Serving with the Minnesota GreenCorps helped Steven Yang turn an interest in the environment to a career path. Now he works with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency helping to keep the state's waters clean. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Steven Yang wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 2017. 

Raised by Hmong refugees in Golden Valley, Yang developed a love for the outdoors. He and his family would fish for fun and food at French Park in Plymouth. In the summers, the entire extended family would take group camping trips across the region.  

He had pursued an environmental studies certificate at school, but majored in political science. When he returned to the Twin Cities to look for work, he saw a Facebook post from a professor about the Minnesota GreenCorps, an environmentally focused AmeriCorps program. He applied, was admitted, and spent a year working with the Capitol Region Watershed District in St. Paul, where helped residents maintain rain gardens, conducted surveys and assisted with database management. 

“The key feature of GreenCorps work is they give you a taste of everything,” Yang, 25, said. 

He liked it enough that he enrolled at Nicholas School for the Environment at Duke University in North Carolina. Armed with a master’s degree in Environmental Management, he returned home in 2020 to work for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Now, he’s working with GreenCorps members to reduce lead pollution in waters across the state. 

“It’s kind of funny to see it all come full circle,” Yang said. 

Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources and the Pollution Control Agency are attempting to diversify their workforces. Programs like the GreenCorps can be a way into the field for Minnesota’s people of color. 

Corps service

The Minnesota GreenCorps was founded in 2009 with an initial class of 18 members. The AmeriCorps program enrolls mostly young adults for an 11-month service term. GreenCrops members are placed with host nonprofit and government organizations across the state. They assist with projects in four subject areas: Waste reduction; air pollution reduction; green infrastructure improvements; and environmental education. Members are paid a cost of living stipend and are assisted with mentorships and career development training. 

“It’s a very good transition for people coming from a two or four-year program,” Shelby Gamache, GreenCrops program coordinator, told Sahan Journal. “The networking you get out of the program is a huge benefit.”

The program has grown and will have 48 members in 2021. The GreenCorps has been trying to increase its outreach to diverse communities, according to Minnesota Pollution Control Agency spokesperson Lucie Amundsen. Participating in the St. Could State University diversity job fair and placing ads in publications like The Monitor, which covers the Como, Frogtown and Midway communities in St. Paul. The percentage of GreenCorp applicants who identified as people of color increased from 14 percent in 2018 to 16.7 percent in 2019. 

Yang’s GreenCorps service with the Capitol Region Watershed District provided experience with field work, community outreach and data management. Spring and summer days were spent checking in on rain gardens throughout St. Paul. Rain gardens are plots filled with native plant species designed to absorb precipitation and reduce stormwater pollution. On site, Yang would manage weeds and debris that would build up in the gardens. He enjoyed helping people beautify their yards and reduce pollution, and residents were happy to see him.

Many of the rain garden grants were going to white households, so he assisted in outreach to communities of color at HmongTown Marketplace and Lake Phalen. 

Getting the Lead Out

Being in the GreenCorps was a major resume booster when applying to graduate school, Yang believes, and helped him find a position at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2020. He was hired by someone who he met at a GreenCorps training.

Today, Yang is a program coordinator for a public awareness campaign called “Get the Lead Out”, which aims to convert anglers from lead-based tackle to nontoxic alternatives.

Lead tackle pollutes the water and has a horrific effect on the loon, Minnesota’s state bird. Lead tackle comes loose from lines and sinks to the lake floor. Loons often consume peebles from lake bottoms to aid in their digestion and can inadvertently consume lead sinkers in the process, which poisons the bird. Research shows about 25 percent of adult loon deaths come from lead poisoning, Yang said. 

The Get the Lead Out campaign was active in the late 2000s, but was brought back in 2019 to help address the persistent issue by promoting lead-free tackle. Many anglers are unaware of the issue. 

“People are shocked that lead is still used,” Yang said.   

A major component of the program is conducting targeted outreach, including attempts to reach diverse communities and non-English speakers. 

“We understand that fishing isn’t just a white people sport,” Yang said. 

Diversifying the green workforce

Minnesota’s environmental agencies are making a concerted effort to diversify their workforces. 

A 2016 study found that 44 percent of the workforce of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Department of Natural Resources would be of retirement age in the next 10 years. Both agencies are disproportionately white. Just 5 percent of Department of Natural Resources and 10.5 percent of the Pollution Control Agency employees are people of color, according to the respective organization’s most recent affirmative action reports. 

“It’s just not diverse,” Mimi Daniel, a career pathways project manager with the Department of Natural Resources. 

Daniel, a first generation Nigerian-American, administers an initiative aiming to address the disparity. The Increasing Diversity in Environmental Careers program launched in 2019 with a goal of helping racial minorities, women, and people with disabilities access green jobs.  

The three-year program is aimed at students pursuing degrees in science, technology, engineering and math at two and four-year colleges in Minnesota. Students receive a fellowship with an annual stipend to help cover educational costs and internships during the summers to give them field experience. Participants are paid $15 an hour or more for full-time work during their internships, which are spread among the Department of Natural Resources, Pollution Control Agency and Board of Water and Soil Resources.

After spending the first summer learning about all three agencies, the second and third summers are spent at focused internships in fields of their choice. 

”By the time they graduate, they have experience to put on their resume to be a more competitive job applicant,” Daniel said.  

The program’s first cohort has 16 students, 14 of whom are people of color. That group will conduct its final internship this summer. While the state can’t promise participants full-time work when they finish school, the program should give them an advantage entering the job market. Applications for the program are being accepted through May 28.

Andrew Hazzard is a staff reporter with Sahan Journal who focuses on climate change and environmental justice issues. After starting his career in daily newspapers in Mississippi and North Dakota, Andrew...