With Build Back Better Stalled, increasing funding for a civil climate corps is on the line

WASHINGTON, DC – On a hot day in early June, a group of nearly 100 young adults worked together in sunny Fort DuPont Park to remove wisteria – an invasive vine that invades and shades native trees and shrubs – and clear the trails of debris that had accumulated during the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was the first annual outdoor service day since the pandemic began. The workers, aged 16 to 25, were all from member organizations of the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, also known as the Corps Network, a national association of 150 service and conservation groups that provide labor to around 20,000 young people and veterans.

Despite the heat, morale was high as workers dressed in cargo pants, work boots and reflective vests meticulously made their way through the lush greenery, gathered for lunch and gathered to sing “Happy Birthday.” to another Corps member.

And there was hope in the air of becoming something even greater: a federally-backed Civilian Climate Corps modeled after the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. The original CCC was created under the Roosevelt administration in 1933 as part of the New Deal. Almost 90 years later, the Corps Network is what lives on. At its height in the 1930s, the CCC had approximately 3 million corpsmembers.

Civilian Climate Corps funding was originally included in the $1.7 trillion Build Back Better program, once considered one of the least controversial and easiest to implement parts of the president’s climate agenda. Joe Biden. Build Back Better, which passed the House in November 2021, provided up to $30 billion in funding to build a Civilian Climate Corps from existing Corps Network affiliates and other corps organizations. But Build Back Better stalled soon after in the Senate amid resistance from West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a coal-state Democrat who argued the bill was too expensive and sought an energy transition. too fast.

Now, as Democrats scramble to hammer out a slimmed-down version of the bill that meets with Manchin’s approval — his vote is required for the bill to have the 50 it needs to pass — the hope for potential CCC funding hangs in the balance.

Create a more diverse workforce

The Corps Network is currently funded by many different sources, ranging from partners like AmeriCorps, the National Park Foundation and the Department of Labor, said Mary Ellen Sprenkel, CEO of Corps Network.

The new funding would allow local corps to expand significantly, especially in low-income communities, hiring an additional 300,000 young adults and veterans.

The Corps Network aspires to create a diverse workforce free from the gender and racial constraints that plagued its early 20th-century predecessor, but is currently dominated by white, middle-class participants, Sprenkel said. Budget constraints do not allow salaries that fully cover day-to-day expenses, which means corps workers often have to supplement their income. Corps wages must be increased to create viable employment opportunities for low-income workers, Sprenkel added.

Increased funding would also help spur the corps’ expansion into rural areas, where transportation costs can be a barrier for workers. Urban communities, where asphalt, concrete and metal surfaces and lack of tree cover create heat islands, would also benefit.

In Philadelphia, for example, “they’re doing projects that very directly mitigate climate change,” Sprenkel said, like building rain gardens, which divert and filter runoff that would otherwise carry pollutants from city infrastructure to pathways. neighboring waterways.

The mandate of the Climate Corps would be broad. In his executive order on combating climate change, Biden tasked the Corps with conserving and restoring public land and water, community resilience, reforestation, increasing carbon sequestration in agriculture, protecting biodiversity, improving access to leisure and the global fight against climate change.

Find a new purpose

For some Corps Network members, program impacts go far beyond quantifiable environmental results.

Jaleel Willford was one of the Corps workers who uprooted wisteria in Fort DuPont Park. Two years after graduating from high school, Willford’s father enrolled him in the Philadelphia Power Corps, one of the local Corps Network organizations.

“To be honest, I was on the street,” Willford said. “I had no way. I didn’t have any type of trajectory on what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go.

Within three months, Willford had established meaningful relationships with staff and peers, he said, and the Philadelphia Power Corps community gave him new purpose.

The Corps Network is intentionally structured to serve as a youth development program. Some corps members have previously been incarcerated or dropped out of high school, but have used corps service as a stepping stone back into the workforce.

Corps members who complete their service, which lasts a few months to a year, receive certificates in everything from emergency response training to applying herbicides to bolster their resumes, Sprenkel said. . And many local bodies offer scholarships to help members earn GED or college degrees.

As Ronald Bethea, who now works for a corps in Asheville, North Carolina, prepared to graduate from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, he had made enough progress in the hiring process with an employer to see assign office space. But “three days before graduation, they reversed the decision and rescinded the offer,” Bethea said.

He heard about the Corps Network through Snapchat and applied to join the corps in Asheville, where he was based for eight months while working on projects across the country. He later joined the corps as a team leader and says he enjoys traveling to new places and seeing the group’s hard work pay off.

Supporting a Generation of Environmental Stewards

Derrick Crandall, Chairman of the Board of the Corps Network, sees the body as a way to invest not only in environmental sustainability, but also in quality of life. In 1972, Crandall worked as chairman of youth programs for the Environmental Protection Agency, which the Nixon administration created in 1970 to tackle the nation’s water, air, and wildlife issues.

The founding of the EPA was preceded by river fires in the 20th century. The Cuyahoga River, which flows through Ohio and empties into Lake Erie, was used by various factories and mills as a dumping ground for waste and pollutants. The toxic water seeped into the local drinking water supply and devastated biodiversity. In 1969, when one of the river’s oil slicks caught fire, it received media coverage across the country and created a movement to clean up the nation’s waterways.

The pollution had left the country with a bleak view of the state of its waterways, and “we, as a nation, have decided that we must end this pollution of our waters,” Crandall said. This movement culminated in the creation of the EPA and the passage of the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1973.

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Crandall said a fully funded Civilian Climate Corps would similarly provide an opportunity for the nation to foster hope and progress in the face of climate change, as well as create a generation of environmental stewards.

“Not only is the job well done. . . you get the work done by kids who are now learning something and have a passion,” Crandall said.

Democrats hope to introduce their scaled-down BBB bill in July, and some lawmakers have suggested trying to push funding for the CCC into a standalone bill. As hope for legislative progress and funding for a Civilian Climate Corps fluctuates, Crandall sees the creation of the EPA and its subsequent work as proof that even in the midst of resistance, progress can happen.

“It is important for us, as we deal with climate change, to be able to understand that we have encountered other types of problems in the past,” he said, “and that we have overcome them”.

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