D’Andre Cloud felt like he was stuck in a cycle of low-paying retail jobs. After losing his position at Target in April, the 28-year-old was worried he wouldn’t be able to provide for his daughter, so he applied to PowerCorps, Boston’s new green jobs training program, after seeing a flier in her dentist’s office.
Two months after enrolling, Cloud said the program has helped him find a new passion in conservation work. He had done some landscaping as a teenager but “nothing like this,” he said.
“I didn’t know anything about any of this. I didn’t even know that there was programs that teach you to do this,” said Cloud, who is part of PowerCorps’s debut class of 26 people. “Now I’ve actually got a plan and dreams.”
PowerCorps Boston — modeled after President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and a program of the same name in Philadelphia — is about a third of the way through a six-month pilot class, part of the city’s Green New Deal. Through classroom and hands-on lessons, participants learn conservation skills, from identifying invasive species to caring for tree canopies, as well as general career skills like resume writing and interviewing.
The program is open to Boston residents who are between 18 and 30 years old, are unemployed or underemployed, and lack a clear career track. Applicants must have a high school diploma or GED and priority is given to those who have been incarcerated or are involved in the court system, as well as young people who have experienced housing instability or have been in foster care. Participants make $550 a week.
Davo Jefferson, the program’s executive director, said the training is designed to bolster the city’s green workforce and provide classroom and hands-on job training to people of color and other marginalized communities. Jefferson said the city aims to gradually expand the class to 120 participants each season within about three years.
“For some folks, this is their first introduction to much of it,” Jefferson said. “But I feel very confident about the group. So much of the conversation that I have with them is focused on future employment in this field.”
For Damoni Swain, 18, PowerCorps exposed a new side of the city. Growing up in Dorchester and Mattapan, Swain had limited interaction with Boston’s vast park system, sticking mostly to Franklin Park and smaller green spaces in his neighborhood. He said he was surprised to be working on PowerCorps projects around Dorchester and Roxbury.
“They’re showing us stuff that I never knew was there, that I walk past all the time,” Swain said.
Breaking for water on a sweltering August morning, Swain said he hopes to end up working in construction after graduating but believes the training will pay dividends.
“Having the skill and doing it to maybe make a little extra money or help somebody, yeah, I could see me doing that, definitely,” he said.
Swain and his partner are expecting a daughter in September — “the first PowerCorps baby,” he quipped — and needed help finding an apartment and signing up for food stamps. He said PowerCorps staff were quick to help when he told them about the situation.
“If you decide you want to get personal with one of them, it’s perfectly fine,” Swain said. “That one person is going to keep whatever you’re talking about between them, and it’s just kind of like a coping mechanism.”
Jefferson said that type of support is a central part of the program’s vision.
“All our staff have shown up at a worksite and put their hands in the dirt,” Jefferson said. Wednesdays are half-days so participants have a free afternoon for appointments like doctors’ visits and going to government offices.
Earlier that August morning, as a crew waited for landscaping tools to arrive at their Olmsted Park worksite, members circled up for their morning check-in, rating how they felt on a scale from one to 10. Crew leader Rich Sheriff said they start and end every field day that way.
“Usually if anyone’s at a lower number, we try to encourage them to get up to a higher number by the end of the day,” Sheriff said. “Nine times out of 10, that somewhat works.”
By 9:30 a.m., they were pulling, snipping, and hauling invasive Japanese knotweed from the banks of Leverett Pond.
Nickolas Cruz, 23, who lives in Dorchester, dragged a tarp full of trimmings back to the path, stuffing them into thick trash bags.
Cruz said he’s always had an interest in the outdoors but didn’t know how to make a career out of it. He said there is a small farm near his house but he has only been once.
“I always tried to apply there,” Cruz said, “but it never worked out.”
Cruz said he is interested in working with tree canopies after completing the program. He cited a recent classroom lesson about “heat islands,” heavily paved areas that are warmer than greener parts of the city.
“I don’t think people are really aware of it,” Cruz said. “I remember there used to be a lot of trees, but they’ve been cut down, and they just started to replant them.”
Cloud said he plans to start his own landscaping business. He already has a name — Green Dreams Landscaping — a mission statement, and some ideas crammed into an overflowing, green notebook.
In the meantime, he and his 8-year-old daughter are planning a garden of their own.
“I told her, ‘Daddy’s got a new career now,’” Cloud said. “She was like, ‘A gardener? I like that. I like that for you.’”