As the call to prayer summons a few students, others in the class take the opportunity to ask visiting arborist and instructor Austin Wienecke a variety of questions regarding the care of trees.
On one side of the classroom, a student translates everything Wienecke says from English to Arabic. On the other side, students scribble down notes about tree pruning. The class – small, but attentive – is now in their fourth week of urban forestry classes at the Muslim Educational Trust.
For many students, this is the first time stepping into the field of forestry. In a few weeks, all the students will leave for paid internships using skills acquired throughout their time in the classroom.
Last summer, Tualatin Riverkeepers received a Nature in Neighborhoods grant from Metro that has allowed it to collaborate with community-based organizations Muslim Educational Trust and Centro Cultural de Washington County to provide paid job training and internships. The $30,000 grant is helping fund a new program, Growing Green: Training Diverse Leaders for Tomorrow’s Jobs, that will train 10 adults in the field of urban forestry.
“When we talked to Centro Cultural and the Muslim Educational Trust, they had a big interest in green jobs,” said Mike Skuja, executive director of the nonprofit Tualatin Riverkeepers. “They have this interest in jobs. We have this interest in bringing more people to the river. How do we put these two together?”
The idea came to fruition when Skuja found a way to link Tualatin Riverkeepers’ objective to improve the health of the Tualatin River basin and involve the surrounding community. Both Muslim Educational Trust and Centro Cultural began working with Skuja to implement the program at their sites and recruit interested students.
“I think it’s wonderful, and the organizers are very committed,” said Nayyar Laljiani, 47, who is one of the 10 students competitively chosen for the program. “Even with the small amount of students we have in the class, the way they have ordered the whole course with details and everything – they have really shown their commitment.”
Though the forestry training is targeted towards participants interested in career transitions, the program also benefits natural areas by bringing nature awareness and access to communities of color. Skuja says that for Tualatin Riverkeepers, the project was “low-hanging fruit.”
“We see it as connecting you to your natural surroundings, as well as building awareness around green spaces,” Skuja said.
Along with Muslim Educational Trust and Centro Cultural, Skuja coordinated a total of eight modules that will educate students on a variety of topics, including tree planting 101 and business incubation for new foresters.
“In this class, we are mixed with different backgrounds and proficiency, since each one of us is coming from a different place,” said Shadi Sendi, another student in the program.
Sendi recently graduated from Portland State University with a degree in environmental science. The classes are an exciting opportunity for students to come together and learn about the environment, he said.
“Every day we go to different classes, different levels,” Sendi said. “We learn stuff from different people with different perspectives, so it’s a good opportunity to meet more people and get their opinion on different techniques and strategies.”
Sendi, along with the other students, gets paid $10 an hour to attend training classes for two hours every Tuesday and Thursday. After seven weeks of classes, students will be paid for 100 hours of on-the-job training that is intended to help them apply the skills they learned.
“It’s a great idea, specifically for our community members,” said Rania Ayoub, director of public relations at the educational trust. “A lot of the time, we see that in the Muslim community, people don’t necessarily know how to navigate the system.”
Skuja hopes the program will serve as not only a link to employers, but as a gateway to green careers for several of the students enrolled in the courses.
“Right now, I’m not working. This is the one thing I’m totally focused on right now,” Laljiani said. “Let’s see what happens in the few classes that are left.”