January 31, 2017. That’s the day I saw my comfort zone sitting on the county line, and I catapulted past it and set sail for a foreign country with no more than an ambiguous Travel Guide for Dummies in my pocket.
That’s figuratively speaking of course, but the best way I can describe the day I kissed my comfort zone goodbye. It’s the day I embarked on the most terrifying and rewarding journey I could fathom. It’s the day I turned in my two weeks’ notice for my job as a Senior Ecologist at Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).
Rewind to the time when I finally figured out my dream career path. There is no specific date to commemorate, really. It was a journey, to say the least. But I can tell you, having the title of Senior Ecologist in the Water Quality Planning Branch fit in perfectly with the path I had envisioned for myself. I hadn’t devoted much time to thoughts of my final position before retirement; I just assumed wherever I was headed, it would be somewhere for which I had prepared. It’s like knowing you have properly assembled your dive gear before planking off the edge of the boat into waters you’ve never explored. You may not know exactly where you’re going, but you’ve every precaution to prepared for what lies ahead.
My first position with ADEQ was as an inspector in the Hazardous Waste Division. It was a far cry from where I wanted to be, but I knew it could be a stepping stone. I was applying for every job I was remotely qualified for as I was finishing up grad school. Working with hazardous waste wasn’t something I had previously considered, but I was qualified. I was offered the position within twenty-four hours of my interview – an unprecedented turnaround time for a government agency. The idea of wearing a hazmat suit while seining fish didn’t seem as fun as all my previous field experiences – the things that drew me to aquatic ecology in the first place – but, it was a job offer.
After two weeks in Haz Waste, I finally got a call about one of the many jobs I had interviewed for before becoming an inspector. It just happened to be for an ecologist position two floors up in the building. I deliberated for a couple of days before accepting the promotion. The Water Quality Planning ecologist job description was everything my dreams were made of. I loved the title, the level of respect it garnered, the notion 60% of my job would be frolicking in rivers, streams, and lakes across our state. The other 40% would be analyzing data and applying concepts into the regulatory framework of the Clean Water Act. The job offer was everything I had ever wanted in an entry-level position. Well, minus the pay. That was crap.
Being intimidated by my choices and actions was not a foreign concept to me. I had picked up dozens of hitchhikers over the years, even taken a few stray punches in college while trying to break up drunken man-child fights. Once, I jumped out of a moving car to run toward a gang of roughly a dozen - brandishing bats, broken bottles, and at least one gun – all directed toward a single man lying in a heap in the parking lot of a Burger King. (Sorry, Mom. I swore never to tell you that story. Partially, because, I didn’t want to give you more reason to worry about the survival of your offspring. Partially, because, I didn’t want to give you an excuse for saying “Call me when you get home,” more often that you already do. It was a decade ago, though, so I believe the statute of limitations has passed for you to freak out about this particular life choice). And, yet, never in my life had actions and choices set before me seemed so intimidating as they did on January 31st, 2017.
Turning in my two weeks’ notice for, what I had once considered a dream job, to embark on a journey I knew I would never feel prepared for, will always be a day I commemorate. I wasn’t well connected with like-minded, influential advocates for clean water. I wasn’t well connected to anyone considered “influential.” Neither were any of my friends, for that matter. My people - friends most similar regarding interests and careers – were a lot of mostly twenty-thirty somethings, riddled with student loan debt and ill-paying entry-level jobs. My people were passionate scientists ill-advised by a countless number of wise teachers, counselors, parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. All assured us the ancient Confucius adage “choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” translated into the notion we should focus our careers on things that brought us the most joy in life.
My people were suckers and ended up with livelihoods tied too closely to the things we loved. I knew once I turned in my two weeks’ notice I would be shutting the doors to the only paths I had ever envisioned along my career trajectory. It was a guaranteed certainty. It’s impossible to be both an advocate and a scientist. At least that’s what they tell you throughout your path to define one’s career as a biologist, or any kind of scientist.
When I turned in my two weeks’ notice, I knew that I was disembarking from the identity I thought I was trying to solidify. But, if my time at ADEQ taught me anything, it was that my voice would never be enough. If I wanted to see real change, there would need to be an army of us advocating for the best interest of our public health and natural resources.
Starting a nonprofit with only the knowledge, I had attainted from my copy of Nonprofit Kit for Dummies, a notebook full of goals, pages of plans sketched out – I knew I was still completely underprepared. With the hope of figuring out a way to build a community to support the mission statement that had taken months of pondering and tweaking, I changed my path the day I pushed through the awkward and difficult “walk and talk.” There I delivered the news and formal letter declaring my two weeks’ notice.
My manager was kind enough to convey my contributions would be greatly missed and try to reason with me to change my mind. That, of course, made it more difficult to maintain composure and stay my course with, what I hoped, appeared to be a calm level of certainty. I’m sure I fell short of that mark. I couldn’t be forthcoming about my hopes and dreams, though. I knew it would be a long, hard road. And, truth be told, I didn’t know I could achieve my goals. I just knew I had to try. Even now, a year and a half later, I’m still a long way from my goals for the community of water warriors I want to be a part of building. We’re even further away from securing funding necessary to achieve those goals.
But, this weekend, with two dozen volunteers from across the state, dedicating a day and a half to contribute toward our effort – I felt hope and inspiration. So many volunteers made a point to personally express their gratitude for the opportunity to participate.
I’m sure every nonprofit executive director draws encouragement from their volunteer community – the lifeblood of any nonprofit organization. But perhaps only nonprofit founders can experience the same level of immense appreciation toward those that join one’s cause.
“My people” are growing in numbers and diversity. That’s what gives us strength.
Thank you to all the people that contribute to our mission. It is a privilege being a part of your collective energy and passion.
With love and gratitude,
your White River Waterkeeper