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Cook Forest Preserve youth program aims to diversify conservation workforce

Forestry and related fields have historically been dominated by white males but a program for suburban Cook County teens has a goal of drawing more workers of color.  

Tramaine Davis, 17, right, looks up to inspect a tree in order to cut and clear the invasive species of plants and small trees as part of the Forest Preserve Experience at the Possum Hollow Woods Forest Preserve in La Grange Park.
Tramaine Davis, 17, right, prepares to cut down a tree as part of an effort to clear invasive plants and small trees as part of the Forest Preserve Experience at the Possum Hollow Woods Forest Preserve in La Grange Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Just after 10 a.m. on a Monday in late July, a group of eight teenagers is clearing brush in Possum Hollow Woods in LaGrange Park as temperatures approach 90 degrees.

Jamiyah Morgan, 18, a recent grad from Proviso West High School, holds out her gloved hand to show a leaf from a common buckthorn. She then turns back to retrieve another leaf — this one a Japanese honeysuckle — noting the pointed tip. Both plants are invasive species and, as Morgan explains, they are crowding out a group of ash tree saplings that she and the other teens are trying to help survive.

The crew is part of a program run by the Forest Preserve District of Cook County in partnership with the Housing Authority of Cook County, which employs teens for five weeks, at $10.50 an hour for 25 hours a week, introducing them to conservation work. The group working in Possum Hollow Woods is one of seven groups made up of teens who receive services from the housing authority. In all, 116 graduated from the program this week.

In addition to providing jobs to area teens and taking care of much-needed maintenance, the program has a broader mission to persuade young people of color to consider working in the field of forestry and related professions. Across the country, such jobs have largely been held by white men, and there’s been an effort in recent years nationally and locally to recruit more people of color.

“It’s the opinion of some people of color that this is not a field for them — these are white jobs,” said Alice Brandon, resource management programming manager for the Forest Preserves. “When you have this message that this is an exclusionary jobs field, they’re not going to be very excited about it.”

A botanist by training, Brandon said the program also exposes young people to the county forest preserves, an important step in keeping the 70,000 acres used and appreciated by residents for decades to come.

“If we don’t get everyone caring about nature, we have no chance,” she said.

The program for public housing residents, known as the Forest Preserve Experience, was launched in 2016 and is part of a wider effort to recruit youth and adults to work either in conservation jobs in Cook County or elsewhere. Since 2007, about 2,500 people have gone through various summer work programs, and Brandon estimates at least 10% of the participants went into the field.

Crew members add cut brush to a pile in order to clear invasive species of plants at Possum Hollow Woods.
Crew members add cut brush to a pile after clearing invasive species of plants at Possum Hollow Woods.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

The housing authority program’s participants are more than 90% Black with the remainder Latino or multiracial. The Forest Preserve workforce is 25% Black and 12% Latino.

Just days from graduating from the program, all eight of the teens at Possum Hollow, wearing helmets with mosquito netting and armed with bow saws and loppers, expressed their enthusiasm for the program, though none of them could say they were considering a possible career.

For Shaniyah Gable, 18, another recent graduate of Proviso West, nursing is the career she’s pursuing. Tramaine Davis, 17, a senior at Proviso West, is interested in accounting. Chris Smith, 15, a sophomore at the high school, wants to be an actor.

Still, the program teaches skills as well as opens up new experiences.

Kayla McCain, 15, another Proviso West student, said she learned how to identify different species of trees. For Gable, she became more comfortable being out in nature. “I used to have a big fear of bugs,” she said.

The Forest Preserve Experience benefited this year from additional funding provided by the COVID-19 stimulus bill known as the CARES Act. The program, with a total budget of about $530,000, would’ve been able to fund only about half of the number of participants without the federal dollars, Brandon said.

The county also raises private money and partners with the nonprofit Friends of the Forest Preserve, which is interested in maintaining the forests as well as the education aspects, said Melissa Agarwal, associate program director of the group. Applications for next year’s program will likely be accepted around March, she said.

Crew members walk back to the shelter for a break after clearing brush. The county program is educational and assures much-needed maintenance is done at the forest preserves.
Crew members walk back to the shelter for a break after clearing brush at Possum Hollow Woods Forest Preserve in La Grange Park.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.