Journey to Leadership – Lessons from Washington State’s First Women-Led Conservation Partnership

By Laura Johnson, Washington State Conservation Commission

On May Day (May 1), conservation partners in Washington State crossed a milestone. Not only did Dr. Carol Smith become the first female executive director of the Washington State Conservation Commission in the 80-year history of the agency, her appointment also marked the first time that women held all four leadership positions within the state’s conservation partnership — executive director of the State Conservation Commission, state conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and president and executive director of the Washington Association of Conservation Districts.

The following profiles of these four women provide a glimpse into each of their career journeys. Their stories illustrate how determination, mentorship and self-identity play a critical role in professional development. For current and aspiring leaders, they share lessons learned and words of encouragement for creating strong and inclusive conservation partnerships.    

Dr. Carol Smith, Executive Director, Washington State Conservation Commission

Early in my career, there was much more sexual harassment and discrimination. For example, in grad school I went to my chemistry professor to talk about applying for a research fellowship. He told me not to apply because it should go to someone “who could make good use of it.” As one of the few female students in the class, I interpreted that to mean it should go to a man. Even if that wasn’t his intention, he wasn’t encouraging, to say the least. I ended up getting the fellowship without his support.

In the past, there were barriers put in place, and you had to break them down or move around them to reach your goals. Now, in the groups I’ve managed, I see less sexual harassment and discrimination but commonly see disrespectful behavior such as shutting people down in meetings and gossip. There’s a study from Harvard that shows that kind of behavior is directed more towards women than men, but the sources of the bad behavior are equal — both women and men participate. I want to foster a culture that doesn’t tolerate unprofessional and disrespectful behavior. I want people to feel that their voice will be heard, that they’re part of the decision-making process, and that they’re valued.

Lynn Bahrych (governor-appointed member of the Washington State Conservation Commission, 2004-2016) is definitely at the top of my list. During my years as a previous employee of the State Conservation Commission, it was heartening to see Bahrych in action. She was often the only female member on the Commission. She was never afraid to speak up and was always professional in her interactions. She cared about the mission of conservation and about sustainable agriculture. Everybody had the deepest respect for her and her work.

Conservation is becoming increasingly more complex. We have climate change and water issues of all types. In order to solve these issues, we need all types of voices around the table and all types of boots on ground. Diverse voices create better problem solving and new and different ideas. We have an opportunity to expand the base of people we engage with, meaning greater environmental benefits and applications of our work.

Believe in yourself, and don’t give up. It’s your differences that make you valuable. Seek out and develop mentorship opportunities. The mentor doesn’t have to look like you or face the same challenges as you. There’s a variety of reasons why some of us face more challenges than others, however we can’t let those challenges prevent us from doing great things.

Roylene Rides-at-the-Door, State Conservationist, Washington NRCS State Office

Right now, NRCS has about 13 women state conservationists out of a total of 52, and I’m one of them. It has its challenges at times. I decided early in my career that I wasn’t going to transform to “fit the mold.” I have my own strengths as a woman. And these strengths could help me be a good leader. One thing you’ll see is that I always dress in colors. I dress the way that I’m comfortable and works for me, and sometimes that’s a hot pink suit. I remember going to the U.S. Senate one year and seeing all the men in their blue and black suits, and then in walked Hillary Clinton in a hot red suit. I said, “Good for her!” I realized that I didn’t need to look or act like a man to do this job. I just needed to be me.

One of my mentors is Darrel Dominick. He’s Choctaw from Oklahoma, and he was one of the first American Indian males in NRCS to move into leadership. I met him when I was very new. He always believed in me and pushed me. He convinced me to go on detail in Washington, D.C. I remember getting on the D.C. metro for the first time, and there were more people on the train than in my whole hometown in Montana! But he was there to help me overcome my fears and show me what I needed to do. When I decided to move up in leadership, I worked under Dominick for five years. I wanted to know, as a minority person, how he was able to deal with agencies and customers and everything. He taught me well. Under his leadership I was promoted to State Conservationist for Rhode Island and became the first American Indian female in leadership for our agency. But, I still remember the time I let my own fear stand in my way, thinking that I wasn’t good enough. In some cases Dominick believed in me more than I believed in myself. I truly believe I’m good at this job because of him.

In Washington, our strength is our diversity — from people, to land, to farms, to products — you name it! Our partnership has done a great job on things like launching the Tribal Outreach Committee for our Washington Association of Conservation Districts that really set the model for NACD’s Tribal Outreach and Partnership Resource Policy Group. Conservation districts and NRCS employees here have been very open to learning about other cultures. At the same time, we’ve educated some of the tribes about the work that’s being done. We’ve seen new partnerships develop because of that. And not only does our diversity make us strong, it makes the work fun. I love that there’s always something new I’m going to learn.

Be who you are. As an American Indian woman in leadership, I was reserved about sharing where I came from, that I grew up on a reservation. I was reserved about sharing that I’m not Christian and that I practice my traditional way. I felt I had to put that part of me in a box. I was so worried about prejudice and judgement that for years I wasn’t completely whole. But when I got to Washington and met people who were so accepting of who I was, that’s when I truly got to be me and was able to work more effectively. I saw the Washington Association of Conservation Districts be so accepting of the Tribal Outreach Committee, and it gave me the comfort and security to know that I could share parts about my culture, and that it’s actually a strength and not a weakness. Don’t be afraid to be who you are.

I started exploring the sciences when I was in my undergraduate program at Pacific Lutheran University. I started my freshman year in the engineering program and was taking some pretty difficult classes. I was the only woman in my entire physics class. My parents were both math professors there, and my mom said something to my physics professor about it being kind of uncomfortable for me because I was the only woman. His response was something like, “Well, she’s just going to have to figure it out.” There wasn’t a lot of sympathy. But I found I really didn’t like engineering. I ended up taking an introduction to earth sciences class and loved it. I decided to major in that.

There was an environmental studies professor that ended up being my undergraduate advisor. She was a great mentor, especially to women in the sciences. Then, when I got involved with the environmental student group on campus, the advisor for that group was a woman who was a chemistry professor. So I had these two role models in the sciences who were women, and who were so supportive, encouraging and available to me. I never felt like I was an outsider or out of place. They really helped me be successful.

I also serve as chair of Pierce Conservation District, and our team has been looking closely at equity and inclusion. Similar to most conservation districts across the state, historically our organization hasn’t been that diverse. But when you look at the demographics of the community in which we work, it is diverse. We’ve been more mindful about the places where we haven’t been of service. That’s turned into some amazing new programming and differences that were making in the community. For example, we have a lot of immigrant communities and people who don’t speak English as a first language, making them almost more invisible in the community. Instead of just translating our materials, we’ve created a “Cultural Ambassadors” program where we contract with people who are part of these communities to help us better understand. They both educate our staff about what their communities need and educate their fellow community members about our services. For me personally, that kind of equity is important because my mom grew up in Kenya when it was still a British colony and still segregated. Her family originally was from India, and she wasn’t allowed in whites-only areas. It was tough for her being excluded from certain opportunities. That’s something I don’t want to perpetuate in the programs that I’m accountable for in my service to the community.

Find your allies and supporters. It doesn’t always have to be someone who looks exactly like you. I think that’s important for our community to be more mindful of. Unconsciously, people tend to mentor people who they feel most familiar with, and often that ends up being people who look like them. I’m getting to this midpoint in my career where I’m starting to look behind me at folks who are just entering the field and thinking, “What am I doing to help support and mentor the next generation of professionals in this work?” We all need to be mindful of that.

Photo credit: Michael B. Woolsey

Patricia Hickey, Executive Director, Washington Association of Conservation Districts

I started my career working as a coastal planner at the University of Rhode Island. We did projects all over the world, and we’d bring in people from other countries to our program. I was in a very academic and diverse environment. That helped form my expectations around representation in the field of conservation. 

Later, as a natural resource planner in California, I worked primarily in rural communities. Although a large percentage of conservation district and NRCS staff in California are women, our boards were mostly men. When I became the executive director of a conservation district in Mendocino County, I faced a similar situation. The staff was 80 percent women, and the board was 100 percent men. They were terrific fellows, but the staff wanted greater gender equity on the board. It took us close to two years to find a woman with a strong interest in natural resource management willing to sit on our board. The world is changing though. I read recently that a third of the nation’s farmers and ranchers are women. Here in Washington State, many more women are joining conservation district boards, and our state Association board is now roughly 50/50 women and men.

I’m proud to say that two of the most influential mentors in my professional career were NRCS district conservationists in California, Charlette Epifanio and Carol Mandel. I attribute much of my success building conservation district capacity and programs to these two individuals. What was most remarkable about these women was their openness to and encouragement of innovative, collaborative thinking. They encouraged us to apply for NRCS Conservation Innovation Grants and USDA Specialty Crop Block Grants in order to take on the big challenges our agricultural communities faced. I do my best to carry their example forward in working with my conservation district community — not letting fear stand in the way of the new.

One of the challenges we face — because we were established during the Dust Bowl Era when our society was more agrarian — is that many decision makers only associate us with rural communities and issues. Our past is venerable and still very much a part of our mission, but we have to be relevant to the diverse populations we serve now and be recognized by them too. Working in more urban communities challenges us to expand our mission in new and exciting ways, such as embracing urban agriculture and forestry programs. We have an opportunity to connect all of the communities we serve in caring for the planet and creating or recreating a real sense of community around land stewardship, growing food and simply taking good care of our neighborhoods.

Always look for mentors. That’s so critical. Don’t be frightened to tap someone on the shoulder or send them a note expressing your admiration and respect for their work. Let them know you’re looking for guidance and support. Ultimately, true leadership comes from our commitment, knowledge and desire to make positive changes in our communities of interest. If one lives one’s life with commitment, integrity and purpose, people will be there to support you. True leadership is about service before self. And when you step up to create a better future for your community, others will take notice.

NACD Leadership and Professional Development Resources

Whatever our role as practitioners of conservation — be it as a planner, administrator or board member — we all can learn valuable lessons from the careers of each these leaders. One common theme shared by Smith, Rides-at-the-Door, Dorner and Hickey is the importance of cultivating a strong community of mentors and colleagues in our profession. These communities provide support when the work gets tough. They help us turn challenges into opportunities and encourage us to recognize and nurture our potential.

The NACD community offers a network of positive support for conservation district employees, board members and others in the conservation planning partnership. The annual and summer NACD meetings are excellent opportunities to meet and learn from peers working in voluntary conservation across the country. Also, please check out and share these other professional development resources offered through NACD:

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