Green Leaders Initiative

by Emily Pinkowitz, Director of Education

This spring, Bird Alliance of Oregon launched a brand-new, paid, nine-month youth leadership program in partnership with Hacienda Community Development Corporation. Through our new Green Leaders program, five young adults from Hacienda will act as educators and organizers, developing hyperlocal outdoor education in response to their neighbors’ pressing needs during the pandemic.

In this work, Bird Alliance of Oregon will draw from seven years of experience in youth development. From 2013 to 2019, we ran TALON, a program that engaged thirty youth from historically disenfranchised communities across the metro area in paid internships in education, conservation, communications, and operations. The Green Leaders initiative builds upon lessons learned from TALON, while focusing intentionally on engaging young adults as changemakers in their own communities.

Three Green Leaders sitting at welcome table

The program grew out of conversations with our partners at Hacienda CDC, a Latinx community development corporation that “strengthens families by providing affordable housing, homeownership support, economic advancement and educational opportunity.” For over 15 years, Bird Alliance of Oregon has collaborated with Hacienda CDC to deliver environmental education programs to hundreds of children and families. Each year, we have provided almost 100 hours of nature-based learning to children in grades 3-8 through afterschool and summer enrichment.
However, over the last year and a half, Hacienda staff have identified three key areas for growth in our partnership:

    • Expand opportunities to high school: In Portland, 1 in 10 young adults 16 to 24 years old become “disconnected,” meaning neither in school nor working. This disconnection can have drastic long-term consequences. According to the Social Science Research Council’s Measure of America, “by the time they reach their thirties, those who had been working or in school as teens and young adults earn $31,000 more per year and are 45 percent more likely to own a home, 42 percent more likely to be employed, and 52 percent more likely to report excellent or good health than those who had been disconnected as young people.” By ending our partnership at eighth grade, we were aging youth out during a critical period.
    • Hire from the community: Children learn best when their educators understand and draw from lived experiences that mirror their own. Hacienda staff urged us to train and hire young adults from their properties who could act as critical mentors and role models in science.
    • Respond to the pandemic: With COVID-19 continuing to shape our day-to-day lives, our programs need to be radically reimagined. We need to create real, two-way listening mechanisms that help us better understand how to provide viable, safe opportunities for children to get outside in this unprecedented time.

Through the Green Leaders initiative, we will respond to these needs by decentering Bird Alliance of Oregon as the primary decision-maker regarding environmental education programming, shifting both narrative power and financial resources to Hacienda residents. Youth will participate in paid environmental education and leadership training, earning $500 a month from April to June and September to November. They will use stakeholder listening sessions as a guide to leverage Bird Alliance of Oregon’s resources to deliver free programming for their neighbors. They will draw from their lived experience to create new models of engagement that uniquely speak to their peers. And they will gain an authentic foothold in the environmental education field through summer educator positions with Bird Alliance of Oregon, where they will earn an additional $5,000 and enter a direct pathway to lasting employment in the field.

Green Leaders will join our new Educator, Youth & Family Partnership Specialist Zahir Ringgold Cordes in 80 hours of paid after-school training in Pacific Northwest ecology, education, and environmental justice. “I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to guide youth in the process of deepening their connection to the natural world, and using their innate knowledge and talents to become community leaders.”

This training is also equally focused on reflecting with youth on their own backgrounds and experience, documenting and mapping their collective knowledge, and highlighting the ways in which they can draw from this experience to become changemakers in their own neighborhood.

At the same time, they will collaborate with Bird Alliance of Oregon and a number of other nonprofit partners including Verde, Columbia Land Trust, and Girl Scouts to host a series of listening sessions with their neighbors. Leaders will then draw from these listening sessions to design new programs for children and families in local greenspaces. While the exact structure of these programs will be guided by the stakeholder listening process, we expect it to include a combination of afterschool programming, family events, summer enrichment, and stewardship opportunities.

Green Leaders in group learning about nature and wildlife

After their spring training, Green Leaders will take up full-time, paid summer roles in our education team, helping to facilitate summer camp at our sanctuary. This entry-level professional experience is critical to breaking down long-time barriers to careers in the environmental education field, creating a pipeline for local young people of color to enter future roles in our department. Through this initiative, we will incorporate the voices and lived experiences of Hacienda CDC residents into all aspects of our work for years to come.

This feedback loop has never been more vital than it is right now, when the pressures on families are shifting daily in response to COVID-19. Families are struggling to coordinate remote school learning, identify out-of-school care, and find safe ways for their children to play. As environmental educators, we have a unique opportunity to support these families with safe outdoor experiences. Yet without listening directly to families, we will have little understanding of how exactly to structure these opportunities in a way that best meets their changing needs. Poised between childhood and adulthood, young adults have the unique potential to act as multigenerational connectors, listening and responding to the needs of both children and adults in their community. We are grateful and excited to welcome the Green Leaders to our team, and look forward to featuring their voices in future Warblers!