Human Dimensions in Natural Resources ‘07
Organizer for Beyond Dirty Fossil Fuels, National Sierra Club
Cheryl completed her undergraduate degree in SENR in 2007 after majoring in Human Dimensions in Natural Resources with a specialization in Ecological Education and Communication. During her time in SENR, she worked at the OSU Marion Campus and was involved in the Alpha Zeta Fraternity and Free the Planet. After graduation, Cheryl started working as a policy specialist in water and is now an Organizer for Beyond Dirty Fossil Fuels for the National Sierra Club.
Read the full interview with Cheryl:
A Glance at Cheryl’s Current Work
I’m an Organizer for Beyond Dirty Fossil Fuels with the National Sierra Club. I’m currently working from home because of COVID-19 but would normally split my time between working at home and the office. My work takes place in the entire state of Ohio as well as regional partnerships.
What does a typical day at your job look like?
Pre-COVID, my job was about 60% travel and the rest of the time spent in meetings with environmental justice communities. My job consists of listening, supporting, suggesting, and really helping communities organize around environmental justice issues, such as pollution issues caused by oil and gas development. With COVID, we have been on a lockdown on travel for 18 months now so all of my work has been shifted to digital. Because of that, I really miss meeting people, building relationships with them and understanding where they come from. Meeting people face-to-face is one of my favorite parts of the job so it’s been difficult.
What is the most rewarding part of your current job?
It’s really rewarding to meet new people and build new relationships – Really getting to know folks and supporting them in their ideas. I’ve found that every time, environmental justice communities know the problem and can figure out how to solve the issue, but they need the resources. My job is to support their ideas and actions and provide the resources.
What were you involved in during college?
I started working at the OSU Marion Campus, which was close to my home, in my sophomore year. Through this opportunity, I worked on the Tallgrass Prairie Restoration project. I was part of a National Science Research Foundation project about tallgrass prairie restoration and connecting it to the community in Marion and their relationship to the land. Then, I finalized my work experience in my senior year by doing undergraduate research and defending my thesis. My research was focused on non-college bound students and if hands-on environmental education could improve their science test scores, and it did improve their test scores in every subject.
In terms of student organizations, I was a member of the Alpha Zeta Fraternity. I was also a member of Free the Planet, which was an environmental advocacy and activism organization that worked on gathering petitions, calling elected officials and collaborating with organizations on environmental issues.
What advice would you give to someone who is still in college and hoping to do what you do?
Get an internship. Even if it’s unpaid. That foot in the door is so important. In college, I won a fellowship for the National Wildlife Federation - Women for Sustainable Development Program, and it changed my life. It opened the door for me, and I had a contract job with them before I even graduated college. Take the opportunities offered to you as much as you can. Showing up for folks is important, and people take notice. So take as many opportunities as you can, because they open doors for you.
What experience do you feel was most valuable in your professional development?
Digging into equity and systematic racism has been the most rewarding area of growth. As most people know, environmental justice communities are predominately people of color. So really digging into my own personal privilege and researching and trying to understand the biases that are inherent in our system has been most rewarding.
I currently work with Native American communities in Ohio. I have built a network of leaders across New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio and have connections to Native American communities across the country that are suffering from contamination from oil and gas. This has been such a fulfilling experience.
When learning about systemic racism and equity, it’s really important to understand the role that the conservation movement has played in colonization and displacement of Native peoples. When the National Parks were first being established, they removed Native peoples from their homelands in order to preserve and protect them for white people. The Wilderness Act and manifest destiny were mythologies that were used to displace and remove Native people and it was really harmful. This realization has been the biggest eye-opener in this work. Any understanding of equity starts with self-reflection and the role you play, even unintentionally, in upholding these systems. Not only did I have to look internally at my personal privilege but also at what role my field played in upholding and perpetuating this system.
What was a challenge you faced in your professional development? How did you overcome it?
A challenge is that you start on this journey to understand your privilege and wanting to be an ally for Black, brown and Indigenous communities and there’s this fear that you’re going to say or do the wrong thing. There is no silver bullet to doing this work. You may cause harm, but that can’t prevent you from doing this work. You have to apologize, mean it, accept it and then do better. A lot of the time it’s just showing up, realizing we don’t have the answers, and listening. People often forget the listening part, and it’s really important.
What did you do immediately post-graduation?
I worked as a contractor for the National Wildlife Federation through graduation and for a couple months after graduation, but then they ended the program. Through the program, I was a peer coach for women in environmental college programs and would help them understand the political system and political organizing. It was an amazing experience. Then, when the economic recession happened in 2007, most organizations got rid of their environmental education programs, which is what I wanted to pursue. As a result, I took a job as a policy specialist in water, and that allowed me to support my family since I already had a child in school.
What was most important to you in your job search?
It’s definitely a “buyer beware” in the environmental policy realm. You are notoriously overworked and underpaid. I knew that I wasn’t going to be rich working in this field. That is starting to change as environmental non-profit workers are unionizing and organizing. Back when I started I would work 65 hours a week and get a salary and minimal benefits. Just in the last four years, that’s really starting to change. Because of unionization, national organizations are moving towards life-work balance, self-care, and better benefits. This is my sixth year with the Sierra Club and I now qualify for a sabbatical year, where I’ll get paid to take time to do work better and take time for myself.
What was it like to be a Candidate for the Ohio House of Representatives? Do you have any advice for students who are hoping to run for office?
I loved it. I am a people person, so running for the Ohio House meant that I got to meet so many people in Union and Marion county. I got to meet great people and go to so many events, chicken BBQs, parades, etc.
What inspired me to run for office was my concern about local control. People should be able to decide what happens in their communities. When I decided to run, the right to work, SB 5, had just passed in Ohio, and I saw all these pension plans disappearing for people who worked their whole lives. People had worked really hard for those benefits. I was so outraged that our elected officials didn’t listen to the people they’re representing. Therefore, I decided to run for office. I lost, but I loved it. I decided not to run again because it was hard on my family since I didn’t get to see them much.
In terms of advice, don’t be afraid to pick up the phone and call someone who has run for office. If there is someone in the Statehouse who you admire, don’t be afraid to call them and ask for tips. I got the best advice from doing that. I remember that Rep. Debbie Phillips and many other representatives were kind enough to share advice with me.
How to connect with Cheryl:
Post created August 2021