Our Society had a successful launch of its Planet & Progress team this summer. On the surface, the purpose of this new youth employment program is to hire young adults and train them in various types of construction. This not only provided four young people the opportunity to make some serious money (up to $3,000 each) and raise their knowledge of construction, but it also boosted their self-esteem and their confidence in their ability to make a big difference in the world around them.
Anisa Thomas, the team’s sole female member, wrote: “In stark contrast to my usual summer routine of sitting on my laptop all day, I’ve spent the past five weeks digging around in dirt, lifting heavy wooden planks, and getting mud stains on the knees of my jeans, and loved every second of it. Learning basic construction skills and being able to apply them to make parks safer and more accessible has been an invaluable experience. I think this should be a standard course taught in all schools.”
The Planet & Progress team is also an attempt to address environmental goals, as well. Climate change will have a significant and detrimental impact on the lives of young adults. To address this, we need to prepare the youth not only for the challenges ahead, but to give them the skills they will need to help lead our nation toward a greener, more sustainable economy. Regardless of the career paths they will eventually choose, knowing that the built environment is malleable and knowing something of the work required to change it will help prepare these youth to be future community leaders.
As Jeremiah Hem-Lee wrote “It was a great learning experience for me. It helped me to know how things are built and I feel more confident in myself and know what it feels like to have a work routine.”
The youth worked a 40-hour week, eight hours a day for five weeks, and completed a number of impressive projects. They built a 20-foot-long stone retaining wall, helped refurbish 90 feet of wooden steps, and built a staircase to allow access to the river at Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park. At Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, they restored two bus stops from the WWII era, building and shingling the roofs and painting structures. They returned to Paterson Great Falls and built and installed a huge tri-panel information kiosk. The roof alone weighed over 200 pounds, and they lifted it 8 feet off the ground. The park service hoped that we would finish in a week, but we had it installed in two days!
At Phil Rizzuto Park in Elizabeth, the youth partnered with Groundwork Elizabeth and built 70 feet of raised walkway in five days–impressive even for any for-profit operation! Finally, the team repaired and plastered over water-damaged walls at the Society’s meetinghouse, did some touch-up painting, and even refinished the floors using buffing machines.
Having led similar such programs nationwide before becoming Society leader earlier this year, I led the Planet & Progress work. I have taught construction for 15 years and oversaw the team, including eight to 12 additional youth from our partner Groundwork Elizabeth. Working with Groundwork and national park connections, I raised the $15,000 needed to cover the workers’ salaries, $12,000 of which came from outside resources and grants. I am happy to report that the grant application to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) was approved just recently, and I have already started securing funding for next year.
I believe that Ethical Culture congregations need to work to help youth address the challenges of a world negatively impacted by climate change. We owe this to the next generation, and our ethical values and ethical obligations need to show that. Putting young adults to work each summer is our way to help address that future, and we owe it to them.
Such work has many other benefits, as well. Participant Rafael Thomas wrote, “Working alongside Curt and others in this program has been a great, refreshing experience. Even though I was outside all the time as a kid, I’ve spent the last three years inside. This program reminded me of the importance of keeping the outdoors clean, safe, and accessible for all.”
Stay tuned as we continue to build our youth employment program. I hope that within a few years we will be hiring up to 12 youth a year for a multi-week program that may extend into the school year, as well. It is rare that congregations take on such efforts, and we are the first Society to do so since Adler started the Working Man’s School. Hopefully, we will be returning to that legacy, and proving once again that Ethical Culture is indeed “deeds before creeds.”
Participant Luka Blanusa summed up the program this way: “Learning important tools and skills while also learning about the importance of our surrounding environment.”
Members of our Planet & Progress team spoke at the Society in August about their work and the insights they have gained. Watch the video here.