A youth Civilian Conservation Corps will build a trail of justice and hope

A youth Civilian Conservation Corps will build a trail of justice and hope
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Despite recent upticks in hirings, double-digit unemployment and a slumping U.S. economy have many drawing parallels to the Great Depression, complete with calls for a new Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal that provided millions of young men with conservation jobs.

While there are some similarities between now and then, the contrasts are far more glaring. Today, in addition to the prospect of a profound recession, we confront systemic racial injustice, deep societal fault lines and the ongoing risks and uncertainties of the COVID-19 pandemic

Can a nationwide youth corps really help address these urgent issues? Absolutely.

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A modernized CCC would replace age-old barriers with bridges to opportunity, unite young people behind a common cause and equalize the playing field for a new and diverse generation of rising leaders. 

Close to 4 million college graduates have entered the most daunting job market in decades, where unemployment among 20-24 year-olds stands at nearly 20 percent. For African Americans, overall joblessness in June topped 15 percent and Hispanics were right behind at nearly 15 percent. Providing paychecks and professional pathways for young adults today will empower a lifetime of productivity while thwarting later hardship and poverty.

Beyond spurring employment, however, we must ensure that new corps members’ assignments are strategic and impactful. The original CCC planted more than 3 billion trees and built trails and shelters in over 800 parks. Much of their work still stands and benefits recreational users today. With the federal public lands maintenance backlog approaching $20 billion amid bipartisan support for the Great American Outdoors Act and the CORPS Act, teams of abled and motivated youth could rapidly address the mounting conservation needs of our national parks and forests. 

However, our most formidable ecological threat today is climate change. Among other projects, young people can restore and maintain coastal wetlands to protect against rising seas, help small businesses and homeowners convert to solar power and implement other energy-saving retrofits, and educate the public on how simple steps such as reducing waste and eating plant-based meals can build our climate resiliency.

The corps’ composition is also important. The first CCC was capped at 10 percent Black and included no women at all. A new program must reflect our country’s rich diversity and provide opportunities for marginalized populations. Additionally, the majority of the original CCC hailed from rural areas. Today, 84 percent of Americans live in urban areas, meaning many young people are already well-positioned to bring reform to cities that produce more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. Our younger citizens can also create new urban green spaces to ensure greater equity in accessing the many physical and mental health benefits of nature.

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A new CCC can generate jobs, sustainability and environmental justice — but here’s the best news of all. Whereas FDR’s initiative was a massive, new and costly government program, today there is a well-established network of independent youth corps and nonprofit organizations across the United States. Together, these groups represent a 21st Century Conservation Corps capable of doing the work, scaling up as necessary and delivering the cost-effective results we need now.

The Student Conservation Association (SCA), where I serve as chief executive officer, is the largest and most experienced of American NGO youth corps was, in fact, modeled on the old CCC. Over time, working with independent experts, we have discovered that conservation service is not only productive, it is also transformative — spurring a wide range of physical, intellectual, emotional, moral and even spiritual benefits that advance individual development including social-emotional competencies and other indicators of thriving youth. Corps can play an essential role in helping our young people retain and even increase their grit and fortitude as they emerge from this extremely challenging period.

President Roosevelt once noted that in days of difficulty, we must “choose the path of social justice...the path of faith, the path of hope, and the path of love toward our fellow man.”

Approving new corps funding will allow our nation to revive the spirit of the CCC and offer a way forward to a generation of young people seeking greater equity and inclusion. It will strengthen our beleaguered economy and fortify our besieged environment. It will provide a path or, in this case, a trail of justice, hope and love for those denied such basic opportunities for far too long.

Stephanie Meeks is the chief executive officer and president of the Student Conservation Association.