The world is waking

by Caroline Fazzio, Central District Crew Leader/ AmeriCorps member - 4/9/2019

“Winter’s on the wing, here’s a fine spring morn’ […]

The sun spells the doom of the winter’s reign, ice and chill must retire…”*

These lyrics, from the musical The Secret Garden, have run through my head the past few weeks. Used to describe the disappearance of winter from the English moors in the musical, they seem to apply just as aptly to the coming of spring to Minnesota this year. After one of the snowiest Februarys on record and a March that tried to break February’s snow record in just the first week, it seemed but a few weeks ago that spring was far out of reach.

The CCMI central district field crews started off their term trudging through knee high snow, and learning the fine art of dressing in layers. But after just a couple weeks of higher than freezing daytime temperatures and some welcoming sunlight, the snow has all but disappeared. Watching it disappear has been like watching a sleeping world reawaken. Moving through our project sites, I’ve had to stop and appreciate the treasures that emerge with the retreat of the snow. Bird’s nests, beaver activity, small cedar saplings popping out of the snow like springtime daisies—all proof the natural world is stirring from hibernation. Those of us who work outside all day are stirring with excitement along with it. We’re ready for the sun to greet us in the morning, for the days when we don’t need four layers to stay warm, and for the adventures a new season will bring. I hope you’re ready too.

My name is Caroline Fazzio, and I’m a returning blogging this year for Conservation Corps of MN and IA (CCMI). I have moved from the halls of the Department of Natural Resources (AIS Individual Placement) to the nursery beds of the Three Rivers Park District as the new crew leader of the Three Rivers One (3R1) Forestry field crew out of the Central District of MN (bit of a mouthful isn’t it). My crew is joined by two other CCMI forestry field crews ready to tackle the conservation work of the Three Rivers Park District. Expect chaos, expect surprises, expect hard work, expect fun, expect the unexpected – Welcome to the Adventure!

* “Winter’s on the Wing” from The Secret Garden (musical). 1991. Lyrics and book by Marsha Norman.

How do you make a leader?

By Gina Hatch, AmeriCorps Member – February 22, 2019


Crew leaders from Central District settle in for a presentation on chainsaw operation at the Conservation Corps headquarters in Saint Paul, MN.

How do you make a leader?

The answer to this question is critical at the Conservation Corps, where field crews are trusted to work safely and effectively in far flung posts across Minnesota and Iowa. Applicants willing and selected to lead these crews are responsible for their crew members’ safety and work performance at project sites. They solve technical hurdles in the field, look after their crew members’ development, and also address any interpersonal challenges that may come up among members.

So how does the Conservation Corps prepare new crew leaders to fill these shoes?

The straightforward answer: Gather new crew leads from around the state together at an overnight base camp for a week of orientation that includes an introduction to National Service, workshops on conflict mediation and risk management, scenario-based problem solving, Q&A sessions with seasoned leaders past, personal values assessments, and a two-day finale of Wilderness First Aid training. Then send these leaders-in-the-making back to their service districts and follow up with a second week of technical skills training on chainsaw operation, pesticide application, GIS tools and mapping, truck and trailer operation, expense reporting, and effective social media practice.

The complicated truth: Authentic leadership skills take shape over time, on the ground and in the heat of critical moments that require decisive action. Crew leader orientation and training help give new leaders the tools to develop these skills, but that development itself comes later through an evolution unique to each individual.

Still, those first two weeks of training are an essential, if brief, phase of learning and a critical initiation to the service crew leaders will be performing with the Conservation Corps. Corps staff spend an immense amount of time preparing to welcome new leaders each year, and the experience they create for these recruits is the result of honing and hewing that has taken place over many iterations.  

There are perhaps four main pieces of crew leader orientation and training that help prepare budding leaders to bloom: the setting, the soft skills, the self-analysis, and the technical skills.

Part 1: The Setting and Context

Content aside, the context of crew leader orientation sends an important message in itself and allows AmeriCorps members to gain valuable perspective on the program.

Orientation week is held each year at an overnight conference and retreat center (typically in Annandale, Minnesota), allowing all crew leaders and Field Specialists Corps-wide – about 40 people – to gather in one place. They get to meet the Corps staff who make their work possible, and they receive a unified welcome as well as gratitude for their service. “We talk a lot about our history with AmeriCorps and we give a lot of appreciation for the members,” explained Central District Manager Dorian Hasselmann. “Every speaker starts by saying a thank you – thank you for being here and giving your next ten months to perform national service.”

And maybe even more importantly, by gathering all together, crew leaders get a sense of the scale of the program. “It helps create context for what people are doing,” Dorian pointed out. “When crews are in their own settings, it’s easy to lose sight of what their connection is to the state’s natural resources and where they fit into the picture. Bringing everyone together helps them see what all the different crews all over the state are doing and what we’re accomplishing as a broader movement.

Finally, the extended stay at the camp-like setting ensures that members have ample time for informal getting-to-know-each other. The folded hands and quiet apprehension of the first day quickly give way to a more open atmosphere as crew leaders chat over meals, relax together during evenings, and settle into the excitement that comes from meeting so many like-minded people. Having the chance to share stories and build camaraderie at orientation is what makes each year’s cohort a real leadership team rather than just a sea of solo ships.

Crew leaders persevere through a tense game of Jenga during Crew Leader Orientation at Camp Friendship in Annandale, MN.

Part 2: The Soft Skills

Before crew leaders get their hands on chainsaws and power tools during week two, orientation introduces them to the skills that will make them not just technically competent instructors, but engaged and proactive mentors and team builders. The first couple days of orientation are heavy in presentations and discussions that cover topics like motivating crew members, communicating expectations, and building an effective crew dynamic. Small group break-out sessions give the new leaders a chance to work through various scenarios that could come to pass during their term, and they also get to talk candidly with field leaders from years past about some common experiences and challenges.

The communication and problem-solving skills that crew leaders start building during these small group sessions are maybe one of the most important parts of orientation.

Part 3: Getting to Know Yourself

But while this problem-solving practice is important, staff note the obvious and major caveat: “It’s impossible to set people up with everything they’ll need and to prepare them for everything that could happen over the course of their term,” Dorian advised. “So much is about decision making in the field and building up their own confidence in the field.”

Central District Assistant Manager Matt Roegge pointed out, moreover, that talking through scenarios in a group like that doesn’t foster real independent leadership abilities; rather, those kinds of activities can create group-think, “and that’s totally different from what you’re going to do when you’re alone in the woods with your crew. Decisions in that context – and authentic leadership – come from your own values.”

And hence the importance of leaders getting to know themselves.

To take more direct aim at this goal, Central District staff rolled out some new agenda items within their cohort this year focused on self-analysis and personal values assessment. “We’re trying to get them to assess and better understand their own values as individuals and then better predict how they would act when they’re alone,” Matt explained. “We also want them to understand how scenarios might play out when their crew members have values that clash with theirs – for example if a leader values punctuality and a member doesn’t.” The new activities include looking at crew leader case-studies from past years, and even case studies on CEO leadership styles in other professional fields.

Part 4: The Technical Training

Finally, after dealing in the abstract, freshly oriented crew leads start to get their hands dirty – and also dive into the world of logistics and administrative work.

The second half of orientation week at the retreat center is devoted to Wilderness First Aid training. Then leaders return home to their service districts for a week of skills training with their district managers. Every district’s work is a little different, but some core skills apply to all. Leaders learn how to fill out the various paperwork that trails every field crew: expense reports, time cards, surveys of accomplished work. They also get briefed on social media best practices, as they’ll spend the next year (intentionally or not) acting as a representative of the Conservation Corps and the broader AmeriCorps movement.

Chainsaw training takes up a hefty amount of week two’s schedule, and with good reason, Matt explained: “One of the most dangerous things we ask members to do is take a chainsaw and cut down a tree. For a lot of them it’s the first time they’ve picked up a chainsaw…16 pounds, a chain going around at 50 mph, teeth fully exposed. They won’t be proficient by the end of the week, but they’ll hopefully have more comfort and confidence with the equipment and be able to operate tools without abusing them.”

Crew leaders from Central District start hands-on chainsaw training in Saint Paul, MN.

Crew leaders also get trained in on the GIS and mapping tools they’ll use to track their crew’s work at project sites, keeping First Aid kits up to regulation, truck and trailer operation, tool maintenance, and herbicide application. Toward the end of the week, leaders take a pesticide applicator test to attain a non-commercial applicator license.

And with that, a new crop of leaders is born! Well, sort of…

Epilogue: Learning to Trust Yourself

Matt articulated the elephant in the room that staff are continually trying to address as they develop and tweak orientation each year: “[At the end of training] it’s like one day someone tells them ‘You’re a crew leader!’ and then they freak out a little because that’s not how it works. We talk a lot about worst case scenarios and give them tips and tricks, but that’s silly because the people we’re training are humans, not programmable machines.” 

Indeed, if crew leader orientation and training sounds like a whirlwind, even for the programmable robots among us, that’s because it is. Unsurprisingly, crew leaders often comment that it’s hard to retain everything they are exposed to during those first couple weeks.

But through all the discussions, workshops, panels and presentations, staff stay cognizant of the fact that a lot of the skills covered in orientation take years or even lifetimes to fully develop – and just how much of the programming crew leaders manage to internalize in the moment may not actually be so critical. As Dorian concluded, a lot of how members grow into their leadership roles is out of the staff’s hands: “We only have them for a week, and hopefully beyond that they learn to trust themselves and their peers.”



Corpsmember Spotlight: Margaret Krueger

By Gina Hatch, AmeriCorps member – February 14, 2019

Margaret’s 2013 Wilderness Crew on Mott Island off the coast of Isle Royale National Park.

Margaret’s 2013 Wilderness Crew on Mott Island off the coast of Isle Royale National Park.

Margaret Krueger’s time with the Conservation Corps has taken her on adventures to places that natural resource professionals might dream of – from remote lakes and islands within Isle Royale National Park, to far reaches of the Lake Superior Hiking Trail, to a National Wildlife Refuge home to the largest breeding colony of American White pelicans on the continent.

And that was all while she was still in high school.

Today, having earned a degree in Environmental Studies from Hamline University, Margaret has returned to the Corps under the Individual Placement program and landed in another haven of outdoor enthusiasts – although one with markedly different scenery: the offices of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources in Saint Paul. Switching from the field to the office for this position is an adjustment, she admits. But she’s excited and ready for the growth it will bring. “It’s great practice to hone new skills and gain professional development, as opposed to focusing mainly on technical skills. It’s been challenging so far but I’m looking forward to it.”

Margaret’s story, from age 16 to 24, exemplifies the arc of personal and professional development that serving with the Conservation Corps can provide. And throughout this story, she has modeled the open-mindedness, flexibility and adventurousness needed to seize these opportunities for expansion and fully reap the rewards.

So how did it all start?

Margaret first joined the Corps at age 16, after watching her older sister participate in Summer Youth Corps (SYC), a program that takes youth ages 15 to 18 camping around the Midwest to complete hands-on conservation projects. “As a little sister I watched her go through the program and really got interested. She returned to it for three years in a row and I got to see her gain networking skills and make lifelong friends.” Following in her sister’s footsteps, Margaret also completed three terms of SYC taking her through the end of high school.

Each of her terms with SYC was a different experience, but the value and pay-off of adaptability was a common theme throughout. During her first term as a youth crew member in 2012, wind storm damage from the previous year left SYC participants at a back-up base camp and changed the operation of the program so that crews were sent on service trips longer and more far-flung than usual. Margaret’s crew ended up on a two-week trip in the Chase Lake area of North Dakota. The first part of the trip was spent on a prairie restoration project, while the latter part had the crew banding American White pelicans at the Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Margaret with her Summer Youth Corps crew at the entrance to the Chase Lake Prairie Project in 2012.

Margaret with her Summer Youth Corps crew at the entrance to the Chase Lake Prairie Project in 2012.

“It was a really unique experience! The pelicans mainly nest on this one island so we took a small paddle boat out and banded the birds that were still adolescents and couldn’t fly yet. (The adults just see you and fly away.) You have to move very slowly there because there are several thousand birds nesting and you don’t want anything to get trampled.” Margaret’s crew was indeed in a very special place; the island is designated as one of the top 100 Globally Important Birding Areas in the United States. “It was incredible research that we got to help out with, and that research has helped restore the pelican population on that island. That was definitely a highlight of the program – and a very exceptional opportunity that we had because of the unusual circumstances of SYC that year.”

For her second term with the Summer Youth Corps, Margaret took advantage of her previous experience to join the Wilderness Crew, which is an option specifically for returning youth members. The Wilderness Crew brought her to Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior to work with the National Park Service on maintenance of the Greenstone Ridge Trail.

“That summer was structured so that we had 10-day increments of work and then four or five days off. The National Park Service schedules their work that way because it can take so long to get to work sites there; sometimes you have to bushwack and portage in.” Still, the atypical schedule came with its perks. During their long periods off the crew got to go on extended hikes around the park and enjoy their time relaxing in the company of National Park Service staff. And of course, all that time spent working and wandering the remote island resulted in some enviable wildlife encounters! “There were several times when were just hiking or working and would see a moose and her babies or something else incredible.” Margaret and her crew even got to meet the researchers studying the island’s wolf and moose populations.

Margaret’s 2013 Wilderness Crew near the Greenstone Ridge Trail on Isle Royale National Park.

Margaret’s 2013 Wilderness Crew near the Greenstone Ridge Trail on Isle Royale National Park.

Finally, during her third term with SYC, Margaret ventured into a somewhat different role and served as a “swamper.” “A swamper is essentially a gopher, so that position requires an incredibly flexible person. American Sign Language is a significant part of SYC and the sign for swamper is essentially ‘doer person,’ and that’s exactly right.” As a swamper Margaret spent much of her time either filling in for Crew Leaders or back at the base camp running the kitchen and managing other logistics. Acting as a Crew Leader, she got to lead trail maintenance work along the north shore of Lake Superior, at Tettegouche and Gooseberry Falls state parks, as well as on the Superior Hiking Trail, a portion of the term that she remembers very fondly.

Margaret’s service with the Conservation Corps paused here while she went on to Hamline University to pursue a degree in Environmental Studies with a minor in Biology and a focus in Secondary Education. Although, in some sense, her experience with the Corps never really left her, because the work she did as a youth corpsmember strongly guided her academic trajectory. “Coming into college I knew exactly what I wanted to get my degree in and that was because of the Corps. I’d always had an interest in the environment and natural resources, but that got much more specific through the Summer Youth Corps and that experience helped me make a lot of decisions. I definitely would not be where I am had it not been for those service terms in high school.”

Back to the present, Margaret has returned once again to the Conservation Corps seeking the next step to build on her field skills and academic background in environmental education. In January of this year she began a year-long Individual Placement position serving as a Youth Outreach Specialist with the Parks and Trails division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). And that SYC experience from high school is still proving foundational as she builds her professional network: “One of the main things I learned with the Corps was how to meet and connect to new people, and that’s exactly what I’m doing now. It’s a slightly different context, but that’s a lifelong skill that I’m definitely carrying into this job.”

In addition to those general networking skills, Margaret’s work with SYC is helping her out in more specific and specialized ways as she starts to build curricula for the DNR’s I Can Camp! and I Can Paddle! programs. These summer offerings introduce Minnesota families to various outdoor recreation activities while also educating them about local ecology and natural resources. To get launched on this ambitious project, Margaret will be connecting with Corps staff to access some of the environmental education resources she used as an SYC member and essentially facilitating a collaboration between the Corps and the DNR.

Reflecting back on her experience with the Corps so far, Margaret can easily pick out another key way in which her service experience has stuck with her and exerted far-reaching influence: “SYC taught me how to maintain a positive mental attitude in any situation – not just through physical challenges, but also through changing mental and emotional conditions, and that’s something I still carry with me. It’s a skill that has applied not just to my work experience but to my whole life.”

To new members just embarking on their service term, she advises practicing this positive mental attitude through thick and thin. “If you focus on doing that the experience will be so much better. And it effects what you’re physically capable of doing.” The triumphs you achieve in the face of apparently impossible tasks, she explains, are “humbling and incredibly valuable.”

She also strongly encourages members to return for multiple terms and stay engaged even after their service. “It’s something incredibly important to what we do at the Corps. We rely a lot on involved alumni and we highly value that network. Plus you’ll come out of it with lifelong friendships.”

Her advice to people who might still be contemplating service with the Conservation Corps?

“Do it! Absolutely do it! I’ve loved my time working for the Conservation Corps so far; it’s probably been the best job I’ve had in my entire life and I’m not exaggerating.”

Reflections on disaster deployment: every disaster is different

By Erin Bjork, AmeriCorps member, Young Adult Program 2017-18 – 1/29/2019

Conservation Corps MN & IA members with Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) members on their last morning.

Conservation Corps MN & IA members with Washington Conservation Corps (WCC) members on their last morning.

The one constant in disaster response is that every disaster is different. All AmeriCorps Disaster Response Teams (A-DRTs) operate under the same systems of command and organization, but the scope of work, the people who make up the team, and the communities where we work all contribute to making a completely new experience every time. I tried to keep this in mind preparing to leave for my second deployment to North Carolina in mid-December 2018 but couldn’t help thinking about the experiences I had in Puerto Rico, in response to Hurricane Maria.

My first disaster deployment sent me to Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, just a month after Maria had devastated the island. I hadn’t been initially slotted to be a part of the response team from Minnesota, but while attending a reception of members returning from an A-DRT in Texas, my supervisors found out that I speak Spanish and asked if I would be ready to leave for Puerto Rico within the week. When we arrived on the island, utilities were out over much of the island and the hillsides were brown where evergreen tress had been stripped of their leaves and many had fallen. Though roads had been cleared and most trees had been removed from power lines, hundreds of trees remained on homes. Our teams assessed damaged homes and cleared trees so we could help homeowners sign up for roof repair and roof tarp installation. While the island still had a long way to go when we left just after Thanksgiving 2017, some of the island now had electricity, and once-brown hillsides were resurging with leaves and bright blooms.

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Back to 2018: our Conservation Corps MN & IA team left for North Carolina in December after our end-of-year celebrations. After the designated time for community and closure had ended for the week, we packed our bags and got back into the trucks to which we had already said goodbye, launching back into work and into forming community again. Seven of us built a new crew and new dynamic, forming bonds with people from Washington, Utah, North Carolina, and all over the country. For me, this was an emotional time; not only as an opportunity to help in communities still deeply affected by Hurricane Florence three months after it made landfall, but also as a capstone on my two years with Conservation Corps, an organization that has come to feel like home.

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It’s hard to quickly summarize our month in North Carolina, or any disaster response experience (every disaster is different!). We had the opportunity to contribute our physical labor in removing damaged building materials, installing roof tarps, scraping glue and mold from homes, and spraying mold-suppressing chemicals; to offer emotional support to the community and get to know their neighborhoods months after Florence devastated the area; and to make deep connections with crews from other AmeriCorps programs who share our same values. I personally had the chance to work with the Incident Command team in a planning and operations capacity supporting our field teams and working on our data and reporting systems. While it may not seem exciting to work with spreadsheets all day, I thoroughly enjoyed working to clarify our reporting systems and making sure all accomplishments since October 2018 were properly documented.

I’m incredibly proud of my crew and their hard work and dedication—looking out at the world at-large can be scary and uncertain, but these folks have energized me with their care, love, and belief in the value of hard work. It was beautiful to be a part of a small but strong coalition in North Carolina dedicated simply to doing good, placing all our weight on supporting recovery, community, and making a difference. While I am still working out how to think about this single month in the grand scheme, I am immensely grateful for the experience and the passion of those who have worked alongside me—and for the Corps experience overall. I don’t know exactly where I’m going next, but Conservation Corps, and especially the individuals I have met and served with over the last two years, have changed my outlook and my life for the better.

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