Outdoor jobs cultivate Detroit's next generation of environmental stewards

Summer jobs for teens come in all shapes and sizes: flipping burgers or serving ice cream, life guard duty at the neighborhood pool, babysitting, lawn mowing, and caddying, to name a few. But in Detroit, one youth jobs program provides teens an opportunity for nontraditional, green work.

Greening of Detroit's Green Corps employs Detroit high schoolers, ages 14 to 18, to keep the organization's trees growing; it also fosters good environmental citizens.
 
Since its founding in 1989, Greening of Detroit has planted more than 100,000 trees. It's a vast and daunting job to maintain them. That's why the primary function of the Green Corps is watering, pruning, and maintaining the newest trees — ones that have been planted in the past three years.
 
It's physical, demanding work. The kids earn minimum wage, and for many it's their first job. Green Corps, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, is touted as one of the few paid urban forestry programs in the country. And for Lionel Bradford, president of Greening of Detroit, that's big. 
 
"We want them to start collecting a paycheck, have a bank account set up, and know what it is to save," Bradford says.

Lionel Bradford, president of Greening of DetroitHe remembers the impact of his first summer job, which allowed him to buy his own school clothes and save some money. But he says some of the Green Corps youth are contributing to household expenses, helping parents to keep the lights on and food in the refrigerator.
 
Aside from learning financial literacy, youth are exposed to more green space through the program. As urban kids, they typically experience a built environment — concrete, buildings, streets, parking lots. "It helps with your psyche a little bit when you can be around more green spaces, more trees, and beautiful landscapes," says Bradford. "It makes you more at ease."
 
With that comes the cultivation of the next generation of environmental stewards. Not only are these youth immersed in the outdoors, but they're exposed to natural resource-related fields and opportunities. Greening partners with the DNR and the U.S. Forest Service. 

A Green Corps member waters a treeSome program graduates have received scholarships to pursue studies in environmental science at Michigan State University, Southern University, and other institutions. Green Corps is a hands-on way to expose youth to careers in urban forestry and related fields. "Opportunities in this area lack minority representation," Bradford says. "So it's another way to capitalize on that."
 
The program also focuses on life skills, academic preparedness, and job skills. Leaders try to meet young people where they are and provide them with the tools that they need to be successful at college or in skilled trades training programs.
 
It holds job and college fairs, SAT/ACT prep workshops, and sessions on work readiness, resume building, and financial literacy. "That's a huge part of what we do," says Bradford. "A lot of these youth, they've seen generation after generation where someone gets a check and goes to the corner store and cashes it."
 
Green Corps is clearly coveted among youth applicants. The program recruits and promotes throughout the year in local high schools, and by the time the online job registration opens in early March, kids are ready to pounce. Each year, Greening goes live with registration at about 7:00 a.m. and by noon shuts it down because over 2,000 youth registered for the limited number of jobs available.
 
After that, Greening hosts a parent orientation where parents and youth come to learn about the program. Interviews are conducted, narrowing down the pool. In the final steps, youth write an essay and participate in "a day in the life" where they experience what they actually will be doing. In the end, Greening hires around 100 youth.
 
"Our program's a little different from others in the city," says Bradford. "We want to make sure that the kids know what they're getting into because this is physical work. Those steps we put in place are to prepare them for that."

Green Corps work crew fills buckets
Bradford says that in the field they sometimes encounter other youth job programs where the kids are sitting around who laugh at the Green Corps youth who are working. "We don't have that kind of program. These kids work, they get dirty. But at the end of the day, they enjoy what they do. We have our graduation at the end of the year and hear these kids tell their stories. It's unbelievable."
 
In order to promote teens who excel in Green Corps and better track program outcomes, Greening invites "returners" back year after year. Around 30 percent of the participants are returners, allowing Greening to track grades, ACT and SAT scores, and other academic markers throughout high school. Greening has graduated nearly 2,000 youth from the program over 20 years; 85 percent of participants go on to college.
 
Exposure is the key in Green Corps' model: exposure to urban forestry careers, to money management and budgeting, to academic/job training skills. But it also offers exposure to the joy of outdoor recreation. During the summer, youth head up north to a DNR facility where they camp for the weekend — some have never left metro Detroit. "To get them under the stars, around the campfire, singing songs and talking – it can be life-changing," says Bradford.

Whether enjoying a first-time camping experience among Michigan hardwoods, creating productive green space out of vacant land, or pruning year-old trees, youth develop a sense of hope. Grooming these young stewards also makes environmental improvements more sustainable.
 
"When we have a kid who's planting or maintaining a tree in their neighborhood, it's like they're a part of that neighborhood they're helping out," says Bradford. "It changes the game. It makes our projects more sustainable when we have the buy-in from youth."

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Melinda Clynes.

Melinda Clynes is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Model D. She is the statewide project editor of Michigan Kids, a series of stories that highlight what’s working to improve outcomes for Michigan children. View her online portfolio here.
Signup for Email Alerts