Greening Communities, Teaching Skills, and Building Careers: Onondaga Earth Corps

Written by Alvaro Sanchez Sanchez
Senior Associate, Green For All

In our recent report, Staying Green and Growing Jobs: Green Infrastructure Operations and Maintenance as Career Pathway Stepping Stones, we profile seven organizations that are linking members from disadvantaged communities to opportunities in the green sector.  These groups are diverse with respect to the populations they serve, the skills they teach, and the types of work they perform, but all of them recognize that green infrastructure has the potential to transform communities. 

Based on interviews with social enterprises and workforce development organizations throughout the country, we identified twelve components that make their programs successful.  To better describe these components, we created an infographic, below, highlighting the best features of each organization and providing details about the types of work they are involved in. Over the coming weeks we’ll profile innovative organizations that are advancing best practices in green infrastructure here and today we profile Onondaga Earth Corps.


Since 2004, Onondaga Earth Corps’ mission has been to empower youth to become active participants in creating positive change for their communities and the environment.  The organization accomplishes this by helping youth understand the relationship between people and the urban eco-system, engaging them in hands-on community and environmental service learning projects, training them for future jobs and careers in environmental fields, and developing their leadership abilities.

Crew members participate in urban forestry and stormwater management projects, private property management, and community environmental education and outreach.  In 2009, OEC was part of a team awarded an outreach and education grant by Save the Rain, a comprehensive stormwater management plan intended to reduce pollution in Onondaga Lake and its tributaries.  Today, OEC crew members carry out educational workshops and appear at special events promoting the Save the Rain program in needy neighborhoods.

In 2010, OEC was awarded a county contract to pilot operations and maintenance work on four newly built green infrastructure parking lot projects in Syracuse.  Prior to the county contract, members of OEC’s operations and maintenance crews were earning $7.25 to $9.25 per hour.  Under the county contract, members of the same crew earn between $11.75 and $13 per hour.

Gregory Michel, Director of OEC, believes that the organization’s ability to secure contracts and funding through the Save the Rain program had a lot to do with timing and established community relationships. OEC was a leading entity in community-based urban forestry and green infrastructure prior to the current efforts of the county. When discussions began about maintenance for green infrastructure, OEC was well positioned to access work opportunities and the political leadership was favorable to making OEC a part of their green infrastructure strategy.  In the past three years, Onondaga County has installed over 100 green infrastructure projects, all of which will require some kind of ongoing, specialized maintenance.  As the installation warranties for these projects expire, the county will be looking to community-based groups like OEC to implement maintenance plans.  Mr. Michel sees the opportunity for OEC to take on more maintenance work as well as to train other neighborhood-based groups to implement green infrastructure maintenance. He expects that this will help further develop OEC and it mission.

Onondaga Earth Corps is one of the programs delivering the triple bottom line benefits that green infrastructure investments promise. Its work demonstrates successful private/ public/ nonprofit partnerships that protect the environment, increase access to economic opportunities, and improve the social conditions of disadvantaged groups. It is cultivating a new generation of environmental stewards who come from communities most affected by environmental and economic crises. These programs are using operations and maintenance work to create on-ramps to career opportunities in a variety of professions.  They are also performing a critical task that creates real opportunity rather than dead-end, low-quality employment.

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