Some of Mobile’s most ecologically diverse areas are tucked away beyond the buffers of some of its most urban communities — hidden marshlands, rich with plant and animal life, in areas throughout the Three Mile Creek watershed.
In a restoration economy like the one developing locally from a steady trickle of BP oil spill money, wetland areas like these can have a financial value as well. Now, a multifaceted grant program is working to connect young adults from predominantly African-American neighborhoods to the ecosystem and the potential economy quietly growing in their own backyards.
“Through the Gulf [RESTORE Act], there are going to be numerous jobs and career opportunities, but unfortunately many African-Americans and minorities in low-income communities just aren’t being exposed to those,” Michael Pierce, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue Redevelopment Corporation, said. “We wanted to get involved to show them the value of those things, which is something that’s never been done.”
Young people need to be better connected to environmental assets in their own neighborhoods, they need to develop marketable employment skills and, in some cases, they just need a job. After existing as an idea for several months, the Coastal Alabama Conservation and Resiliency Corps found its funding in a $250,000 matching grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. It was secured through a Mobile Bay National Estuary Program partnership with MLKARC and the Student Conservation Association.
The SCA, a nonprofit that aims to find the “next generation of conservationists,” contributed an additional $100,000 to the program, though it’s also managing the organizational infrastructure and the activities of the local Corps members through its two program’s leaders.
The Corps consists of 10 young adults, ages 18-25, from areas such as Prichard, Orange Grove, Theodore, Happy Hill, Down the Bay and Moffett Road.
While SCA has been involved in similar programs in other regions, Pierce said Mobile’s is unique because it’s specifically targeting “an urban environment” and “low- to median-income communities,” calling the pilot program “the first of its kind in the country.”
“It’s important young people understand there are multiple career pathways out there, not just ones we typically think about — doctor, lawyer, teacher, athlete,” Pierce said. “Those are great, but there’s others that sometimes don’t immediately come to mind — foresters, engineers, the people who study and protect our environment. Generally, in minority communities — and particularly in the African-American community — I don’t see many working in those fields, and I would assume that’s more than likely due to a lack of exposure.”