Your role here at Ecotrust, and with the Green Workforce Collaborative, is a workforce development role. So let’s start with your own work history: how did you get here?
I worked as a peer mentor while I was in graduate school. I loved helping students; we worked on their critical thinking skills, writing skills, engaged in group discussions. It was all about teaching them how to be a successful student.
The students you mentored, what were some common struggles?
I worked with sophomores on a course that was required and, because it was mandatory, it was a lot more diverse. A lot of the issues were around learning how to adult for the first time. Being on their own and navigating responsibilities. And, of course, worries about finances.
I see the same kind of things happening in the communities I’m working with now.
As a mentor, and now in the Green Workforce Academy, I want the people I serve to understand I am a resource. If there’s a barrier getting in the way, let’s strategize some options that will work for you.
Another big piece for me is being transparent. I really value transparency, especially in positions of power. Any time I’ve been in a supervisory role I’m very upfront: This is what my experience has been; this is how I dealt with that struggle. Because I want you to see me as a person, and see you are equally as capable of achieving success, whatever that looks like for you.
Your work with Green Workforce Academy has lots of similarities to mentoring, but what are the differences?
It’s a different setting than college, and I just have to be more flexible, be willing to listen, and adapt. This role has really challenged me to walk the fine line of being sympathetic while also holding the participants accountable.
Over the past six months, I’m realizing more clearly the needs of the communities that we are serving. There can be a plethora of barriers the students bring with them to the program. Most revolve around a lack of resources—transportation, food, housing stability. Trauma in various forms are also prominent, and those of us who work directly with participants need to be able to respond with compassion and help to promote resiliency.
So, it requires a lot of effort and commitment for students to participate in the Green Workforce Academy. What do they get out of the program?
My hope is that it highlights all the possibilities available to them. I want them to know they don’t have to settle for a lifetime of low wages and unfulfilling work. There are entry-level jobs you can do, and you can start on a pathway of something that interests you, earns a living wage, and helps your community.
For so many of us, when we finish high school, nobody says, “Okay, here’s what is available to you.” I think that’s the hardest part. You just don’t know unless you luck into knowing someone, or you go into an organization like Self Enhancement, Inc. and they say, “Oh, have you heard about this program?”
“Everybody needs to be at the table if we’re going to solve the problems that we’re facing.”
My only real screening for students is that they want to work. I hope after participating in the program, if you weren’t passionate about the environment before, you are by the time you’ve finished.
What’s your hope for the students that participate in the GWA?
My biggest hope it to increase their agency. I want to empower them to realize that they do have access and the Collaborative is here to support them. I want to increase their awareness around their capacity to make a difference in their own lives, and in their communities. I think that’s where so many people feel powerless, especially if you are from coming from poverty or Communities of Color. I want them to understand their voice matters and that they can contribute.
There’s such a profound lack of respect, particularly in America, for non-traditional education. The skills you learn outside of school. But I challenge anybody who’s tried to emulate their favorite dish their mom or grandma makes. You just can’t do it. It’s based on years of practice and technical knowledge.
People can be experts without being academics. I’ve seen it throughout my life with various people, and that’s what I want to share with our students. You don’t have to be a scientist or have a degree to do good work that improves Portland. You can act, even on a global level to make change, and your lived experience matters. Everybody needs to be at the table if we’re going to solve the problems that we’re facing.
What have you learned over the past six months working with the other Green Workforce Collaborative partners?
In the Collaborative, I may manage the daily needs of the program because our partners are working at their primary jobs, but getting their input and feedback is absolutely critical.
We specifically paired with culturally relevant organizations—The Blueprint Foundation, Native American Youth and Family Center, Self Enhancement, Inc., Wisdom of the Elders—that are already doing work in the communities we hoped to serve. These organizations have years and years of experience that really helps guide me and they can provide wrap around services for people in the program. Their experience has been invaluable, and I’m profoundly grateful for them.
Where does your passion for the environment come from?
A lot of it comes from growing up in Southern California. There was an abundance of food growing all around. As a kid, we’d go out and pick oranges and pomegranates, and whatever else was growing. Everyone had a lemon tree in their yard.
I love to harvest. Harvesting is my happy place, bar none. In the field or the orchard, I’ve offered to pick for other people just so I can be out there longer. I can only process so many cans of fruit for my own consumption! Lots of folks around me get random jars of preserves.
When I was in undergrad, I had an amazing teacher, Judy Bluehorse Skelton. She taught “Environmental Education Through a Native American Lens.” To go on a nature walk with Judy is everyone’s favorite thing. She knows everything about our plants—what makes good medicine, what’s edible and what to stay away from. She’s the reason I chose the graduate program I did, Leadership for Sustainability Education. That program focused on all the things I was passionate about; social justice issues, food security, and education.
Your path was longer than graduate school, right?
I have a unique work history. Before I went back to school, I spent years in customer service management, and I did pest control for 16 years with my dad’s company. Physical labor was inherent to those jobs, and there were plenty of days doing pest control that were not pleasant. But even so, there were parts about that job that were enjoyable—I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule, I made good money, and it allowed me to be outside—all of which I really valued.
I liked mentoring in college, but up until now I haven’t loved a job quite this much. I remember looking at the job description and thinking, “dream job.” I get to work with Native, Black, and other students of color. As a Native person myself, these communities are close to my heart. Couple that with an educational background in environmental studies and voila, I feel like I’ve landed in the best possible spot.
When I’ve helped successfully connect our graduates to good paying green jobs, that is hands down the best, most rewarding feeling.
Thank you, Teresa.
Top photo: Green Workforce Academy students at a field training at Unity Farms, by Noah Thomas
Circular photos: Teresa Gaddy by Ecotrust staff; Green Workforce Academy students at a field training with Treecology, by Alex Emberlin