Meet the Californians serving in the first class of the American Climate Corps

At the start of summer, the White House swore in more than 9,000 members of the inaugural class of the American Climate Corps. The corps members are now serving across the country stifling wildfires, helping farms adapt to climate change, installing solar panels, conserving the country’s wildlands and, of course, helping climate organizations create some “hip” Instagram content.

“Climate is the existential crisis of our time. Young people understand that,” said Josh Fryday, California’s chief service officer. “This is not an academic issue, and I think there’s a growing and real thirst for people to want to be part of the solution.”

Inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, the program aims to empower the next generation to tackle global warming and its consequences by creating climate-focused career paths and focusing on historically neglected communities.

Instead of starting from scratch, the White House welcomed existing conservation and climate service organizations around the country into the ACC, including AmeriCorps and the California Climate Action Corps.

For those who have joined the corps, it's an opportunity to satisfy a need to act during a crisis they view as existential, join a national community of like-minded individuals and start a career at a time young people find doing so exceedingly difficult.

Here are a few California corps members and their stories:

Michelle Carranza, 34, gets to work at 5:30 a.m. on installation days. The summers near Sacramento are hot, and no one wants to install solar panels under the midday sun. As a member of GRID AlternativesSolarCorps, Carranza has spent the past year working with a dynamic team learning every step of solar installation, from design, to wiring, to "slapping glass" — actually putting the panels on the roof.

Carranza is always working with new people. “It’s actually really great, because you always learn so much,” she said.

It’s not the career she had expected — Carranza earned an associate’s degree to be a firefighter and completed all the training she needed to start. But then, she suffered an injury that put the dream on ice. Her sister planned to take a five-week crash course in how to install solar, so Carranza decided to join her. The class inspired her to get more involved, so she applied for the 11-month SolarCorps program.

After her term ends in August, she wants to help teach the very class that first got her into the industry — and she wants to become a certified electrician. “I never would’ve thought I would get interested in that,” she said. Whenever the opportunity to learn construction and power tool skills arose, the men in her life would always jump in to do it. So working with her hands in the SolarCorps, “it was pretty empowering, especially being a woman in the field.”

Carranza attended the swearing in of the first class of the ACC in June. She believes the ACC is bigger than just environmental justice — it’s about giving back to everyone in every community. “You’re not just looking at this as a temporary thing … this is a way of life,” she said. “When we recently did our pledge … it got us feeling even more grounded in our beliefs. We really do feel like we’re making a difference.”

Ana Cobarrubias, 26, said her cohort of fellows “definitely brought a different vibe” to LA Compost’s communications. Cobarrubias is responsible for a few of the nonprofit’s Instagram reel hits, including a parody of the "Full House" title sequence to recruit new ACC members and a Nicholas Cage and Pedro Pascal meme as a love letter to a freezer full of food scraps.

Growing up in the inner city, Cobarrubias didn’t go to national parks as a kid — and there wasn’t any environmental education outside of the water cycle — but she always loved getting outside any way she could. After a mentor at Santa Monica College helped her break into the world of environmental action, she found LA Compost on Instagram.

She’s been with the group for two years now, tabling at farmer’s markets around the city, helping manage some of the organization’s compost hubs, and bringing compost to community gardens and farms in the area. “They’ve very much nurtured my confidence in this field, and I feel like I have a lot more skills now because of the fellowship,” she said.

During the hours on end at the farmers market booth or compost hubs, Cobarrubias has gotten to better know the people of South L.A., where she grew up. They’ll tell her about their weekend plans, the trials and tribulations of their own composting experiments at home, or how they used to compost in their home countries. The experience has also given her an opportunity to learn environmental terminology in Spanish, which she speaks conversationally with her mom, who grew up in Honduras.

Dare she step away from the farmers market for a week, “People will be like, ‘Hey, where’s Ana? Where did she go?’ ” she said. “I’m like, ‘Aw, you guys miss me.’ ”

Now officially part of the ACC, “I’m so honored,” said Cobarrubias, who started in the California Climate Action Corps during its inaugural year. “I’ve seen all the work that all the fellows have done all over the state … If this is happening in the state, and we’re able to replicate this in the country, that just makes me really hopeful.”

Sarah Thais, 28, has had to dress up as Wildfire Ready Raccoon quite a few times to help teach elementary schoolers about wildfire safety. At Butte County Fire Safe Council up in Northern California, Thais focuses on community outreach, whether that means running volunteer events to remove flammable brush (wittily named “Doom the Broom”), tabling at city festivals or giving presentations at schools.

“I even had a few teachers say, ‘I’ve been working at this school for however long, and this is the first time anyone’s come in to talk about wildfire safety,’ ” said Thais.

For Thais, the festivals are a lot of fun. There’s Johnny Appleseed Day, Party in the Park and the Paradise Grazing Festival: a day to raise awareness for goat grazing as a method of fire suppression (they like to eat the dry, flammable stuff). Its got it all: a herding demonstration, goat merch, a petting zoo and goat yoga.

Thais has cared about the environment from a young age — her parents took her to Yosemite when she was just 4 years old. In community college she discovered a love for environmental studies (thanks to an amazing teacher) and transferred to Cal Poly Humboldt, to earn a bachelor’s in it.

Now, she’s working on her master’s part time while serving in the California Climate Action Corps. In it from its beginning, she’s watched the corps grow over the past three years, and she thinks it holds a lesson for the ACC. “There’s going to be bumps in the road — we still hit bumps in this program,” said Thais, “but getting more people out there who care about their communities is really awesome.”

Taylor Vivona, 22, was invited to President Biden’s Earth Day announcement. He received a vague call from his director asking whether he’d be able to "fly somewhere." A few days later, he was meeting with Biden.

Vivona started at Tree San Diego in September 2023 as a member of the California Climate Action Corps, where he works on a range of projects from tree planting to teaching urban forestry.

He’s also helped develop a program called Tree Trek to connect local residents with their local trees and encourage them to advocate for more trees in the city. Vivona “emcees,” and one of the staff’s certified arborists talks about trees and biodiversity. “He has a little tidbit about everything,” Vivona said.

Born and raised in San Diego, Vivona helped organize a climate change walkout in high school, inspired by climate activist Greta Thunberg’s protests. Along with an environmental science class, the experience drew him into the world of climate action and environmental justice. He graduated with a bachelors in environmental studies, focusing on sustainability, social justice and urban planning, and hopes to make a career of it.

At the Earth Day announcement, Vivona met future ACC members from all over the country.

“It’s really validating and comforting to see there’s so many other people out there who care,” he said. ‘It’s really easy to get bogged down … it’s really hard to find hope in it, but moments like these, it’s like, ‘OK, maybe we can turn this around.’ ”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.