We Are in Period of Transformation
Call it change, call it a period of transition, or describe it as a time of transformation. Our conservation community is changing. Today I write about the complexity of what our entire community is living through, closing with announcing the publication of WACD’s page of resources on diversity, equity, and inclusion.
What is changing?
Conservation district supervisors
We are seeing a new generation of conservation district supervisors enter our community. As long-standing board members step away from leading and governing districts, they create opportunities for new board members to join us. I see that happening now.
Conservation district employees
We have more conservation district employees than ever before. Not only are the numbers up, but the level of education, skill, and capacity is up. This statewide cadre of professionals is doing more than ever before, and at the same time, we see an influx of new folks who bring with them different perspectives and experiences. (Decades ago, most conservation district employees had some kind of farming or resource use background. Today, we see many people entering the conservation community with little or no exposure to farming.)
Funding has generally increased as the years have rolled by. This year, in particular, we saw a huge bump in funding for voluntary conservation work. It is stretching all of us in ways we didn’t imagine. On the financial side, conservation districts are faced with larger projects than ever and the costs of those projects are also larger than ever. This really stresses districts financially as they struggle with cash flow as they fund projects and then wait for reimbursement from grantors. On the emotional side, the high expectations that come with increased funding is stressing quite a few people in our community.
The DEI movement is also creating change. I prefer not to call it DEI (for: diversity, equity, and inclusion) because that term seems to trigger very strong reactions in some of our people. I think of it as a stepwise process that starts with proactively including people that may not have been included before. As we include new people, we become more diverse. As we become more diverse, we begin to see equity in a new light. A catalyst for these changes will probably be the moment when grantors begin to require a diversity, equity, and inclusion element in grants to conservation districts.
Running a conservation district has become much more complicated, compared to when I entered the community 30 years ago. The demands on conservation district board members and staff are greater than ever. There are more funding sources and each source brings its own requirements for data handling, reporting, accounting, etc. As more work gets done by more people, and at higher cost, risk increases. I frequently hear from people in our community who are struggling with burnout as they attempt to juggle the increasingly complex demands of operating their district.
Talking about factors that have brought about change would not be complete without including COVID-19. This pandemic virus managed to shift the landscape of business practices not just in our conservation community but across the entire planet, and in only a few years. Virtual meetings and remote work were uncommon before but now are becoming everyday occurrences in our work lives. Those who operate businesses and organizations are realizing that every person may not need a desk, that a cell phone may be enough for all voice and text communications, and that people can still be productive when they are not in the same building together. I don’t think we’re going to see these changes disappear, although the pendulum will probably swing back toward more in-person work and meeting environments.
Change is resisted until it is accepted
Change is a funny thing. It causes stress. Even change that we perceive to be good is stressful.
Positive change can feel negative because the stress wreaks havoc on our mental health. (Source: Why Is Even Good Change Sometimes So Hard?)
There is comfort in the status quo, in doing things the same way. Regular routines that we can predict and follow can bring some peace to a stressful day.
In any group will be folks who resist change. This is completely understandable because change = stress. Conversely, we have folks who embrace change. For them, change probably seems exciting and energizing. I suspect this is a bit of a bell curve, with the vast majority of us in the middle, neither resisting any change nor embracing any change. For most of us, we’ll deal with change if we must, and otherwise, we’ll relax into the regular routine of predictable everyday tasks.
The Attitude Curve
In management circles, this is known as the Attitude Curve:
Most employees are more or less neutral and remain to be convinced about the merits of any proposed change. A good yardstick is to assume 15% of the population is supportive, 15% resistant and 70% neutral.
The paragraph following the above quotation is aimed squarely at managing change. It also reflects what I’ve been observing in many groups, and unfortunately, even within our own community.
Unfortunately, the resistant minority is often both vocal and aggressive. Most employees know who the whiners and malcontents are, and carefully watch how management deals with them. If, as frequently happens, the resistant minority is able to distract or delay management’s efforts to implement change, the neutral majority concludes management wasn’t serious about the change, or even worse, that the vocal minority was right. The more management caters to the resisters, the more this group wields a virtual veto on progress. This is true because the resisters’ objections are usually not about the merits of any change, but a function of their alienation from the organization.
The Change Curve
This kind of situation is stressful for everyone, including those who resist change and those who live for it. The Change Curve model addresses the different steps we go through to finally accept change. There are several versions of this model. Perhaps the simplest one resembles the stages of grief:
- Shock, denial
- Anger, fear
A slightly more complex version has six stages:
- Blame others
- Blame self
- Uncertainty, confusion
- Acceptance, rationalization
- Problem solving
- Moving on
Both the simple and more complex models reflect normal reactions to change. Change is the stimulus that provokes the steps outlined in the models. The funny thing is that while most people experience these steps, some people are able to move through the steps more quickly than others. Stated another way, some folks may get stuck on a step and find it very hard to transition to the next one. I think we see this now in all aspects of our lives, but for WACD and our conservation community, we especially see this in the realm of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Change and DEI
When it comes to DEI, some folks believe we shouldn’t do anything differently while others are desperate to move forward. Some of our people occupy the extremes of these polarized views — the tails on the Attitude Curve, if you will. If the Attitude Curve model reflects our community, then about 15% of our people is resistant, 15% is supportive, and the remaining 70% are neutral.
Applying those percentages to the 45 conservation districts in our community, about 7 districts would fall into the resistant category, 7 into the supportive category, and 31 into the neutral category. This is a reasonably accurate reflection of what I’m observing in calendar year 2022.
If you think you fall into one of these categories, please don’t feel like an outlier. You’re part of the normal distribution!
Everyone has a different entry point for DEI
The driver for me on diversity, equity, and inclusion is inequitable treatment of women. I’ve seen a lot of injustice done to women, some of them close to me.
Your entry point into the realm of DEI may be different than mine. You might be a person of color, or have a non-binary identity, or be short, or be younger or older than most of the people around you. It may be that someone you care about is affected by being treated as someone different. If you are interested in DEI, it’s probably because there is some aspect of our human condition that touches you more deeply than others.
Unfortunately, individuals may sometimes fixate on one aspect of diversity. I suspect that this stems from the facet of diversity that is of greatest concern to the individual. For me, it would be easy to cast DEI in terms of gender-based issues, but doing so would not recognize how wide and deep the concept of diversity is. It is about each of us and all of us, not just about a few of us.
Everyone is different, even when we look alike
I had an interesting experience a few days ago. As I was leaving a Walmart store, I saw a woman struggling to get out from between two battery-operated assistive carts. She was a store employee and had squeezed herself between two carts to plug one in for recharging. She had twisted around to get the charging plug into the wall socket and was having a great deal of trouble extricating herself. Seeing her struggle, I asked if I could give her a hand. She gratefully accepted and I held her hand to help her keep her balance as she slowly squeezed out of a very tight spot.
By the time she made it out of that awkward predicament, we were both laughing at the absurdity of the situation. In that moment, we were simply two humans thrown together in a shared moment of need and kindness. It was an enjoyable moment for both of us.
We looked nothing alike other than both being humans. And yet we shared a delightful moment together, despite the obvious differences that might tend to separate us. I reflected on this as I drove away, realizing that even when we are with people who look just like us, we are each very different. Said another way: while we assume that people who don’t look just like us must be different, the reality is that each of us very different, even if we do look alike. We come from different places and parents, with different backgrounds and experiences. We were taught in different schools by different teachers. We’ve held different jobs and had different circles of friends, peers, and coworkers. We’ve looked up to different people. Even if you look just like me, you’re not me: you are different. George Eliot wrote this maxim in 1860: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
You can’t judge an apple by looking at a tree
You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee
You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover
The reverse is obviously true, too: I’m not you. No matter how well I think I understand your point of view, I can never completely understand because I haven’t lived your life. I think the key is recognizing that if we don’t try, there is no chance of understanding each other, and if we do try, our understanding will often be imperfect. I’m learning to accept that.
These realizations helped me as I learned about conscious language. According to the Conscious Style Guide:
. . . conscious language is the art of using words effectively in a specific context. . . . Some words are more apt than others. The most important part of conscious language is the conscious part—our intention. Good writers consciously use disagreeable language to strike a dissonant tone. The goal is not to be inoffensive or politically correct (whatever that means), because even language intended to be inclusive and considerate can be received the wrong way. If you’re interested in conscious language, then clarify your intention and evoke and provoke skillfully.
Or in the words of one author:
Words have the power to do good: to uplift, to inspire, to provoke thought, to represent those who do not see themselves in media. Words also have the power to do harm: to marginalize, to hurt, to reinforce stereotypes, to erase identities.
Conscious language is about recognizing that no matter how well we say something, someone is likely to hear it differently. If we pause to think about our audience before we speak, we may recognize that what we were going to say might be taken the wrong way. Taking a moment to reframe that thing we were going to say is not about changing the content but about helping the audience understand your point in a way that makes sense to them.
(I do commend the Conscious Style Guide to those who wish to see more than one aspect of diversity. The Guide touches on: ability and disability; age; appearance; empowerment; ethnicity, race, and nationality; gender, sex, and sexuality; health; plain language; socioeconomic status; spirituality, religion, and atheism; and more. Those topics provide a quick overview of some aspects of diversity. Each category contains a plethora of links to additional information.)
I try to remember this when I’m speaking to others. While I have some points I want to make, usually my real purpose is to hear their thoughts. What is more important to you: making sure others hear your points, or making sure you hear their points?
Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” speaks to this in the fifth habit: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” Covey is essentially saying that people need to feel that they’ve been heard before they will be open to hearing your ideas. When you combine this with conscious language, you might end up where author did in her book Listen Think Speak. Says Amazon of this book: “It is a rule to live by and the fundamental principle of a dialogue. Now is the time to be fearless and be that someone who can affect change and make a positive impact on the lives of others.”
Introducing the DEI Resources page
It is with all these thoughts in mind that I share with you a new informational resource from WACD: the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Resources page. This page comes about because of the three-year action plan adopted by the Association (and that resource is included on the page). The fact that we are providing information on DEI is a reflection of some of the transformation our community is experiencing.
We’ve attempted to make the onramp to learning more about diversity, equity, and inclusion a bit easier for people. Part one is “Getting Started with DEI” where we feature conscious language as a way to help recognize that everyone you speak with is different. Part two is “Information & Resources of Immediate Benefit to Conservation Districts” where the information is focused on jobs, recruiting, generations, and the workplace. Part three is “More About DEI” where you’ll find additional links to a broad range of information sources.
Please know that WACD is not trying to force anyone to drink from this fire hose. While we believe that the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Resources page provides good value for our members, learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion can be a difficult journey. Even if you feel you don’t want to take a deep dive down this well, I do encourage you to watch the conscious language video. And for those who are ready to learn more, I hope you enjoy this resource. We appreciate your feedback and suggestions for additional or better content.
Always yours for conservation,
Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director