In COVID-19 Era, Green Youth Employment Program Adapts to Online Format

Most summers, Green Team members can be spotted planting produce at South Street Farm, working a shift at the Somerville Mobile Farmers’ Market, or biking through one of the city’s neighborhoods. Though this year the Green Team was most visible on Facebook and Zoom, the cohort found creative ways to carry out their mission of creating a greener and more equitable Somerville.

 

“We made up for [not being able to work on the farm] with a new focus on generating [other] projects and initiatives to improve our community,” Will Capriola, a Green Team Leader, said. “What stayed consistent was the energy and passion the youth brought to the program and how motivated they were to address topics from climate change, to Black Lives Matter, to food justice.”

 

Since 2007, the Green Team has been a core program of Groundwork Somerville, a nonprofit focused on community engagement, environmental and open space improvements, fresh food access, youth education, and employment initiatives. Green Team members spend six weeks working on projects that tackle these issues in the Somerville context. Members work up to 20 hours per week and are paid $15 per hour. Green Team Leaders like Capriola, many who are themselves Green Team alumni, help to organize and oversee programming. This year, the leaders were also responsible for maintaining Groundwork Somerville’s school gardens and harvesting on South Street Farm.

 

 

This year, 12 Green Team members met daily over Zoom with the Green Team Leaders; Stephanie Cordova, Groundwork Somerville’s youth employment program manager; and many experts from the community. Working exclusively virtually, Green Team members designed surveys to assess food access at the Somerville Mobile Farmers’ Market and access to the Mystic River; created a cookbook; counted over 2,000 herring fish on the Mystic River Watershed Association’s live cam; and wrote letters to local officials, among other projects. The group also tapped into the Green Team’s strong alumni network; current members interviewed alumni about their experiences with the Green Team and what they are up to now (these video interviews are available on the Groundwork Somerville Facebook page).

 

The summer culminated with a youth summit, at which Green Team members presented their ideas for local initiatives. Proposals ranged from a program to supply PPE safety bags to the city’s homeless population to a permanent garden and farmstand on the longstanding vacant Star Market lot in Somerville to more comprehensive climate change education at Somerville High School.

 

The switch to a virtual format was not without challenges, given the hands-on nature of the Green Team’s usual activities. Planning started in April, as soon as it became clear that moving forward with an in-person program would not be safe. Cordova, who grew up in Somerville, worked with Capriola and the three other Green Team Leaders, to design the curriculum from scratch. The planning team brainstormed new teaching tools, including documentaries and shorter videos and potting soil and seedling kits, which were delivered to team members’ homes.

 

The Green Team class was also slightly smaller than in past years, a shift that was conducive to facilitating discussions over Zoom. After initially meeting for four hours per day, the team adjusted to a three-hour daily schedule to avoid Zoom fatigue.

 

During the summer term, leaders were also responsible for maintaining school gardens and harvesting on South Street Farm.

 

The Green Team program is a component of many of Groundwork USA’s local trusts. Each trust takes a slightly different approach, but all focus on green employment and leadership programming for youth ages 14 to 18. This summer, each took a unique approach to the challenges posed by COVID-19. Groundwork Lawrence hosted a speaker series for members and set up similar meetings with alumni. Groundwork Hudson Valley increased the number of teens it hired this summer for its own Green Team program, in an effort to offset rising unemployment rates, while taking increased social distancing precautions for outside work and moving discussions online.

 

In the coming months, Groundwork Somerville staff will brainstorm ideas for the future of the Green Team program and reflect on this summer’s virtual experience. As in past years, the 2020 summer cohort is staying actively engaged in the Groundwork Somerville community. Many recently volunteered at the Family Paddling on the Mystic River event at the end of September and are helping to plan for and host programs for the Groundwork Somerville virtual 20th anniversary event series.

 

“They stay with us and we sometimes put out calls for their help,” Cordova said. “We have a great community and there are always some members who stay involved beyond their Green Team experience.”