Milwaukee teenagers dig into environmental work

Jim McLaughlin
Journal Sentinel
Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summer in the city conjures images of crowded pools and road construction - not teenagers wielding pickaxes.

But 55 teens ages 15 to 19 bypassed the beach to participate in the Milwaukee Conservation Leadership Corps, a six-week summer job program that pays Milwaukee youth $7.50 an hour to do environmental work in the area. This year’s projects include trail renovation in Milwaukee County parks and preparation work for an expansion of the Bay View sustainability center Sweet Water Organics.
 
The wages the teens earn remove a barrier they’d otherwise have to volunteerism or conservation work.
 
“They have obligations and need to contribute money on their family’s table,” Student Conservation Association spokesman Kevin Hamilton said.
 
The Milwaukee Conservation Leadership Corps began in 2006 with a grant from Johnson Controls, which partnered with the Student Conservation Association, a national ecological service organization, and the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board.
 
Partners from all three organizations agreed the program helps teens in three ways: care for the environment, launch a career and learn job retention skills.
 
“We’re trying to make sure the conservation community is more inclusive and diverse and includes more of what are currently the underrepresented constituency,” Hamilton said.
 
Today, Johnson Controls is still the primary funder, along with other donors from all sectors.
 
“We look at this mainly as a philanthropic program,” said Jennifer Mattes, director of global public affairs for Johnson Controls. “It’s really to build the next generation of environmental stewards.”
 
But the program benefits the business indirectly, as well.
 
“When you look at the job openings that Johnson Controls has, there is a shortage of talent out there,” Mattes said, explaining that universities aren’t turning out enough students in renewable energy and sustainability fields to fill the openings available at Johnson Controls
 
“Certainly, exposing urban youth to these types of jobs expands their opportunities to jobs in this field,” she said. “Potentially this is a pipeline for Johnson Controls future employees (to) expand our diversity.”
 
With the program in its seventh year, competition is fierce for its limited spots. The program has averaged one acceptance per five applicants for the past two years.
 
The process can be grueling for the students, many of whom have never had a job, according to August-Marie Wagner-Richardson, program manager for Student Conservation Association Milwaukee.
 
Applicants must attend an in-person interview and an Earth Day service project at which they rate each other anonymously on work ethic and teamwork.
 
The program is selective, but built-in safeguards help ensure qualified kids get a fair shot.
 
“This can be a kid who really hasn’t found their niche yet,” she said, so they don’t reject applicants based solely on past performance records such as grade point averages. “If they botch the interview - which happens a lot - they have another chance to prove themselves at Earth Day.”
 
“They really appreciate the work we do,” said Jessie Frohwith, 18, as she and others removed nails from lumber for reuse.
 
Behind her, 17-year-old Bay View High School senior Chou Vang dug a trench for a raised garden bed.
 
He said the work is enjoyable with a good team.
 
“We’ll be laughing and singing and we’ll be trying to motivate each other,” he said. He says he’ll use the money he earns to pay for his school supplies this year.
 
“I see working as the best way to learn,” said Nick Montezon, volunteer coordinator at Sweet Water Organics. Physical labor outside with nature connects kids with their city in a new way.
 
“It roots you deeper in the community,” he said.
 
No pun intended.
 
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Kevin Hamilton. He is a spokesman for the Student Conservation Association, not Sweet Water Organics. Also, the internship program is six weeks long, not seven.