All-Women Crew Is All-In in Chicago

At first, it may sound counter-intuitive. I mean, to forge a more inclusive conservation community, does it really make sense to exclude roughly 50% of the population?

SCA has fielded a female-only conservation crew in and around Chicago every year since 2013. The women, eight-to-12 in number between the ages of 18 and 25, plus two experienced team leaders, maintain hiking trails and control invasive species in city green spaces while, in the process, upending misguided notions of gender roles in the male-dominated world of parks, rec, and conservation.

“For young women,” states SCA Program Manager Daiva Gylys, “green jobs can be something of a mystery and opportunities to train for them are even more so. But that doesn’t mean women are any less interested than men.”

Daiva says the all-women crews put participants on equal footing. “For example,” she says, “on co-ed crews, when strength is needed, the young men are more apt to jump in and say ‘I got this.’ The all-female crews are machismo-free. There are no gender roles and the women have proven they can handle things – anything – on their own.”

Unfortunately, biases – from the unintentional to the overt – still exist.

“We were out by Indian Ridge Marsh a few weeks ago, picking up trash along the roadside,” 2019 crew member Andrea Mendoza recalls. “A lot of big tires, heavy duty stuff. And some guy driving by in a truck shouts out his window, ‘Are you girls okay? Where are the men?!’

“It’s frustrating. If we’d been an all-male crew, he’d have just driven on without a word.”

The ladies don’t get too down, however. Crew leader Laurita Fulton notes the crew’s unique composition makes for a natural support network. “We know what it’s like to be women. We are women, and we talk about the things women go through,” Laurita says. “You got an attitude today? It’s okay, we’ll work on it. You having a bad day? It’s okay, we’ll work on it because we know you’re a woman just like us.”

“I really like the environment of the women’s crew,” adds member Carmina Reyes, 22. “It’s inclusive and compassionate. Very different from a traditional workplace.”

Carmina is back for her second season on the all-female team. Last year’s experience convinced her to return to college and pursue a degree in biology. Like her crewmates, Carmina says she has a passion for the outdoors but didn’t realize she could also have a career outside until she joined SCA.

“Environmental work challenges society’s idea of what happiness means,” she says. “People always tell you to make money, be sure you’re financially stable. That’s what they think happiness is. But if you’re out here, it’s because you love nature. A paycheck is important but it doesn’t equal happiness.”

At Hegewisch Marsh, a sanctuary favored by migrating birds and local hikers wedged in industrial southeast Chicago, the crew fans out to trim trailside vegetation. As she fuels her weed-whacker, Khameelah Bailey calls SCA “exactly what I was l looking for in terms of training and working outdoors.”

The Trinity College graduate wants a career in urban land use and says her SCA experience is helping her build her credentials. “When I decided I wanted to go into conservation,” she reveals, “I thought about how to navigate the field, how to get started, who to talk to. [As a woman], of course there’s going be barriers: operating power tools, working in wetlands. This industry is a beast but that’s why so many people are so intrigued by it.”

This year’s team will remain in the field through October, and the women know that every member of last year’s crew has since secured full-time employment in the conservation field. One is an environmental restoration technician, another works in lake and watershed management, and another in organic sustainable farming. So if you don’t yet think these all-female teams are turning stereotypes on their head, consider this observation from Chicago native Jaharha Pryor, who offers a flip side to that story of the male truck driver who patronizingly asked “are you girls okay?” 

Following an extended stint of working and camping near Big Foot Beach State Park, “we had to go to the laundromat to wash our clothes,” Jaharha says. “I was the one driving our truck, and I pulled up and this man is sitting there watching as we all pile out. And he starts smiling ‘cause it’s all women. 

“And he says ‘Whoa, I didn’t expect to see women out here!’ And especially me, as a minority, people don’t expect to see people of color in this field. So we get good and bad comments.

“All you can do,” she shrugs, “is keep on working.”