A Trying Trust
Before beginning a new internship, one is likely to have questions. Expectations. Past experiences may not accurately reflect your future duties. A small, rural non-profit differs drastically from an urban, million-dollar-fund non-profit. Who is involved? What are the tasks to be done? How much of what you expect will come true?
Despite living in the North Country for the past 16 years, I had no real idea of what the St Lawrence Land Trust - my chosen organization - does, which was one reason I applied to work there. As I've now been explaining to neighbors and friends, the Trust works in the North Country to help protect and rejuvenate the rivers and subsequent watersheds flowing out of the Adirondack Mountains and into the St Lawrence. Currently, our focus is on the Grasse and the Little Rivers, with aspirations to include the St Regis and Raquette soon. We work through and with community members on small tasks (learning the dangers of pesticides and implementing alternatives) and large tasks (signing conservation easements that allow for regulation of a parcel of land after the current caretaker has passed on). St Lawrence County is one of the lucky few areas in the United States that can claim a watershed with 80% connectivity. That means that we still have a functioning system of wetlands, rivers, lakes, streams and flood zones, all of which are vital to the region's health. As members of the air, water and land communities, we must act appropriately - i.e. treating Earth with care. One would hope, then, that a community-based organization that wants to see these waterways protected would be at the forefront of any St Lawrence County environmental movements.
These were my expectations upon joining the Land Trust: that the people involved were as passionate as I, that the work being done was making significant positive change, and that I would be able to contribute in a decisive fashion. The thing is, none of these were unreasonable expectations, and all are, in some way, coming true. What I've learned, however, is that running a non-profit (albeit well-intentioned) is demanding, and while a mission may be admirable, the execution can be challenged. For instance, how much time does one commit? The St Lawrence Land Trust is one hundred percent volunteer-run, which means that project implementation competes with salaried positions, child care and doctor's appointments. Or, how much does one rock the boat in their community? The Land Trust works in a region known for its monocrop agricultural fields and thousand-cow dairies, both of which have significant strain on the waterways. How do we politely, yet firmly say to a neighbor, "You know, the pesticides you spray are causing mass die-offs in the river, and are proven to induce allergies, SIDS and cancer."? Positive change doesn't always come without growing pains, and St Lawrence County is no exception.
Studying the interaction between community members and this non-profit, then, has led to my most recent realization: what I want an organization that I might run to look like. Working with the Land Trust has let me see the complexities of being small-scale and rural, while having to deal with state-wide regulations and opposing opinions. I've been to a finance meeting and learned about consistent monetary support. I've been taught how to keep track of the hundreds of emails I'm trying to collect. And I've decided that yes, I want to ask my neighbors to stop using RoundUp, Seven and Malathion. The good thing about working for a non-profit is that when you decide to shake things up, you have a committed set of people standing behind you. So while my expectations for the Land Trust have not quite been reached, working there has given me information on how to run a successful non-profit. And that is knowledge that I can take forward.