Fireside October 2021 Newsletter

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

A Corps for the Climate

 
Courtesy, Michigan Department of Natural Resources

The infrastructure bills now stuck in Congress could reverse the decades-long dismantling of the New Deal. Popular with the public, the legislation includes funding for a new Civilian Conservation Corps—a Civilian Climate Corps. The original CCC, arguably the most popular of the New Deal’s programs, hired millions of young men to plant forests, build parks, fight fires, prevent flooding and restore drought-stricken soils. A new Corps would do this and more to meet the climate crisis and hire those the original CCC excluded—women. A recent opinion poll shows 85 percent of Democrats and more than 60 percent of all voters favor a CCC today.

In this Issue:


How a New CCC Could Help Meet the Climate Crisis

Hitchhiker
CCC recruit hitchhiking back to camp, San Fernando Valley, California, 1940.
Photo Credit: Rondal Patridge. Courtesy, National Archives.

In the spring of 1933, a newly inaugurated President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was facing a confluence of environmental and economic crises. The Ohio and Mississippi River basins were flooding. The Great Plains were choked with dust. More than a quarter of Americans were out of a job. 

Roosevelt’s response to these colliding forces was to create a Civilian Conservation Corps that put young men (and only men) to work preserving soil, building trails and roads, and fighting fires. “In creating this Civilian Conservation Corps, we are killing two birds with one stone,” Roosevelt said during a fireside chat in May 1933. “We are clearly enhancing the value of our natural resources and, second, we are relieving an appreciable amount of actual distress.”

The American landscape we’re living in today is, in many ways, similar to the one Roosevelt inherited. The lockdowns imposed to stem the spread of COVID-19 have sparked the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. Heavy rains flooded the Midwest this spring, and an above-average hurricane season could do the same to the East Coast soon. Most of the West is in a historic drought, and large sections of the region are on fire


CCC crew in New Mexico laying pipe to bring irrigation and drinking water to Santa Clara Pueblo lands, 1940. Courtesy, National Archives.

It’s against this backdrop that President Joe Biden has proposed revitalizing the New Deal–era program. A single sentence in Biden’s American Jobs Plan calls for mobilizing an army of workers to conserve nature and combat the climate crisis: “This $10 billion investment will put a new, diverse generation of Americans to work conserving our public lands and waters, bolstering community resilience, and advancing environmental justice through a new Civilian Climate Corps, all while placing good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans.”

Now, some legislators are trying to make that vision a reality. Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, both Democrats, introduced a new bill that fills in some of the details of Biden’s ambitious idea. Dubbed the Civilian Climate Corps for Jobs and Justice Act, it would put 1.5 million Americans to work building climate-resilient infrastructure, reducing carbon emissions through renewable energy and conservation projects and helping communities recover from climate disasters. It would grant corps members many of the provisions on Democrats’ “social infrastructure” wish list, including a $15 an hour salary, full health care and childcare services. Corps members would also receive training and education to help them transition into union jobs. 

California Conservation Corps, 2021.

California Conservation Corps, 2021
The CCC Magalia 4 fire crew hikes to the fire line of the Dixie Fire in Plumas County, California. Courtesy, California CCC.

“It is now this generation’s turn to answer the call and meet the historic challenges of our time,” says Markey. “We don’t have time for incrementalism. We don’t have time for Herbert Hoover–type complacency. This moment demands big, bold, progressive change. This is our FDR moment.” 

Much of the environmental community has hailed the idea. Michael Brune, Sierra Club’s executive director, called it “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to create good jobs for every young person who wants one and to help ensure their safety in a climate-changed world.” 

A modern Civilian Climate Corps like the one Biden, Markey, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are proposing also has wide bipartisan support among voters nationally. A recent survey of more than 1,200 likely voters found that 65 percent of respondents support the idea of a Civilian Climate Corps, with the highest support among young and rural voters. Half of those under the age of 45 said they would consider working in the corps.


Members of the Civilian Conservation Corps work to control the Malibu fire near Angeles National Forest, California, 1935. Public Domain.

There are a few notable differences between the original, Depression-era corps and the modern one proposed by Markey and AOC. The original corps only enrolled young men. Its camps were segregated. There was an entirely separate program for Native Americans, who often worked to develop their reservations for white tourists. By contrast, at least half the modern corps’ projects would take place in communities of color and rural and urban low-income communities. Half of the corps members recruited would be from those same communities. The modern corps would also respect tribal sovereignty and guarantee that at least 10 percent of its environmental justice funds went to tribal communities. 

Reforestation and tree-planting is one area in which a new CCC could learn from the old CCC, which planted more than 3 billion trees. Biden has pledged to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.


A CCC worker planting trees, 1933. Courtesy, National Archives.

Equipped with the latest findings from restoration ecology and forest management, the Climate Conservation Corps could make reforestation a pillar of its work.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is just one of the benefits. It might seem a bit rosy, but it’s possible that by connecting young Americans with each other across lines of race, class and geography, a revitalized CCC could (to steal Biden’s campaign slogan) help restore the soul of a divided nation. 

James Steinbauer is an Ohio-based freelance reporter who frequently writes about the environment. A version of this article appeared in the August 2021 issue of Sierra Magazine.

Women in the Woods

Performance

Performance
Federal Emergency Relief Camp for women in Minnesota, 1934. Courtesy, National Archives.

The Civilian Conservation Corps  (1933–42), is one of the earliest of the New Deal’s relief programs and arguably its best known. Lesser known is the CCC’s female counterpart—dubbed the She-She-She, (1933-1937), a program for women at a time when New Deal jobs programs were largely for men.

The number of unemployed women had grown to two million by 1933. Women’s rights activist and writer Helena Weed, observed, “Men thronged the breadlines; women hid their plight.” 

Soup kitchen, Chicago, 1931

Men waiting outside a Chicago soup kitchen, 1931. 
Men waiting outside a Chicago soup kitchen, 1931.Public Domain.

Though rarely seen in Depression-era photographs of soup kitchens and unemployment lines, an estimated 200,000 women were living on the streets, sleeping on subways and “tramping” the countryside. Little was done about it until First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt used her contacts and influence to advocate for them. “As a group, women have been neglected in comparison with others, and throughout this depression have had the hardest time of all,” she said.

Mrs. Roosevelt prevailed upon the president to fund a residential jobs program like the CCC for unemployed women and girls. FDR issued a presidential order in 1933 funding the program. Harry Hopkins, head of New Deal relief, tapped labor educator Hilda Worthington Smith to run the woman’s program.

Camp TERA, 1934

Camp TERA, 1934
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visits the first She She She camp, Bear Valley, New York.art.com.

The first of what would become a network of 90 residential schools and camps for women, Camp TERA, (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration) opened in June, 1933 at Bear Mountain State Park, about an hour’s drive north of New York City. Mrs. Roosevelt and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins presided at the camp’s opening.

The program was slow getting off the ground. Applications for admission to the camps poured in from women nationwide, but eligibility was unduly strict.  Various states and organizations offered the use of their camp facilities but ran in to red tape.

The CCC, run by the U.S. Army, enlisted 300,000 men within its first three months. They were quickly deployed to camps and put to work on highly visible public service projects where they developed practical skills. They were paid $30 a month, of which $25 was sent home to their families, adding to the CCC’s general popularity. Some 2.5 million men went to work for the CCC during its nine-year run.

Such work, training and earning opportunities for the unemployed women were curtailed from the start. Joyce L. Kornbluth explains In her book, Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers’ Education for Women, 1914–1984, “CCC administrators vetoed the national advisory committee’s recommendation that young women in the resident programs be used, as men were, in reforestation and community service projects since, they claimed, ‘work outside the camps [for women] was not practicable and the supervision and transportation costs would be greatly increased.’”

Without a work component, the women’s program appeared to be little more than a government-sponsored vacation. The program was presumed a boondoggle. Skeptics derided it as the “She-She-She.”

Once accepted to the program, women were bused to camps to live for two to three to months. They received five dollars a month for personal expenses and worked up to 70 hours a month to cover the cost of their food and lodging. No monies were sent home.

Typing 

Typing 
Learning secretarial skills at a women’s camp in Pennsylvania, 1934. Courtesy, National Archives.

Sewing, cooking, music, drama and handicrafts were staples of camp life. Some camps offered secretarial classes but the focus was on homemaking skills. One participant recalled, “Most of us got the impression that they wanted to teach us something useful if we got married immediately and that that was the only proper thing to do.”

“Workers’ education,” a curriculum developed by Hilda Smith that included English, domestic science, hygiene, public health and economics, was renamed “social civics” when the American Legion and some nearby communities complained that leftist discussions and programs were taking place at the women’s camps.

Only about half of She-She-She participants managed to find jobs when they returned home. Most employers resisted hiring women while there were men unemployed. Yet, many women who joined the She-She-She reported that the experience had improved their health and given them a new outlook on life.

FERA camp

FERA camp
African American women at segregated camp in Atlanta, Georgia, 1934.Courtesy, National Archives.

“The camp was ideal for building up run-down bodies and renewing jaded spirits,” wrote civil rights activist, Pauli Murray, of Camp TERA. Another woman recalled, “It seemed like someone did have an interest in whether we lived or starved. And was trying to help.”

The She-She-She camps closed on October 1, 1937.  Over its four-year existence, the program served 8,500 women.

For more on the She-She-She, read Joyce L. Kornbluth’s essay, The She-She-She Camps: An Experiment in Living and Learning, from her book, “Sisterhood and Solidarity: Workers’ Education for Women, 1914-1984.”

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

New Deal Maps

Check out our latest map and guide to the work of the New Deal in Washington, D.C. It includes 500 New Deal sites in the District alone, highlighting 34 notable sites, and includes an inset map of the area around the National Mall which can be used for self-guided walking tours.

Take a look at our previous guides, equally comprehensive, covering key New Deal sites in San Francisco and New York City.