Equitable Opportunity

in the Great Outdoors

Photo courtesy of SCA Staff

As scientists, politicians and media outlets advocate for conservation initiatives, a new generation of novice environmentalists is taking center stage. The national nonprofit Student Conservation Association (SCA) provides young adults with the tools and training necessary to make a career in the natural sciences. As part of its mission, the SCA strives to amplify underrepresented voices in the environmental sciences. Their Chicago branch added a special twist: each season, they hire an all-female crew of young conservationists and give them hands-on training in ecological restoration.

        Each winter, Daiva Gylys, SCA Chicago program manager, begins the hiring process for a new season. “Our program is a bit different than others because we accept young women of all experience levels,” she explains. Some participants are college students at local universities actively studying the conservation sciences. Others are young adults simply interested in doing their part to help the environment and their community. Members of the women’s crew typically range in age from 18 to 25, but the SCA as a whole recruits teenagers, as well. “What matters most is that our crews are made up of individuals with a passion for being outdoors,” says Gylys.

        Members of the women’s program participate in a multitude of activities, from workshops and classes in native plant identification to woodworking and chainsaw seminars with local arborist associations. Each season, crew members are expected to procure a herbicide operator license, which entails taking a detailed exam with the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Seasons run for a period of six months, and during that time, the women work at several natural restoration sites across the south side of Chicago. Many of the restoration projects are collaborative efforts with the National Audubon Society and Chicago Park District. At these sites, crews perfect their skills in a wide variety of restoration techniques. By the end of their time with the SCA, members are proficient in invasive species removal, trail maintenance, herbicide application and operating several different power tools.

        Participants also periodically attend natural science conferences to establish professional connections with experts in the field. As a result, SCA alumni often move on to work in diverse subsets of the conservation movement. “For example, we have alumni who are now technicians for park districts and forestry groups, environmental advocates involved in public policy, and even some who went on to work in the urban agriculture movement,” Gylys explains. Ensuring these women become familiar with tangible restoration skills makes such career paths a possibility. Eventually, SCA Chicago hopes to offer a yearlong program in the basics of habitat restoration.

        SCA Chicago’s women’s program coordinator Chris-Michael Tena expounds upon the benefits associated with having an all-female restoration group. “Anecdotally, the all-women’s crew feels more empowered to make and learn from mistakes and openly support each other… It’s great seeing women learning from each other, especially in a male-dominated industry,” he says. Tena seeks to augment the presence of minority groups in the conservation sector through his work at the SCA by attending seminars and conferences specifically focused on creating opportunities for underrepresented groups in the environmental sciences. As he states, “It’s all about creating equity for all people in the great outdoors.”

        As the conservation revolution proceeds to evolve and permeate increasingly diversified sectors of society, young people of all backgrounds will continue to explore the environmental sciences as a potential career. In order to make a successful career in any industry, proper training is paramount. Advocacy groups such as the SCA provide the necessary foundation for the next generation of environmental leaders. When young people are given the opportunity to fully appreciate and understand nature, the entire planet receives a renewed chance at a healthy, sustainable future.

Learn more about SCA Chicago’s programs and special initiatives, including upcoming volunteer events, at TheSCA.org/about/region/chicago, or call 312-239-1661.

Ellicia Sanchez is an intern with Natural Awakenings Chicago and The Mike Nowak Show, and a graduate of the Loyola University Chicago Institute of Environmental Sustainability. As an alumna of SCA Chicago, she is passionate about raising environmental awareness and is working to pursue a master’s degree in the conservation sciences. Contact her at [email protected].




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