by Joan Smedinghoff
May 15, 2017
Meet the River Corps: a new partnership between the District of Columbia Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) and the Latin American Youth Center. This inaugural group has 10 members, and on this sunny April day, three of them are learning how to conduct home inspections.
The River Corps is a five month program in which young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 gain training, both in class and on-the-ground, in green sector work, with the intent that this experience will help them gain employment in the field afterward.
While the program is only in its first year, the Latin American Youth Center brings 40 years of experience in running programs aimed at equipping young people with the tools for success. For example, they also run the Montgomery County Conservation Corps, a similar program just to the east of D.C. that helps young adults get their GEDs while building the skills to start a green career.
This new partnership not only builds green jobs skills in D.C.’s young adults, it also helps DOEE maintain their projects and programs. One of those is RiverSmart Homes, one of many RiverSmart programs offered by DOEE that incentivize property owners to manage stormwater and reduce the amount of pollutants that enter local waterways—and eventually the Chesapeake Bay.
Homes enrolled in the RiverSmart program manage stormwater through the use of green infrastructure, such as rain barrels, pervious pavers and rain gardens, but those practices need maintenance to be effective. Through the River Corps, DOEE has the capacity to make the in-person visits needed to check that the practices are fully functional, and Corps members gain experience in a growing green infrastructure field.
The homes also serve as outdoor classrooms, and today’s lesson includes rain barrels, pervious pavers and trees. Mike Weitekamp, River Corps Crew Leader, walks the trainees through each feature, asking questions as they run through the checklist of what they should be looking for and documenting. He points out other elements around the yard, such as terraced gardens or areas beginning to erode, to further demonstrate how concepts they’ve learned about appear in real life.
Rashid Mills, part of the River Corps team, appreciates the hands-on aspect of the program. “In the book, it seems like a bunch of detailed information that has no significance,” he says. But in the field, the connections between technical standards and real life examples are easier for him to see.
Working outdoors makes the subject matter more relatable, Mills notes, but it also gets him more comfortable with the environment. At first, he saw forests as somewhere he shouldn’t go. Now, he’s starting to see them as less intimidating. “There are actually pathways in there,” he says.
This year, the River Corps will visit plenty of outdoor classrooms: they’re planning to inspect 80 RiverSmart homes and conduct photo monitoring on streams like the one restored at Linnean Park in northwest D.C. They have indoor classroom sessions as well, where they learn about topics such as climate change, invasive species and erosion and sediment control.
Queen Richardson, who was already a gardener before joining the River Corps, notes how what she’s learning goes much deeper. “It’s a lot different than just gardening stuff,” she says. “It’s more intense, but I feel as though the work we’re doing will make a positive change for the climate.”
River Corps projects focus on DOEE priorities, but they also serve the dual purpose of preparing the team for certifications such as pesticide application and green infrastructure. These certifications can help them better compete after the program ends when they are looking for other green employment.
The green infrastructure certification applies particularly well to the work they’re performing at RiverSmart homes. As they make their inspections, River Corps Program Coordinator Faith McNeil runs through vocabulary and asks follow up questions about different concepts and techniques in order to help prepare them for their upcoming exam. Created in part by D.C. Water, the green infrastructure certification could help the River Corps members find long-term employment in a city that has a renewed emphasis on creating and promoting green infrastructure projects.
“The District of Columbia’s green economy is growing, as the demand for green infrastructure increases in response to the need for climate adaptation,” said Tommy Wells, Director of DOEE. “The River Corps program trains young adults in the District to install and maintain rain gardens and stormwater retention sites, like those implemented through the RiverSmart program. River Corps is helping create more pathways to the middle class by ensuring the District has a workforce with the technical skills necessary to meet the needs of this expanding market.”
Many River Corps members see the program as more than a pathway toward a green job, but as a way to a better future—for themselves, their families and their city. Tyshaun Turner has lived his whole life in D.C., but says he never had a great relationship to the water. “I jumped at the first chance to do something to better the water,” he says.
Mills likes the fact that he can apply what he is learning not only to a future job, but to the way he currently lives his life. He sees the River Corps as a way to learn how to conserve water, grow his own food and control pests. “I want to be self-sustaining,” he says.
Richardson sees the River Corps as a way to create the opportunity for green jobs, and that “improving water quality by cleaning the streams provides clean water for our children."
Programs like the River Corps align with the Chesapeake Bay Program’s goal to increase the number and diversity of people involved in restoration work. Learn about our Diversity Workgroup’s efforts to create and expand employment and professional development opportunities for minority and underserved groups in the region.