It’s 7:15 a.m. and a breezy, overcast day. The Civicorps warehouse south of the West Oakland BART Station is buzzing. The recycling crews have already left to start their routes. Now the conservation corpsmembers are trickling in, chatting with the staff and grabbing a breakfast of microwavable French toast and croissant sandwiches. Corpsmember Sidney Wilcher Harris, recently promoted to food and garden program intern in January, is packing coolers the crews will take for the day. Filled with fixings for sandwiches, fresh fruits, and chips, the meals help fuel the labor-intensive workday, promote good eating habits, and support corpsmembers who may be experiencing food insecurity. Wilcher Harris, with Civicorps for two years, has found an outlet for his intersecting interests in food and conservation. Later today, he will head to the Alameda Food Bank to pick out groceries for corpsmembers returning after their work shifts.
As the 8 a.m. hour draws near, crews gather for a warm-up and physical training: stretching, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and push-ups, followed by announcements. They are advised to be mindful of their health with the fickle weather over the past week and reminded to take allergy medications.
The crews break out to start gathering tools for the day. Naudika Williams, a crew leader of Crew Two, does the daily vehicle inspection while that crew’s five other corpsmembers and supervisor prepare to head back to East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD)’s Swainland Reservoir to finish clearing overgrowth of the invasive stinkwort.
Founded in 1983, Civicorps is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. One of 14 local conservation corps throughout California that engage young adults in paid work and education, Civicorps was among the first of these to launch and is certified by the California Conservation Corps. All the corps are modeled after the federal Civilian Conservation Corps from the 1930s. For the East Bay nonprofit, training young people underrepresented in the green economy to get conservation jobs is a form of environmental justice. “I think we’re at this perfect nexus of climate action, workforce development, youth of color from marginalized communities living under the poverty line,” explains Rachel Eisner, director of development and communications. “[We’re] equipping them with the skills to be 21st-century community members who engage in positive climate action.”
While the van with Crew Two loops through the Oakland Hills, a few corpsmembers are chatting, one is napping, and another is listening to music. We drive along Uranus Avenue in the maze of constellation-named roads toward Ruthland Road, trundling to the outer edges of Oakland. An EBMUD staff person is on site at the reservoir to greet the crew. They’ll be clearing the overgrowth of dry vegetation to mitigate fire hazards in the Oakland Hills. The water agency, along with East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), Caltrans, and Alameda County Flood Control, contracts Civicorps to provide conservation and recycling services.
You can see Civicorps’ work throughout Alameda and Contra Costa Counties along the spectrum of conservation, park trail construction and maintenance, wildland-urban interface fire mitigation, and habitat restoration. Its recycling program services over 1,200 small business and larger accounts with the Port of Oakland, Oakland Zoo, Oakland International Airport, and UC Berkeley. Corpsmembers can earn certifications in disciplines such as operating power tools and forklifts, attain commercial licenses to operate large air-brake trucks, or take a civil service entrance exam.
Supervisor Jeff Chilcott and Naudika Williams discuss the crew’s plan of action for today. Corpsmembers pitch in unloading and gassing up the weed eaters, handing each other safety gear before their safety meeting. The terrain they’re working on today is littered with small rocks and dangerous projectiles. Chilcott’s parting words before the group disperses: “See a weed, kill a weed.”
An inimitable component of Civicorps are staff members in leadership and supervisor positions who benefited from the program. Civicorps’ executive director, Tessa Nicholas, started 23 years ago as a job-training supervisor. Recycling operations manager Hector Abarca began as a corpsmember and has been with Civicorps since 1993. Antoine Penn, now the recycling coordinator, grew up in West Oakland and became a corpsmember in 2005. “[I] had my trials and tribulations while I was here … coming from the streets and being involved in some of the things I was involved in, to switching over and having a nine-to-five and working and having a routine that you have to stick with, stuff like that. So it was a little bit of growing pains, but eventually I got it,” reflects Penn. “A good thing about Civicorps is they do give chances, and they see the redeemable qualities in people.”
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After a couple years in the program, Penn became a crew leader and an operations intern maintaining power tools, vehicles, and buildings. He left Civicorps in 2007 to join the California Conservation Corps, became a crew leader there, and worked his way to fire supervisor. But being away from his family for 20-day stretches in the wilderness impacted their quality time. He was welcomed back to Civicorps with open arms in 2016.
“My evolution was a kid coming from Oakland, faced a lot of tragedy, trying to find my path. This was the place that helped me do that,” Penn says. “They met me where I’m at. Let me do the same for people coming into the program and see if I can help them in a way that I was helped.”
Civicorps is “a year-round, high-touch, long-term program,” Eisner says, and that on average, corpsmembers are in the program for 15 months. There are about 100 members currently, right at the organization’s sweet spot. Two requirements must be met to enter the program: you’re between the ages of 18 and 26, and eligible to work in the United States. The intake assessment covers a broad gamut of topics about a corpsmember’s personal life, with a goal of mitigating any barriers or personal issues that would prevent a person from participating in the program. “There’s a deep love and commitment to this organization,” explains Eisner. “We’re not simply a job training or high school completion program for young adults.” Over the 40 years Civicorps has served more than 5,000 young people.
If corpsmembers are struggling with residence displacement, they can receive help setting up a housing plan. There’s also assistance available for credit-rating issues, establishing a budget, and opening a bank account. Civicorps onboarding involves new members meeting one-on-one with licensed counselors on staff. “We’ll work with them to help them get where they need to be,” Eisner says. “We treat the participant as a whole person, and we’re here to make sure that they are skilled up as professional as we can get them to be and equipped with tools to go out and find a permanent, family-sustaining career.”
Crew Two is, well, a motley crew. Martha Alva, who has been with Civicorps for five years, is a crew leader level two, which means she can supervise a crew without a staff member present. A recipient of the 2022 Corpsmember of the Year award from the National Association of Service and Conservation Corps, she has applied for permanent positions with two of Civicorps’ sponsors and aspires to be a park ranger. She joined Civicorps in her last year of high school to help her mother support their family.
Josiah Tep, a first-generation American of Cambodian descent, is a returner, back with Civicorps for four months after having been “fired” from the program for being late to school too often. Amadou Sangho is from Mali, and this is his first year with Civicorps. Rachelynn Tritto practices jiujitsu and is a competitive wrestler; she will be competing in her first beach tournament during the weekend. She learned about Civicorps at a job fair and wanted to change her regimen of working several part-time jobs.
Angel Franco has been with Civicorps for 10 months and heard about it from his brother. He started in the conservation program and aspires to obtain his class A and B commercial driver’s licenses. Crew leader Williams came to Civicorps in January with the goal of working in wilderness fire prevention as a firefighter.
Each member’s unique individuality does not overshadow their common bond of hope nor their eagerness to work and grasp the opportunities Civicorps provides.
The organization is also evolving to better fit the changing socioeconomic landscape of the East Bay. For instance, Civicorps has shifted its program model to discontinue the single-site charter school it operated through Oakland Unified from 1995 through 2021.
“We’ve seen more and more young people come to our program who already have their high school diploma in hand,” Eisner says. “We decided we would sunset our charter [school] and invite a management organization to come on site and offer the high school diploma program for us.”
Civicorps requires that its internships be related to conservation or environmental services. But that does not mean the organization cannot broaden the traditional idea of conservation to work with members and identify specific interests. Such openness has led to new partnerships for custom internships, including one with West Oakland Neighbors; The Crucible, a fine and industrial arts nonprofit, for fixing and refurbishing bicycles; and East Oakland’s Tech Exchange, for recycling and refurbishing electronics. There’s also a career pathway with Dig Deep Farms, a San Leandro organization focused on regenerative agriculture.
Civicorps is also addressing a long-standing trend of members moving out of Oakland and traveling from farther afield to participate. Last year, the board of directors approved a modest expansion to open a warehouse space in the city of Pittsburg in eastern Contra Costa County, saving some members valuable commute time. The new location services conservation contracts with EBRPD. Opening the site has also allowed Civicorps to pursue new work with Contra Costa Water District and Mount Diablo State Park and the addition of at least two new crews to serve more young people in East Contra Costa County in the coming year.
It’s midday and the crew breaks for lunch. They hang out in the van together, talking while they eat. Tritto is telling Franco about the international cuisine she’s learned to cook from her dad. Earlier, Tep was trying to explain what Cambodian writing looks like to Sangho. Williams and Alva reminisce about spending two days raking fire-fuel eucalyptus bark.
Williams, who uses they/them pronouns, is mindful of the time, and as the lunch hour winds down, begins to rally everyone for the final push. They ask for volunteers before delegating, always saying please and thank you. Franco grabs the blower and starts cleaning up the remaining debris while the rest lay out the weed eaters then clean and wipe out the inside of the van. Although this is the end of the fieldwork part of their schedule, Chilcott reminds them it’s monthly evaluation time and he needs to see a few of them after their shifts.
As the van makes its way out of the constellation streets and back toward West Oakland, the crew gets excited about seeing the view across the Bay. It’s a bittersweet day for Williams. This is their last day at Civicorps for the summer. Next week they leave to join the Eastern Sierra Conservation Corps for 12 weeks of immersive trail construction and maintenance work. Taking more steps toward their goal.