Groundwork Ohio River Valley diversifies the region's environmental movement

A conversation with Tanner Yess makes one want to grab a shovel and roll up their sleeves, or whatever it takes to improve the planet. He is a combination of unbridled enthusiasm and serious data about improving future odds. Yess and the other executive director, Alan Edwards, believe that this emanates from the ground up and can involve people of all ages, races, and backgrounds.

To talk with Tanner leaves no question: We are all in this together. The environment impacts each of us.

Hence the birth of Tanner and Alan’s organization. In September 2019 Groundwork Ohio River Valley, one of 20 national organizations committed to sustainability, diversity, equity, social justice, and the environment, became a reality.

This young organization already has seven paid employees and has rapidly deployed programming, with the help of overwhelming support from partners and funders, including Green Umbrella and the City of Cincinnati.

“For too long, communities of color have been disconnected from the mainstream environmental movement in our region, despite being the most plagued by the health effects of poor environmental quality and climate change,” says Ryan Mooney-Bullock, executive director of Green Umbrella.

“Groundwork Ohio River Valley’s mission to perform much-needed restoration work and train youth into quality jobs and build a generation of environmental stewards is some of the most important work I can imagine,” she continues. “Every time I interact with members of the Groundwork ORV staff, Green Team, or Green Corps I am blown away by the transformational approach they are taking … for people and our corner of the planet.”

There are Groundwork trusts across the UK, and Groundwork USA is built on their model.

“The national park service and the EPA realized that more than 80 percent of the world’s population was going to live in cities,” says Yess. “It may not matter whether you have all of the national parks out west and protections if people and where they live (in urban areas) are not connected to these things.”

Importantly this is very much about bringing nontraditional people into this movement.

“The environmental movement, back to Teddy Roosevelt, has generally looked pretty homogenous,” says Yess. “For me, as a person of color and a scientist, I never saw anyone who looked like me. We pride ourselves on working with communities that have not traditionally been engaged. There is no appreciation for a place like Yellowstone if you do not start at your local nature center.”

Groundwork’s programs include hiring young people, starting at age 14, to take on programs that improve areas in their own communities.

Yess explains that they will work with more than 300 youth employees.

This includes the Green Team (ages 14–18) and Green CORP (ages 18–26). Green CORP includes people interested in the outdoors who may not be college bound. They make a higher hourly wage (than Green Team) and operate like an environmental contractor.

“We are young, and we are not scared of the problems that we have,” he says. “For me it is not just Cincinnati, but what is represents, being in this place in Middle America. The vision has to incorporate people who have been disinvested.”

Each summer standout workers have an opportunity to visit our national parks — something that may not otherwise be available to these teenagers.

Their funding model is straightforward: “Number one is about methods and streams such as social enterprise. We are really lucky to have an individual donor base. We have a great needed and problem-solving story,” explains Yess. “Our programming is about leveling the playing field.”

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