A 2016 Moment from Ilyssa
I don’t get out onto the Landforce work sites nearly as much as I would like, but on an early August day last summer I was planning on spending a couple of hours with the Crews at Allegheny Land Trust’s Dead Man’s Hollow. As you climb up the Witch Hazel Trail from the Great Allegheny Passage and the remnants of a former terracotta factory, you ascend 430 feet out of a valley, so sounds from above are perfectly amplified, and I soon began to hear the steady rhythm of tools digging through the soil, chopping through fallen trees and tree roots, and the faint murmur of human voices chatting and laughing at work. I knew the Crew would be working, strung into small, groups along about a half mile of the winding trail they were building, each group adding their specialized touch to the work of the previous group.
Still out of sight, neither the Crew Members nor the Crew Leaders knew I was coming. As I got closer and closer to where the Crews were working, the murmuring of voices changed slowly into occasional words, and then snippets of sentences, and finally full conversations. Expecting to hear banter about weekend activities, music or television preferences, I was surprised to stumble upon a fully formed negotiation about what the best solution would be for a perceived problem with a particular climbing turn. I am using the word “negotiation” intentionally, because as I listened, I realized that both participants in the conversation were using skills they had learned in a conflict resolution training we had held the previous week. And, it just so happened that these were two Crew Members who had previously been charged with felonies, each being incarcerated for several years, and who I knew had not always worked out their differences in such a constructive way. I stopped and listened to their approach, amazed at how much they had learned about trail construction in a few short months, their ability to jointly problem solve a highly technical problem, and especially their willingness to resolve their conflicting solutions with language that was productive, inclusive, and non-judgemental.
For me, this moment was certainly about these two individuals and their desire and ability to overcome obstacles and change the directions of their own lives. It was about someone seizing an opportunity and fulfilling their potential, of human adaptability and the power of learning, and a stubborn willingness to try new things and succeed.
Yet it also said something about the entire model of Landforce, and how bringing together land stewardship with workforce development creates a powerful moment where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. By combining a work culture that supports an individual’s drive to overcome barriers to a better life with the rhythm of work on a forested hillside, a vacant lot, or rain garden, something almost mystical seems to happen. While nurturing the environment, our Crew Members nurture each other, they renew their drive to succeed, and in turn reinvigorate our staff (who do a fair amount of their own nurturing), and our shared belief that given a second chance, most people will seize it and take it in directions we could never anticipate.