Archives for March 2017

Introduction to Non-Profit Environmental Conservation Efforts in a Diverse and Developing Region

I am currently working for Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail in Charlotte, NC. Catawba Lands Conservancy (CLC) is a local not-for-profit land trust dedicated to preserving land to protect water quality, wildlife habitat, and farmland. The final tier to the Conservancy’s mission is to connect lives to nature in the Charlotte region, and this is where the Carolina Thread Trail (CTT) project comes into play. CTT, a separate 501 (c)(3) organization with CLC as its lead agency, is dedicated to weaving communities together through a regional greenway and blueway network. While we are two separate organizations, there is little to be seen of this outside of formal documentation. We share staff, resources, office space, ideas, passion, dedication, and excitement every day.

My fellowship has been splitting time between CLC and CTT: monitoring conservation easements and preserves, performing forest and trail stewardship duties, leading volunteer workdays, organizing three Regional Round Table discussions around trail development, and much more. I have been in the Davidson Impact Fellows program for almost eight months now, and my understanding and outlook on non-profit work, career development, environmental conservation, community intricacies, and personal goals have been sculpted by the ebb and flow of my fellowship. I spend much of my time working with our Community Coordinator, visiting government officials, trail implementation partners, advocates, and adversaries to discuss trail opportunities and issues. This has exposed me to many things that are impossible to emulate in an academic setting. The diversity of our 15-county region has challenged me in many ways and introduced me to the subjective aspects of environmental conservation across the globe.

Struggles are plentiful in our daily work, only to be masked by the few great successes that make all of our efforts seem worth it. Months of headaches and creative problem solving only to conserve a small tract of riparian land, or to implement one mile of natural surface trail, seems a bit disproportionate, and admittedly can be frustrating at times. I’ve asked myself if all of this is even worth it. The answer is yes. Being in the workplace every day with a passionate group of people has allowed me to gain an understanding that our work is vital to land conservation and appreciate the efforts of our counterparts elsewhere. Months ago my answer may have been different. Without overarching support it is sometimes hard to see the good you are doing; however, many battles won around the world can amount to a big victory for the common goal. This position has allowed me to develop in ways that I could have never imagined. Yes, I am gaining technical knowledge of trail development and environmental conservation, but there is more than just that. My fellowship is allowing me to become comfortable in the workplace, participate in real-world land conservation deals in a predominately conservative part of the country, develop my own opinions on how I can make a difference through an environmental career, and gain an appreciation for the work that is being done by organizations just like us all around the world.

I have recently been admitted one of the most prestigious environmental management and forestry programs in the country, and I have this fellowship to thank for it. The Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University seeks to develop global environmental leaders through their Master of Environmental Management and Master of Forestry programs. A year ago, this task seemed very intimidating and frankly impossible for me. My time at CLC and CTT has allowed me to gain confidence in my knowledge, capabilities, and ambitions because I feel like I have been able to have the experiences of an environmental conservationist of 5 years. Yes, many times I have been completely lost in a conversation or overwhelmed by the complexities of a project, but simply having those experiences has motivated me to be more persistent in my education and career development. Without this fellowship, I would not know what I wanted my next steps to be for graduate school or for starting a career.

My main focus project at the Conservancy and Thread Trail is to help develop and organize annual “Trail Round Tables” for our implementation partners around the region. We will host three of these in the upcoming year, where we divide our region into three sections and focus on issues in a more localized manner. I have been working very closely with our Community Coordinator and Outreach Coordinator to organize these three events and our first Trail Round Table will be on March 16. This is a pilot event for CTT, but we are hoping to integrate it into our annual regime of Thread Trail gatherings. Our staff and I hope that these Trail Round Tables will be another touch point with our partners who are in the trenches of trail development and will be a catalyst for progress on our active projects in the respective areas. More to come on this later, but hopefully this will be a successful addition to our normal practice, and something that can grow through, and alongside the Davidson Impact Fellowship at Catawba Lands Conservancy and Carolina Thread Trail.

Building Trust Through the Creation of Conflict

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in an exciting exercise designed to build trust. Using items I found around the office, I created an obstacle course that teams had to guide a blindfolded team member through. Many people have probably participated in this activity, or one very similar to it, on a retreat or at a leadership training event. The activity stresses the importance of communication and trust because people must give clear, verbal instructions to their teammates, who must in turn listen to and trust the instructions, in order to get through the course successfully.

My role did not end at creating the course because I was also the official scorekeeper, and my prime directive, given to me by my boss, was to create conflict. I changed up the course between groups, assigned random, unexplained time penalties for rule infractions (I did not always explain the rules), and talked over groups as they tried to lead people through the course. The team with the fastest time won solely because I improved its time by 23 seconds after team members communicated with each other in Spanish. I had no plans to reward teams for communicating in a different language, but I figured why not!

While teams did not argue with me during the course of the round, once we all came together and revealed each team’s time, people began to complain about my poor time keeping skills (mission accomplished!). Even though people complained about the fairness of the activity for a little while, the bulk of the debrief was spent listening to teams complement each other about the clear directions and about how willing people were to trust each other.

In the end, I learned a lot about trust and communication through observing our leadership team complete the exercise. Participants worked quickly to determine, or naturally fell into, certain roles on their respective teams, which allowed them to avoid the problem of having too many people clamoring over each other. The blindfolded people completely trusted the people guiding them, which helped every team to complete the exercise with few missteps. Teams also spent more time building each other up and focusing on each other’s strengths than they did on the fairness of their scores.

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