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Cream City Conservation Corps work crew

Generation Green: Creating Career Pathways for the Next Wave of Environmental Stewards

January 6, 2022  |  Topics: Stories

By Karina Gonzalez

Cream City Conservation Corps, is a two-prong social enterprise that connects young adults, who are primarily people of color and women, to paid training experiences on various environmental projects around Southeastern Wisconsin. Simultaneously, the company provides education and organizational assessments to organizations looking to address the diversity crisis within their institutions.

August Ball, founder of Cream City Conservation Corps. Photo: Christopher Hyler

The company was founded by August M. Ball in 2016, two months after learning that the national conservation program she ran was shutting down operations in Milwaukee and Detroit due to lack of funding. She was determined to keep some of the young people she had worked with over the past eight years engaged in hands-on service to public lands.

It all started with a small contract from River Revitalization Foundation.  The invasive species removal project was only supposed to last one season. However, August leveraged funds from workforce programs such as the Earn & Learn program and fees collected from the consulting side of her organization. These funds offset the costs of running the crews that are not covered by traditional fee-for service, such as bus passes, buying work boots for teens that could not afford them, and outdoor recreation experiences—like kayaking, birding and camping—that help foster love and a sense of obligation for protecting public green space.

Over the past two years, Cream City Conservation Corps (C4) has partnered with Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) to create career exploration experiences while simultaneously addressing green infrastructure that has gone unmaintained around Milwaukee County due to lack of maintenance funding.  In 2019, MMSD and C4 (in a public/private partnership) unveiled the Fresh Coast Ambassadors program, designed for teens aged fifteen and older. The crew maintained five green infrastructure sites, installed rain gardens and rain barrels in front of residential houses, and removed acres of invasive species from numerous Milwaukee County Parks. 

This year, the partnership is piloting a construction, wastewater treatment, and green infrastructure career preparation employment experience called Fresh Coast, Fresh Start, for underemployed adults and returning citizens aged twenty-one and older in collaboration with Milwaukee County Parks. With boots on the ground as of April 2021, the crew has already maintained eleven green infrastructure sites around Milwaukee County, completed OSHA30 certification, and are on their way to sit for the National Green Infrastructure Certification. 

If you are out at a local Milwaukee County Park this season, look for crews in blue shirts and say hi!

I like to think that these young adults are going to determine the path of hands-on sustainability in Milwaukee which is why career exploration is so important. To bring awareness to the many avenues of conservation and water-related jobs, members of all crews obtain age-appropriate skill certification, such as chainsaw safety 1 and 2, forklift, OSHA10, OSHA30, First Aid & CPR and Green Infrastructure certifications.

I myself started in the conservation field as a Crew Member with that original program August managed in 2015. It was that summer when I was thrilled to realize I could make a career out of my love for the environment. 

Things came full circle for me in March of 2019 when I was able to lead the next group of Crew Members. The most rewarding part of what I do is seeing the youths’ mindsets expand.  They become more aware of how important what they do is. Most of the time they decide they want to pursue something in the environmental industry. 

I asked Ismael Casillas, a second-year returnee, how his perspective changed since starting the program. He said, “Before I had a conservation job I would say that I was somewhat aware about the negative impacts happening to the environment. As I started working for C4 I realized there was a lot more that I can do to help the environment and it gave me a greater appreciation of nature.” He now plans to pursue a job in land management.

Just as important as career exploration is networking among other conservation groups. For the graduation of the 2020 Summer program, C4 paired up with Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps to clear up a portion of Cedar Creek that had previously been clogged up by fallen trees and debris. They were able to meet members their own age and come together on something they’re all passionate about. 

This season, I’m proud to report that two of our graduates—Hanan Ali and Megan Hart—have secured employment with our partner agencies, Milwaukee County Parks in Milwaukee and Crossroads at Big Creek in Door County, respectively.

We have 45 young Milwaukeeans in the field; I’ve been promoted to Program Coordinator; and we’ve expanded our small staff with an additional six crew leaders. While the climate crisis is daunting, I wake up every day, grateful that I get to spend my hours doing everything I can to foster the next generation of environmentalists, and help change the face of the environmental industry. The past year and a half has been hard on us all and the impacts have not affected our communities neutrally, but what gives me hope is knowing and trusting that I will see a shift in my lifetime.

The environmental industry WILL resemble the US labor force. The movement is already happening. I hope you’ll join us!

Karina Gonzalez is Program Coordinator at Cream City Conservation Corps. C4, MMSD, River Revitalization Foundation, and Milwaukee County Parks are all partner organizations with A Wealth of Nature.

All images courtesy Cream City Conservation Corps, except as noted. The featured image at the top of a C4/Friends of Brown Deer Park work crew in Brown Deer Park is by Eddee Daniel.