Of all the things that come to mind when you hear the word ‘lawyer’ ‘great with kids’ is probably not one of them. And I would agree with you, given that I am a lawyer and years of reading judicial opinions and excessive use of phrases like ‘see supra’ and ‘in summation’ did not particularly hone my skills for connecting with the younger generation.
Which is why my year as Program Manager with the Human Impacts Institute (HII) was a challenging but ultimately truly satisfying one.
Hired to help keep local programs running stateside while our Beloved Leader/Founder and Executive Editor Tara DePorte was in Marseille participating in the prestigious IMéRA Fellowship, I faced the challenges inevitable to the running the education programs of a small non-profit. Writing a brief challenging the denial of coal companies to award black lung benefits to a dying coal miner? Check. Developing a weekly environmental education curriculum for the East River State Park on a shoestring budget? Not check. Finding ways to seem cool to a group of (awesome) high school students on the first day of our Youth Leadership Intensive? Definitely not check.
And yet, as is also the case with nonprofits on a shoestring budget, it all (or 98% of all) miraculously came together. Organizations from the Citizens Committee of New York to Sustainable CUNY to the New York Compost Project generously agreed to lead workshops for free. Volunteers came out for our monthly ‘Tree Care Tuesdays’ (the folks from Morgan Stanley seemed particularly grateful for the opportunity to be outside in the daylight). Luis Gonzalez from the Partnership for Parks got us all to go seining in the East River, and no one drowned. Victor Acosta from the State Parks Department taught me how to fish and no one got accidentally fish-hooked by my terrible casting skills. Our crazy talented interns helped us research grants, gather oysters, organize spreadsheets, walk the runway, and did all the various ‘social media-y’ stuff that makes me feel old. And Tara DePorte returned briefly chez us to celebrate our ‘Climate sHeros.’
If I had the chance to relive any of the moment, though, it would be the graduation day of our Youth Leadership Intensive. With delicious food courtesy of Whole Foods and music courtesy of my tiny Jambox, each student gave a presentation on an environmental issue important to them. One student talked about electric cars, another about disproportionate rates of asthma in lower-income communities, and another on don’t-pour-grease-down-the-drain-because-it-becomes-really-gross. The whole day was great, but it was the moment when I looked at the audience and saw all the family and friends that the students had invited and that had come. The VIP section (of ‘Very Important Plants’ that the students had taken care of during the six-week Intensive). The Mentorship Day mentors and workshop leaders. And the students, listening to and encouraging each other for every presentation.
I’m not trying to end this blog with ‘our students are our future’ clichés, or that I had an epiphany to join AmeriCorps. It’s that - looking back - I don’t think I necessarily had to be a superb educator, or that it was my charismatic personality that inspired sustainable changes. It was enough that we were able to be introduce folks to the many ways to make positive human impacts (or change negative ones).
There is no one right way and scientific facts - however serious and, well, factual they may be - don’t always inspire change. And that’s my point, and the goal of the Human Impacts Institute: recognizing that everyone (not just kids and not just diplomats) has their own entry point and series of aha! moments. And it’s the mission of HII to act as a catalyst for that process, through art even if you’re not a great artist, through inspiring stories even if you aren’t Homer reborn, through touring sewage treatment plants, through looking at the ingredients of a label and not just the happy-fun misleading logos on the front and walking through a park.
The year went by incredibly fast, and now that Tara is safely back at the helm, I’m moving on. And I’m still a lawyer (for better or worse). But I’m a lawyer who got to spend most of the summer outdoors (see supra), and got to meet folks from the amazing tapestry of coalitions, associations, and nonprofits that will work with each other for free because that’s what they do, and I’m grateful. Thank you.
Lena Golze-Desmond, Esq (+ educator).
P.S. - but for serious. don’t throw grease down the drain, y’all.