Career Advice for the Social Impact Sector
It’s an important time for talented young people to consider government service, as there is tremendous opportunity in every part of the federal government to address climate change, advance equity, and work toward solving the other challenges facing our country. I have had the good fortune of serving in the government and in the nonprofit sector, so I often get questions—especially from young women—about how to position their careers. The young people of this country have done so much already to insist we move fast on climate change, dismantle racism, and build equity, and I am excited to see what we can do together in the next few years.
First, a little about me. I served at the Environmental Protection Agency with both Republicans and Democrats under four different presidents. In almost two decades I had many different roles, including overseeing the EPA’s work to implement the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act as the nation’s top career leader. I am incredibly proud to have worked with the thousands of wonderful people at the EPA serving all of our futures. After leaving the EPA, I started over at the Environmental Defense Fund, and now serve as president and chief executive officer at Trust for Public Land. The lessons I learned along the way are applicable to anyone interested in a career in government, nonprofit, or social impact sectors. If I could go back in time and give myself some advice from the benefit of my hard-won hindsight, here’s what I’d say:
Government for the People
Public service is a special calling. The chance to work on what you care about—at a moment in history when change is possible—is precious. And working in DC is a heady experience.
But don’t get stuck just talking to people in DC. You will do your best work when you really listen to a diversity of voices—especially people working to solve problems in communities. I gained invaluable insights about how the EPA could do better by convening local watershed protection groups—advocates, businesses, and other leaders working to ensure their drinking water, their rivers, their lakes were clean and safe. Today, community activists understand how climate change is showing up at their door. They know what that means for families in a way that is impossible to glean from briefing documents. Learn from them, and bring their voices forward.
Be Here Now, and Welcome Change When It Comes
Any role you take in public service will create opportunities for you. The most important opportunities are what you can do now, what you can accomplish if you channel all your energy and passion into the moment. Too often, we think about a current job as a stepping stone to the next opportunity. This future-career focus can create fear and timidity. You’ll find that if you bring your creativity, enthusiasm, and dedication to the table, you will spark energy and meaning for yourself and those around you. Stay present, and when you falter, don’t be afraid to ask for guidance.
All that energy and creativity you put in will bring change—for the country, the world, and for you. You will arrive at many career crossroads. Maybe you will accept a promotion. Maybe you will reprioritize and decide to step back.
Those career crossroads aren’t always voluntary. Sometimes they are painful. When I worked at the EPA under President George W. Bush, I fought to strengthen water-quality protections against polluters. My persistence rankled some political leaders, and the day came when my political boss told me I would be reassigned as a punishment. I knew this meant a meaningless assignment, designed to keep me in check. I was devastated and tempted to ride it out, waiting for a change in leadership. But I found that instead of a miserable detour, I had reached a wonderful crossroads. It was time to chase my dream of working as a nonprofit leader.
I needn’t have feared, nor do you need to fear these turning points. For me, the resistance I encountered presented an opportunity to venture off in new directions. I took my passion for clean water, clean air, and a healthy planet into the nonprofit world, where I have enjoyed terrific opportunities to work with like-minded people to create positive change.
Lean On Each Other
I had some intense moments in government service—all-nighters, weeks away from home. When I was assigned to advise President Bill Clinton on environmental issues, I was on call 24/7. With three very young children at home, I was often asked, “How do you do it?” Perhaps not surprisingly, my husband was not once asked that same question. He was never asked, even though he has had a demanding career as one of the country’s leading climate activists. The truth was that we could each only succeed by leaning on one another as equal partners.
If I needed to head back to the office after dinner, my husband had my back. Likewise, I had his. I realize that many others have a significantly tougher row to hoe. Some of my heroes balance brilliant careers as single parents or while taking care of very sick children. Everyone deserves support, and giving and getting that support is essential for a thriving, high-impact, happy career.
With the pace of work in DC, and the important era we are working in, you may be tempted to remain “on” all the time. You may feel the urge to reply to even quotidian messages at all hours. You may even believe that you can be your best self working all the time for four or eight years in a row.
We live in a time of great uncertainty, from climate change to economic turmoil. Devising solutions to these complex challenges will require our utmost vision, focus, and fortitude. So schedule vacation and enjoy regular outings in nature—not only because you deserve joy, but because carving out time for yourself will make you a better leader and decision maker.
Getting outside is one of the best ways to stay healthy. Time spent in nature is shown in studies to boost mood, sharpen focus, reduce stress, lower blood pressure—even prolong life. Resist making a habit out of burning the midnight oil, and when you are done for the day, make a point to head into the sunset, and breathe.
Diane Regas is president and CEO of Trust for Public Land.
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