of classroom experiences and outdoor forestry restoration. Throughout this three-month program, corps members receive a $1,600 per month stipend as well as specialized career training, certification, and hands-on work experience preparing them for placement into seasonal City of Seattle positions upon graduation. In an effort to address youth employment and create a pathway into green jobs, the YGC teaches site management, trail construction and restoration, resource management, tool usage and safety, native and invasive plant identification, and overall environmental stewardship.

Since it’s conception, the Youth Green Corps has engaged over 100 Seattle youth, annually increasing its graduation rate and seasonal employee placement.

“We are hopeful that the YGC will be a starting point for, not only, the next generation of Parks resource staff, but a pipeline to a green career,” Salisbury shares optimistically.

He beams as he recollects a few graduates from the 2018 cohort — three young men he is proud to have represent YGC in their current respective placements. Donnie Le, Jerami Webber (JJ), and Demitrious Parks, all born and raised in Seattle, all emerging adulthood and trying to figure out how to survive and thrive in the harsh streets of the “real world.”

“I wasn’t doing anything,” 21-year-old JJ acknowledges.

Having graduated from high school and being faced with choosing between a life on the streets or entering a workforce he didn’t feel prepared for, JJ knew he needed to make a change and invest in himself and his future.

While he admits that waking up before sunrise was a major struggle, JJ proudly shares his newfound passion in landscape management, specifically mentioning his favorite projects of building natural steps and planting native species within trails systems.

“[My family] They’re happy for me and proud of me for staying committed to this,” he grins. “I never thought I would be doing this work,” he exclaims, almost surprised at himself.

After the rigorous professional development and hands-on work experience, specialized training, intentional relationship building and mentorship, and a true test of maturity and dedication- perhaps it wasn’t that JJ never thought he would be doing this work, but rather that he never recognized his own potential to be able to do this work. A pleasant surprise and added bonus of the YGC program.

Donnie Le, 2018 Corps member, training on the chainsaw. (Photo courtesy the City of Seattle)

Donnie chimes in with a slightly different experience. Coming from a traditional Vietnamese family, he’s always struggled with engaging his family around his passion for nature and the outdoors.

“My family doesn’t do the outdoors stuff — except for me” he adds proudly.

Donnie grew up backpacking and snowshoeing with friends, and even worked as a Camp Waskowitz Counselor as a teen. Though he has always been comfortable outside, he acknowledges that his family is not yet on board.

“It’s tough to get my parents outside,” Donnie shares, “But they’ve always been there for me in spirit.”

Though admittedly intimidated initially — as both the only person of Asian descent on his crew, and the first person in his family to explore a career field not widely understood or culturally accepted, throughout his journey in the YGC program — Donnie has not only witnessed self-growth but also growth within his family’s dynamics. He is overwhelmed by how much he has learned, and takes pride in how his experience has translated to his home life.

“We talk a lot more now,” he exclaims excitedly, as he also vows not to give up on continuing to breakdown those barriers that often distance his family and his community from exploring outdoor spaces and green careers.

The Youth Green Corps prides itself on its intentionality, targeting qualified, reliable, and dedicated young people and providing them paid work-based learning opportunities that support a pathway to employment with the City of Seattle.

Demitrious, 23, exemplifies the ideal outcome. Inspired by his father’s long-term career with Seattle Public Utilities, and drained from the mundane work at a local grocery store, Demitrious sought out an opportunity to kick-start his professional journey.

“He [his father] motivates me. I see what he has with his career with the City and I want that,” he firmly states. “My end goal was to get a job with the City of Seattle.”

And that he did! Demitrious quickly found his niche on the trails crew, honing in on a particular skill set of trail resurfacing and regrading. After much demonstrated maturity, professionalism, and commitment to his position, Demitrious graduated early from his respective YGC cohort and was offered a seasonal position with SPR’s Horticulture and Forestry crew. He glows as he reflected on his achievements from his YGC experience, basking in gratitude for the opportunity that jumpstarted it all.

“I took my girlfriend to see a couple of the spots I worked on. To be able to point out something and say, ‘I did that,’ it was satisfying,” a feeling he admits he never got from his work at the grocery store.

Moving forward, Salisbury expects that this is only the beginning for the Youth Green Corps and hopes to see it’s increasing sustainability as it grows.

“We want to see the program institutionalized and a part of ongoing support within Seattle Parks,” he adds, noting the significance of both the municipal and community/nonprofit backing to ensure lasting success.

The YGC continues to push through the green ceiling, steadfast in paving a pathway to environmental/landscape management careers within the City system, and serving as an adoptable model for other departments and organizations.

Salisbury struggles to pinpoint a particular “memorable moment” since creating the Youth Green Corps nine years ago, instead finding himself overjoyed as he hears from YGC graduates.

“This changed my life,” Donnie shyly proclaims. “Seriously. The way I lived. I’m different,” his voice grows sternly.

“It wasn’t easy,” he continues. “But- it was worth it,” Demitrious and JJ join in.

While the miles of trails maintained, number of invasive species removed, and pounds of gravel and soil spread, are all worthy accomplishments — it is the stories like Jerami, Donnie, and Demitrious’s that we must celebrate. Stories of maturation and growth, of overcoming adversity and gaining a sense of self, of breaking down barriers, and of planting new seeds on a path still being paved.

Featured Image: 2018 Youth Green Corps, Chukundi Salisbury, DeWright Brooks, Jerami Webber, Donnie Le, Keenan Smith, Patrick Thomas, Demitrous Parks, and Jacobo Jimenez. (Image courtesy the City of Seattle)