2017 Fellows

3 Ways the FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellowship Made Me a Better Leader

Special Project: coordinating the annual Riverkeeper Sweep. For my special project in my first year at Riverkeeper I worked closely with the Director of Community Engagement to coordinate the 6th Annual Riverkeeper Sweep, our day of service for the Hudson River and its tributaries. Previously I had the opportunity to coordinate small straightforward events like campus film screenings, community rallies, and service projects, but had never organized an event on such a considerable scale. At first the prospect of coordinating an event of this scale felt impossible.

How would I keep track of 109 locations, over 100 registration pages, and ensure each Sweep Leader had the training, materials, skills, and volunteers necessary for a successful project?

Under the guidance of the Director of Community Engagement, Dana Gulley, I learned to manage moving parts such as tide dependent cleanup times, waivers, data management, Sweep Leader training, and successfully collaborating with 164 individual leaders. With Dana’s partnership and a strong plan with weekly deadlines, we achieved the most successful Riverkeeper Sweep yet, with 109 Sweep projects, and 2,200 volunteers across NYC and the Hudson Valley who removed 48 tons of debris and plant to maintain over 800 trees and shrubs.

Building on the skills I learned last year, I was the primary organizer of the 2017 Riverkeeper Sweep, which achieved a count of 101 projects from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks with over 1,300 participating volunteers.

Direct Service: supporting Riverkeeper campaigns. The drinking water contamination crisis in Newburgh, New York has allowed me to grow my skills as a community organizer, by developing a comprehensive outreach plan, building relationships with new partners, and executing strategic community education and outreach. These efforts have helped raise awareness about toxic chemical contamination to Newburgh’s drinking water supply, pressure the Department of Health to conduct blood testing, and to spread the word about the blood testing program. Working with communities such as Newburgh has taught me to think outside the box and find non-traditional partners, outreach methods, and the responsibility to amplify existing community voices. It’s easy to step into a situation and make your voice or the voice of your organization the center of attention. What’s instead needed, is to listen and learn from the community you are serving and amplify their concerns and goals.

Goal setting and prioritizing professionally AND personally. Since the start of my Fellowship at Riverkeeper my work schedule has included weekend events and night meetings across New York City and the Hudson Valley. In the beginning it was easy to orient my life around my job and the challenging expectations I was working to meet while unknowingly neglecting personal goals. Quickly I learned the value of prioritizing during work and personal time and having goals in both areas of my life. Last winter I set a goal to climb all 46 Adirondack high peaks over the next few summers while acquiring the necessary skills and gear. With this goal in mind, I’ve prioritized incorporating almost daily exercise and frequent weekend hikes into my weekly plan. Prioritizing exercise has allowed me to be more focused in the office, and I have climbed 9/46 peaks with 5-10 more planned for summer 2017.

Jen Benson is an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Riverkeeper. As the Education and Outreach Coordinator, she creates opportunities to increase youth environmental awareness and engagement with the Hudson River. She also works to support campaign and programmatic initiatives, and helps coordinate the Riverkeeper Sweep.

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Developing a Nonprofit Leader

dsc_7756-wmMy initial love for nonprofit work came from my early involvement in a high school program, called Upward Bound, that worked to prepare low-income, first-generation students for college.  Through the program I spent my high school summers on various college campuses, like Harvey Mudd College and Georgetown University, gaining professional skills at major internships, like at a biochemistry lab at UCSD and in the Finance Division of the Library of Congress, and honing my networking skills throughout all of these experiences.

When I graduated from the program, with an acceptance to my alma mater, UCLA, I realized how life changing that experience was, how incredibly inspired I was by my Upward Bound advisors who were all successful people of color, and how critical nonprofits are in providing major opportunities for urban youth.

With this in mind, I got involved with education-based nonprofits, like Jumpstart and City Year, providing day-to-day educational resources to youth in under resourced communities like mine through direct service. Although, I was very proud of my work  and could see the impact I was making on my students, I knew that I wanted to learn more and do more beyond direct-service. I wanted to work to develop stronger programs, advise on curriculum, and develop workshops for volunteers. I wanted to reach more students at a higher capacity.

DSC_2151.jpgBecoming an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow fed all of my professional desires. Through my experience with the fellowship, and my organization, I have developed many skills. For instance, deconstructing and reconstructing a Cultural Competency training for over 300 college volunteers, delivering productive and solution-oriented feedback, and simply not being afraid to have six meetings in one day over the phone (millennial anxieties are hard to kick). I have been able to take a lot of what I learned through my “on the ground” nonprofit experiences, and put them to use on an organizational level. I don’t think I could have conducted workshops on the importance of building relationships with students as effectively if I had not myself spent four years supporting classrooms.

There is still so much I don’t know, and even if I do know it, I can always get better. Still, I am willing to continue to grow as a nonprofit leader, and will continue developing valuable skills, and work hard to deliver urban youth the resources they need not only to survive, but to thrive.

Ellie Sanchez is an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Massachusetts Generation Citizen. In her role as Program Associate,  she works to increase civic-engagement amongst marginalized youth by providing training and quality assurance for College Volunteers to ensure the highest-quality action civics programming is delivered to students in  Massachusetts.

Why I Chose to Work at Riverkeeper

Growing up in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State, my summers were spentJen bb swimming in the freshwater, glacially formed lakes, and climbing gorges waterfalls feeding these waterbodies. My earliest memories are chasing fish through the clear water, catching crayfish, and counting water snails. My adventures in, on, and around the Finger Lakes taught me a deep respect and reverence for nature, and a love for water. These strong convictions inspired me to join the local swim team, and spend my summers supervising swimmers as they enjoyed the beautiful waters of Canandiagua Lake.

On a grey summer day in 2009, my parents loaded us into their minivan, and told my younger sister and me that we were headed to Dimock, PA to “see what this fracking thing is about”. Little did I know this spontaneous trip would  drastically change the course of my educational and professional trajectory. Having just learned about hydraulic fracturing, my parents decided we would go see the process firsthand in a community on the frontline. Like my parents, we were not sure what we were going to encounter upon arrival in Dimock. At a basic level, we had learned hydraulic fracturing, an industrial process of extracting natural gas from shale deposits used millions of gallons of water, explosives, and thousands of gallons of chemicals-literally “fracturing” the ground underneath communities.

Jen mapWe spent the ominously grey afternoon driving through the tiny township of Dimock, PA, seeing the tall drill rigs, large clearings made to accommodate the drill pads, and “produced water” in the containment pools. Partway through the afternoon, my parents quietly mentioned fracking could potentially come to our region, and industrialize the natural landscape and cause millions of gallons of fresh Finger Lakes water to be withdrawn, mixed with thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals, and used in fracking.

Driving back home along the banks of Canandaigua and Seneca Lakes, I could too easily imagine industrialization of these lakesides. Immediately upon returning home, I googled “Fracking New York State”, desperate to learn more and see what could be done to prevent fracking from coming to my home. The first result was the Riverkeeper website, with updated information on the science, policy, and process. From that day on, Riverkeeper had been on my radar, first as a resource, then later as an organization I would be honored to work for.Jen Frack

Over the next several years, I would go from a passive environmentalist high school student, to a knowledgeable campus and community activist in Geneseo fighting like hell to educate the public and ensure fracking did not become a reality in New York State.

Nearly 6-years later, New York State has a ban on fracking, and I’ve had the incredible opportunity to join the staff at Riverkeeper as an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow, coordinating the Riverkeeper Sweep, and educating schools and communities on issues threatening the Hudson River. My determination to advocate for the environment and my respect for Riverkeeper continues to grow each day, and remain humble and immensely thankful for this opportunity.

Jen Benson is an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Riverkeeper. As the Education and Outreach Coordinator, she creates opportunities to increase youth environmental awareness and engagement with the Hudson River. She also works to support campaign and programmatic initiatives, and helps coordinate the Riverkeeper Sweep.

Putting Your Degree to Work in the Nonprofit Sector

Long before entering college, I began developing my interest in the environment through my first passion: Books. I consumed books on all sorts of environmental issues,  from factory farms  to mountaintop removal, shaping my decision to pursue a BA in Literature and minor in Environmental Studies. Early on in college, I began wondering which of my interests I would pursue after graduation — it seemed nearly impossible to merge the two. In those early moments of contemplation, the options seemed both divergent and limited.

Up until my junior year in college, I didn’t have a strong grasp on the non-profit sector as a potential means of employment after graduation. Nonprofits existed in a distant and abstract way, strongly associated with the word volunteering, not as a 12081134_967137013324870_1828249579_npotential employer. Volunteers are critical to the nonprofit sector, but many forget full-time staff members manage volunteers, raise funds, write curriculum, plan events, and coordinate campaigns.

I was fortunate to meet a recent-college graduate working in the nonprofit sector teaching college students to become change agents on their campus. Within weeks of meeting her and learning about the possibility of a career in advocacy, my post-college trajectory became clear: I wanted to work at an environmental non-profit. Nearly 4 years later, I couldn’t be happier to be in the nonprofit sector. It’s an odd thought to consider the possibility I wouldn’t be here without non-profit employment opportunities having been demystified and made accessible to me.

At functions with family, friends, or other people outside the nonprofit world, people are often  surprised to hear my title, Education and Outreach Coordinator. They’re intrigued to hear that community engagement, volunteer coordination, and partnership development is a full time job. Despite their many questions and persistent confusion, I’ll continue triaging their questions and explaining the existence of careers in the nonprofit industry. We must become our own best advocates, and promote not only our organizational goals, but also the wonderful industry of passionate change-agents we work in.

When students contemplate their far-off future after high school and college graduation, they don’t envision revolutionizing recess, coordinating regional cleanups, or using art to create social and political change. I hope with willingness, determination, and conversation, this will change.

Jen Benson is an FAO Schwarz Family Foundation Fellow at Riverkeeper. As the Education and Outreach Coordinator, she creates opportunities to increase youth environmental awareness and engagement with the Hudson River. She also works to support campaign and programmatic initiatives, and helps coordinate the Riverkeeper Sweep.