By Michael Muckle

As the new administration takes the reins, vaccinations ramp up, and an economic recovery comes into view, it’s time to talk about what “Build Back Better” means here in New Jersey. At New Jersey Youth Corps, we have proven solutions that do triple duty: educating minds, providing job training, and taking care of the natural world that takes care of us. It’s a model that is working here at home, and across the Delaware River Basin, the system of rivers that provides drinking water for 15 million people across four states.

Our rivers, streams, and clean drinking water are under threat from past and present-day pollution and a changing climate. But restoration work can build resilience even as it builds jobs. Restoration means bringing back the plants that filter water, prevent flooding, and allow rivers to nourish the land and people. Restoration projects can also provide good jobs and job training. So we support youth to build skills, enter the workforce, and catalyze conservation investments in restoration.

The timing couldn’t be more serendipitous: President Biden signed an Executive Order in January directing the secretaries of agriculture and interior to develop a strategy to mobilize the next generation of conservation workers in the form of a Civilian Climate Corps to restore public lands and waters, to increase access to outdoor recreation, to improve community resilience and, more broadly, to address climate change. And job creation is a central focus of the new administration’s climate and resilience program, as it should be!

For years, Service and Conservation Corps like NJ Youth Corps have demonstrated our ability to effectively have an impact all across America. With leadership from The Corps Network, we have been collaborating locally with community agencies like NJ Audubon, and our public-private partnership has proven to be an effective way of getting things done. Most recently, NJ Youth Corps of Phillipsburg put their Corps members to work on Phase 1 of a planting project along Bowers Brook in Hackettstown at the Mars Wrigley facility. Corps members planted a mix of species of trees as a first step in building resilience for that waterway, taking steps to improve habitat upstream so the impact can be seen and felt downstream. The impact is not only seen on the ground but in the shifting attitudes of the young people performing the work.

The good news is that this kind of “natural infrastructure” works, and can be a major focus for new investment at all levels of government as it helps bring cleaner water to the region. Catalyzing the energy of young people will power that investment. Among the young people we work with, there is a strong desire to become empowered, to make a difference and to be part of something bigger than themselves.

Zach Oefelein, an NJ Youth Corps member reflected on his conservation work: “There aren’t enough people focused on things like this. A lot of our world is focused on what you can get out of nature and not what you put back into it. I feel like this is the best way you can do it, planting trees out here and improving the ecosystem.”

Now it’s time to scale up this energy, harnessing the synergy of community and sharing lessons and best practices at a much greater scale than what was possible under the previous administration. We do this by putting young people first, as we work with conservation organizations to ensure clean water, clean air and livable communities.

Here at New Jersey Youth Corps, we know how to do that, as do many other programs across the region that work in the same way. It’s a powerful model with so many benefits — for people and the planet — and it is a model we should double down on as we build back better.

Michael Muckle is the executive director of the New Jersey Youth Corps of Phillipsburg and an AmeriCorps alumnus. He helped establish the program in Warren County in 1998.

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