It was true: the gray skies I awoke to in North Portland that day had followed me to Hillsboro. I’d caught a glimpse of blue as I headed west and arrived at the Waste Management (WM) recycling center and landfill on Minter Bridge Road, but the darkening clouds that tailgated me were now gathering overhead, swollen, full and ready to empty onto our outing.
No matter. This day is special.
For 10 high schoolers who would soon arrive from North Portland, the itinerary involves a site tour and walk in the wetlands – a field trip for students in the Grounding Waters cohort, an environmental science-based mentoring program for Black-Identified youth offered by The Blueprint Foundation. It’s one of many hands-on outdoor activities designed to empower these historically underserved students to lead and serve their communities through environmental stewardship, to strengthen their school-life balance, and ultimately to narrow the achievement gaps that persist with their more privileged peers by gaining early exposure, skills and opportunities in fields where they are very sparsely represented.
For the Waste Management engineers and ecologists waiting in the parking lot, it’s about engaging students in the outdoors to inspire careers in science, technology, engineering and math – maybe even careers one day with Waste Management.
For me, it’s a day away from technology and the demands of the WM’s Central Dispatch, where I lead a team of dispatchers to support drivers who collect recycling, compost and garbage from neighborhoods across Portland.
Importantly, it’s also the first official day of my WM career pathway exploration. I joined WM right after graduating with a communications degree from Portland State. Now, WM is giving me a window into how I can do more – perhaps as part of the company’s communications and advocacy team. My assignment for the day is to take photos and write a story about our outing. I am excited!
There’s the cloudburst. The rain pelts us, and the students aren’t exactly thrilled about walking a muddy trail in the downpour. “Can we go buy some umbrellas?” “Is it OK if I just stay inside?” Their questions and body language reveal their reluctance. That’s when Dr. Derron Coles shows his fortitude. Derron is an educator and co-founder of this unique mentoring program. He’s “heard it all before” and will not be deterred. We trudge on.
Within a few minutes, the physical act of walking the trail energizes the conversation. We identify animal footprints, animal feces and ducks. We learn we’ve been walking on a capped landfill and that the wetlands ahead stretch over 200 acres of WM property.
Turns out, WM engineers, wildlife biologists and groundwater experts spend a lot of time enhancing wetlands and wildlife habitat near company landfills. This landfill team has even earned prestigious Gold Tier certification from the Wildlife Habitat Council, recognizing their work to enhance this ecosystem – which is becoming increasingly diverse as we walk along the meandering edge of the Tualatin River.
We see wetlands habitat for bald eagles, riparian uplands, open waters and a rookery – home to great blue herons and great egrets. We learn about how WM staff and naturalists from Jackson Bottom Wetlands Preserve work together to monitor breeding pairs and hatchings of herons, egrets and even bald eagles.
The students break into groups to collect soil data and make observations that help delineate the wetland’s boundaries. The assignment for Group A is to go closer toward the water and collect soil, while Group B stays near the trail to gather their own soil data. Data literally in hand, we looked at the differences in samples from the various locations. Soil characteristics help determine if an area can be classified as a wetland or not. The soils near the water appear richer in texture and darker in color, while the soil near the trail is drier and lighter brown.
On the walk back, with the weather improving, we talk about the diverse types of jobs available managing wetlands and building landfills to protect the environment. I chat with a young woman who also happens to attend my church. I didn’t know she was part of Grounding Waters, and I’m excited to visit with her in this setting. She speaks positively about how the day has come together.
For a moment, I catch myself wishing there had been a mentoring program like this when I was growing up in North Portland. There’s so much opportunity in the world, and yet it can be difficult to look ahead and truly see what is achievable when your surroundings, circumstances and limited resources don’t facilitate that vision.
Just then, we get our first glimpse of the sun as the trail’s end comes into view. It feels warm on my face, reminding me of my good fortune. I am grateful for a job that I love and an employer that is investing in me and supporting my career path exploration. I am also grateful to have shared this outdoor learning experience with the Grounding Waters students.
Looking forward, I am eager to share with the students something bigger – the power to create our own career pathways and realize the potential in ourselves, our community, and our world.