Hudson River

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.

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.