Pittsburgh builds a workforce based on restoring and reconnecting its parks

Mount Washington rises a steep 390 feet from the Ohio and Monongahela river banks, overlooking downtown Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It’s as much a defining feature of the western Pennsylvania city as its three rivers (the Allegheny and Monongahela join to form the Ohio). The mountain is really what made the city: The mines that once covered it provided the necessary coal for forging steel.

Mount Washington is a microcosm of the story of Pittsburgh,” says Ilyssa Manspeizer, executive director of the brand-new Pittsburgh Conservation Corps (PCC). The organization plans to forge a route back into the workforce for people who have been unemployed for one reason or another, by hiring and training them to improve public land throughout the region.

Manspeizer spun off PCC from the Mount Washington Community Development Corporation (MWCDC), where she was formerly executive director. She got the idea back in 2010, when MWCDC was in the middle of engaging community members and stakeholders to restore, improve, and connect the three parks on top of the mountain (Grand View, Olympia and Mount Washington).

Seeing the humanity, the skills, the talent that was really just sitting there and going to waste, it made me think about giving opportunities to them that might not have been given before to become contributing members of society,” Manspeizer recalls.

She went back and began building a program to hire and train people who have had trouble finding or keeping jobs, such as the formerly incarcerated or veterans, to build or connect the 19 miles of trails that the community had just planned. Manspeizer, a PhD anthropologist by background, had never put together a professional construction crew before.

Over the course of five years, 44 crew members came through Emerald Trail Corps, 75 percent of them transitioning to other full-time employment, part-time employment or higher education within three months after completing the program. Some even left the program after finding permanent jobs before the end of their contracts.

Pittsburgh Conservation Corps is taking that model — and investing more into it. They’ll be hiring a case manager to do the professional development side full-time, and they’ll pursue projects beyond the Mount Washington area.

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