Environmental Youth Alliance: A Conversation with Julia Thiessen
The Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) is a Vancouver-based non-profit organization that has engaged youth in environmental and sustainability projects both locally and internationally since 1991. Through innovative approaches to education and employment and in partnership with several local organizations, EYA’s current priority activities in urban agriculture, green technology, and apiculture encourage youth to develop creative approaches to reconciling social and economic needs with that of the physical environment.
Julia Thiessen is EYA’s Program Coordinator for Skills Link, an internship program that assists in the development of appropriate skills and the provision of work experience for youth facing barriers to employment.
1. Youth are at the centre of EYA's programming and are believed to be key in defining a community's challenges and developing appropriate responses. What do you feel is unique about a youth perspective?
Young people are a huge asset in any community. In general, they provide much needed vitality and open-mindedness. With environmental work and community collaborations, you need to be open to new ideas, since a lot of the situations we face are challenges never seen before. That being said, youth are also open to receiving guidance, and wanting to learn.
2. With the youth unemployment rate (those aged 15 to 24) in Canada at 14.4%, how important is it to provide and develop programs like Skills Link to better approach this issue?
100% important! Programs like Skills Link address multiple issues which hold youth back from employment. Giving youth the opportunity to have meaningful work can be a huge eye opener for them: to have paid work that is in line with their beliefs where they are learning and making a valuable contribution. It’s crazy but this seems a lot to ask in this economy. Another really strong point in this program is that it addresses issues that are barriers to employment for individuals. Whether it’s depression, drugs, unplanned pregnancy or whatever, these concerns obviously impact someone’s ability to work. By addressing these issues while doing meaningful work, youth are much better equipped to face the future. So far, the program has exceeded our goals with around 90% of participants in school or working when we follow up with them after the program.
3. Vancouver has a goal to be the Greenest City in the World by 2020. How do you believe young adults could have an impact?
I think youth will be the ones creating a lot of the green jobs that will exist in 2020. Through mentorship, they can learn that implementing their dreams of a greener future is actually possible. Having mentorship and support can often make the difference between an idea which remains scribbled on a napkin and the creation of a new green business.
4. For an interested participant, what kinds of work environments and tasks can he/she look forward to engaging with through the program?
For one thing, you have to like being outside – rain, sun, we do it all! You also have to come ready to learn. Work placement tasks have included everything from harvesting earthworms to organizing conferences and most have elements of community connections and food security.
A recent work placement at SOLEfood is a good example of the diversity of work environments found in this program. The work site is predominantly a small urban farm built atop an old parking lot on the busy East Hastings Street. The intern for this position also found himself in the basement of the Save-On-Meats building cleaning an old walk-in fridge for fresh produce storage and at the Vancouver Art Gallery to touch up SOLEfood’s art-plant display.
During one placement with a Horticultural Therapist, the intern’s daily tasks varied from sharpening tools to re-potting plants with hospital residents. Across town at another placement at the Mount Pleasant Neighbourhood house, the intern might be sitting down to a meal as part of the Aboriginal Community Kitchen and then having a planning session to decide what veggies would be best for the Kitchen’s garden for use in the summer.
5. You mention that the program's participants meet with each other once a week in order to provide peer-to-peer support and to speak on their individual work placements. As the EYA Program Coordinator, how do you best facilitate these interactions?
Good question. This is a subtle but very important part of my job. Facilitating peer support is one of the keys to making this program successful. It’s of paramount importance to develop a space which is safe and supportive: an environment where youth are welcome no matter what they are going through. Workshops which explore diversity and conflict styles really take the group to the next level in terms of helping people feel comfortable and valued. Also, creating a safe space is supported by being in nature – it’s hard to not have a deep thought when you look up and see an eagle soaring overhead.
Most of the time if a youth is struggling with something – say, anxiety – the support they need can come from within their peer group, perhaps from someone who has experienced anxiety issues themselves. They need to be able to share their experiences and they often do in a way that is more potent than an expert’s advice could ever be.
6. Now that the first round of in-take for the Skills Link program is complete, what can we expect next? Are there any other EYA projects that you are keen on mentioning?
Gee, where to start? A few really innovative projects are being launched here at EYA. Lawns to Loaves is a partnership project which will work with people to transform their lawns into wheat fields, producing grain to then bake into hyperlocal loaves of bread. And as part of Pollinators Paradise we will be running a very popular urban beekeeping course and providing local farmers with native bee habitat on their farms. If you’re lucky you’ll see an EYAer buzzing around in a mason bee costume.
Photo credits: Environmental Youth Alliance