By Teresa Ruiz Decker
“What do you see when you look at the river?” I heard myself saying as I stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Laurie Egan on a low rise retainer wall overlooking the San Lorenzo River. The river stretched in front of us while gray clouds loomed above, but Laurie didn’t ask to head back toward the coffee shop. She’s the type that welcomes the rain. More rain is better for the river and that’s good news for someone in her line of work.
Laurie is the community outreach and development manager for Coastal Watershed Council (CWC). Day in and day out her job is to find ways to preserve and protect our local coastal watersheds, with a special focus on the San Lorenzo River here in the heart of Santa Cruz.
“I see the ripples in the water, the birds flitting in and out of the brush, the kids walking over the bridge. I feel really proud when I look at the river.” Laurie said. “But you know what?”
“What?” I said.
“It just really makes me think about downtown. People talk about how great downtown is to walk around, how they feel safe. It’s a place for community. That’s what I see for the river one day. A place for community, a place for art, a place people will be drawn to. It’s not a new concept, but it’s new to Santa Cruz.”
I admit it’s definitely a new concept to me. I’ve seen the river as the backdrop for many activities here in Santa Cruz, but for Laurie the river IS the activity. As Laurie and I headed down the long stretch of road that parallels the river, it was energizing to hear her recount the historical, ecological and community based roots of the San Lorenzo.
One thing was clear, this girl LOVES her job.
Laurie loves her job so much, she rides her bike to work along the river as much as she can. She often brings friends to the river on weekends. And she studies the history of the river like a true scholar. As I learn about her work, I quickly gather how she is using her background in environmental analysis and her love of Santa Cruz to converge science and community for the good of the river and our local watersheds. It’s refreshing and downright inspiring.
So, where does all this passion come from?
I asked Laurie what makes her love going to work each day, and uncovered a few strategies other nonprofits can use to create passionate, engaged team members too.
MY Q&A WITH LAURIE
1. Tell us what you do at CWC.
At Coastal Watershed Council I work to spark interest and get people engaged with the natural world around them. I studied conservation in my undergraduate work, I just never thought I would find a job in the industry. Not everyone gets to do what they love, but I do. I know how lucky I am to get paid to do what I love.
2. What’s Coastal Watershed Council really known for?
Coastal Watershed Council reconnects a healthy San Lorenzo River watershed to a vibrant community. We’re best known for our water quality monitoring work, which we’ve been doing for 20 years.
[Check out this video I found on what a watershed is if you need more info.]
Your kids might know us too as we teach in and out of classrooms all across Santa Cruz County inspiring the next generation of watershed stewards. And we know that revitalizing the San Lorenzo River is not just a conversation for environmental groups. It includes arts and government and youth empowerment and business and those environmental nonprofits who’ve been doing this work for decades. And for that reason, we brought all these groups together to work cohesively through the San Lorenzo River Alliance.
4. You sound so passionate about your job. Why is that?
CWC is a great place to work because of our team. The four of us in the office laugh with one another and challenge one another to be the best that we can be.
Nonprofit work in itself, and especially at CWC, allows for a deep sense of pride. It’s challenging. It’s frustrating. It’s exhausting. And it’s worth it. At the end of the day or week or month or year I get to look back at how I made my community better and stronger. And I know — I did that. I get to do it alongside an army of dynamic, resourceful and headstrong nonprofit change-makers. I’m so often inspired by the nonprofit community in Santa Cruz and how we all support one another. We build each other up and make each other better. It’s an amazing sector to be a part of.
5. You mentioned “challenging yourselves” at CWC? What is that like?
I think it’s really about being willing to have difficult conversations. I tended to beat around the bush before I got here and Greg (my executive director) really encourages us to have challenging conversations.
A good example was a meeting today with our board member. We were discussing an event we regularly hold, but really starting to dig deeper asking ourselves, “What is at the heart of this event? What is the goal? What is the experience we are trying to shape?” It sounds easy in some ways but it can involve disagreement, where we tactfully provide our different perspectives and reasoning.
It really comes down to landing on a shared goal. That goal becomes more effective because we had a challenging conversation as part of the process to shift things and push ourselves to the next level.
6. What else do you love about CWC?
Our team. It’s made up of some of the most brilliant, motivated people in this town that are partners in the San Lorenzo River Alliance. The team goes beyond the staff to the people that support CWC’s work as donors, volunteers and friends. Our leadership at CWC (our Executive Director and our Board) truly care about this work, they challenge themselves to generate lasting, sustainable change in this community, and they inspire and support me every day.
8. How can we get more people like you hired at nonprofits?
Leadership opportunities are so crucial for young professionals. These opportunities generate real ownership and buy-in into the challenging work we’re doing every day. Having the opportunity to take on leadership roles makes us better all around team members as we learn to step up to lead the way on one project and also step back for others and encourage their own leadership on another.
NOW, TRY THIS!
Take a look at the ideas I gathered from my interview and give them a try at your nonprofit!
Ask for more
One of the first things that popped into my head after my conversation with Laurie was that people don’t need to go to a start-up to get more opportunities or responsibility. Our nonprofits offer those and many other benefits similar to start ups, plus the added bonus of doing meaningful work.
The next time you see an interesting project you think you could ace, raise your hand and ask to take it on. Show leadership what you can do!
Leadership Challenge: Create space for difficult conversations
Having challenging conversations at work is HARD, but as Laurie points out, it’s something that should be built into organizational culture. It requires leadership explicitly saying and encouraging their team to have challenging conversations, openly and in a nonthreatening setting. Creating space for challenging but productive dialogue can lead to greater unity and ultimately higher levels of organizational success. Think about how you can create an atmosphere that raises your teams comfort level with difficult conversations.
Find out what’s so special about the San Lorenzo River at the Coastal Watershed Council’s 17th Annual Snapshot Day. Uncover your inner scientist by joining CWC for some water quality monitoring fun all across Santa Cruz County. Learn more and sign up: http://coastal-watershed.org/our-work/monitoring/snapshot-day.
More good stuff coming your way my nonprofit people! Questions, comments or ideas for the Thriving Nonprofits blog feel free to reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.