What made you choose a career in conservation?
I was raised in Canada, on a small Pacific island but maybe not the Pacific island you were imagining. I grew up on an island off the coast of British Columbia called Vancouver Island, so I guess in a way, the privileges and challenges of living on an island are well known to me. I grew up spending a lot of time in the outdoors, hiking and going camping. We were always out and around catching snakes and bees, putting them in jars, watching what they did. My parents really fostered this so at an early age I developed a lot of curiosity for the natural world.
How do you think younger people today are getting involved in conservation? That sort of childhood sounds rare for families particularly those living in urban areas.
You know I think you’re right, people do talk a lot about the younger generation being disconnected to the outdoors compared to the older generations. But I do know that a number of national organizations in the U.S. at least, have set out to address that by getting youth outdoors in whatever form that takes in their local areas – even if that’s a city park – and really getting them to understand that how they contribute to biodiversity. In addition to this, they have all these other programs where they get youth out for weekends to restore a wild area, just outside the city boundaries and make them aware of what is going on in the natural world but also how they can make a contribution to saving that natural world. I have a very coloured view because Kauaʻi is so small. It’s still very much a pastoral agricultural kind of community and one of the reasons why we’re living here is because I have a 7yr old and I want him to have that same kind of childhood that I had where he can spend that kind of time outside. I’m also really impressed with the schools. I’m not sure if that’s just here in Hawaii but the schools are really emphasizing the environment and ecological materials in their sciences curriculum.
How does your work in Kauaʻi Forest Birds Recovery Project feed into community projects and how kids get involved in conservation?
Fostering community engagement is something that has really been at the forefront of our agenda. Whatever little money, time and energy we can carve out to making our community aware of what’s going on with the forest bird and getting them involved and engaged in forest bird conservation, we do. For many years now, we have been hosting environmental and conservation fairs around the island and doing school talks to enrich their curricula. During their spring and fall breaks we also invite young people to join us in the field. We have also just written a children’s book that talks about endangered forest birds and what we can do to save them. Funded by a small grant from the Rotary Foundation, we have also been awarded an award from the Hawaii Tourism Board to purchase copies that we can donate to classrooms. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised by the emphasis on ecology in schools. My son for instance who is in second grade already understands concepts like ‘habitats’ and ‘foraging’ – concepts which I didn’t think you would learn about until high school.
In what ways has being a woman been an advantage in conservation?
I hate to generalize about gender stereotypes but I think women intuitively network. We like to work collaboratively with lots of partners. This ability to think laterally and look at things from many different angles is an asset. One thing that I do think is prevalent amongst women however is a lack of confidence. Although unfortunate, this may lead women to seek advice more. Alongside networking, asking can also be a good tool to building consensus and partnership in conservation, because then people feel involved and heard.
Secondly, in an organization like mine which is trying to do research, outreach and conservation women have an advantage in their ability to multitask. This stems from women traditionally having to juggle many things such as child rearing; our jobs; our commitments to organisations etc. Although this can at times, lead to women taking on too many things and not always doing them so well, I believe this kind of multi-tasking is an advantage in any conservation project which has multiple objectives and sub projects operating all the time. Again, these are not traits exclusive to women but are perhaps more common amongst women than men.
In contrast, have you ever encountered any boundaries?
I never felt I encountered any disadvantages up until the birth of my son. In my experience there are more women studying conservation, ecology and life sciences in graduate schools. Although gender did not seem to matter, women who graduated with PhDs were less likely to enter academia as professors. I think this is because academia is not particularly friendly towards accommodating women who want to spend time raising their families. In fact, in America, it is hard for any woman wants to continue to have a career, but I think it is particularly hard in academia where there is so much emphasis on the quantity of papers produced rather than the work that make us conservation professionals. If I was being judged purely on the academic output, I would not be a complete failure but I certainly wouldn’t be recognized for tenure. Despite this, I feel like I am accomplishing things on the ground and I feel like I am a successful as a conservation professional.
One thing that did come up – and it’s got nothing to do with conservation biology and everything to do with being in a man’s world – is low level sexual harassment. Unfortunately, young women are still more likely to experience this even if it’s just off-coloured jokes than men are. For example, my major advisor at some point said something about ‘I’m so glad that not only did I hire a bunch of beautiful graduate students, but they’re also smart.’ You would never say that to a male graduate student.
Can you tell us a little about how your work in academia, conservation and activism has improved and/or affected the lives of young women?
Although I don’t feel my work is directly relevant to health, I do believe my position has allowed me to be a role model for young women and men. On the one hand, my son and his friends are able to see a woman and a mother who works in an exciting job that takes her out of the home. That will enable them to accept and support that in their partners if they choose to do so in the future.
On the other hand, I do feel like I have influenced the lives of two women directly. In the past months, for instance I was contacted by two young women who had found out about our campaign which called for donations towards buying very expensive, self-resetting rat traps. One seven-year-old girl in Oahu had asked her grandmother to donate instead of buying her a Christmas present. She then challenged her classmates to raise enough money for another one. Another family from Texas decided to host a Hawaiian-themed birthday party for their daughter when they returned home. Similarly, their ten year old daughter asked guests to give donations instead of gifts. Leadership at such a young age and amongst girls is part of what helped us exceed our goal by $20K. With each rat trap costing $200 each, we aimed for 25 traps and instead raised enough for 100 traps and also created a full time position for someone to manage the campaign.
What do you think could be done to help increase the number of women leading nonprofits in animal and environmental conservation?
I think a lot of it has to do with what we began to talk about earlier with the maternity leave. Too often women in America feel like they have to make choices between family and work and I think some of that is institutional. It is really hard to leave a baby at 3 months to go back to work and especially if you are committed, as many women in conservation would be, to breastfeeding and all the things you know are best for your baby and best for the environment because workplaces don’t provide private places where you can provide milk for your baby you know and day care is difficult so there’s all this institutional stuff that make it difficult for women to have high powered jobs and have a baby too and not be penalised for it in some way.
What advice would you give to young women and girls who want to be successful – What advice would you give for instance to the two young girls in Texas and Oahu?
To not be scared of their limitations. To not even imagine that they might have any. And certainly to not imagine that there’s something that somebody could do better than them just because they’re a man. It’s scary to see that from as young an age as 2 years when my son started to go to preschool, he would come home and say how ‘girls shouldn’t do that, girls do that’ etc. Question those things. Push yourselves and do what you want to do – try things you don’t think you can do.
Two other points I would add to this: Don’t worry too much about getting it exactly right the first time – most women tend to be perfectionists but it’s the process of acquiring knowledge as a learner and adventurer that is more important sometimes than the actual knowledge. Secondly, it’s important to have a diverse skill set. Knowledge is important but when you’re going through your education, think about not only what content you’re going got learn about but also what skills you’re going to learn, especially problem solving skills and critical skills.
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