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  • Writer's pictureBen Greené

Leadership Spotlight: Hannah Newell

“We need a drastic shift in the way humans approach building our communities, maintaining our environments and the way we build our social structures so that we consider our non-human neighbors in our decisions.” - Hannah Newell

Hannah Newell served as WCEE's Program Lead from May 2021 through June 2022. We had a chance to sit down and capture Hannah's perspectives and experiences in Coalition leadership, carrying out the mission of WCEE, and where we can continue to build on work to increase equity in the field.

Ben Greené: So first of all, thank you for everything you've done for WCEE! I'm curious to hear your reflections on facilitating this cross-sector effort. In what ways do you see the Coalition evolving?

Hannah Newell: Evolution is often only measured in the long-term. For WCEE, the mission is a long-term vision to provide equitable and culturally relevant environmental education to youth in Whatcom County. In order for that mission to be successful, the organizations in the coalition need to trust each other and be willing to work with each other. What I have noticed over the past year as the Program Lead is that people are talking more to each other through a lens of collaboration. During this time of virtual work from home, it has been hard to facilitate that easy conversation of collaboration, but having consistent meeting times where people show up to talk about common issues or common goals supported building a foundation of trust amongst Coalition members. I saw as we moved to more in-person meetings, organizations were able to lean on that level of trust and talk to each other openly about staffing needs, program alignment across organizations, and opportunities for collaboration. More and more, I was able to see how that crust of competition between organizations was starting to come down, which I think also came through having sub-committees of organization representatives come together to find success in collaborative projects. There is an excitement coming from these collaborative groups where some of them now get to serve a district they haven’t had access to before or some of them now get to connect their lessons to a broader picture, serving students in a more holistic way. Everyone is ultimately working towards the same goal of having a positive impact on youth in Whatcom County and when things start to get put into motion to accomplish that, trust and excitement continues to build amongst Coalition members and organizations.

Ben Greené: You moved from working in a couple of different organizations within the Coalition into the role of the Program Lead. What was it like for you to make that step?

Hannah Newell: I’m definitely lucky that I already had established relationships with a lot of the people in the organizations involved in WCEE. It really helped me, personally, when I was stepping into the Program Lead role to already have a really connected understanding of the programs that some of these bigger players were putting forward and having success with. The challenge for me was really making sure that I was giving equal attention to some of the other organizations in learning their programs and making sure that I had as comfortable of an understanding of their programs as I did some of the other programs that are just bigger and have more opportunities to begin with. I think that attention shifting, for me personally, is where I started to see this collaborative opportunity grow in my mind.

Hannah Newell, center, represents Wild Whatcom at WCEE's Community of Practice meeting in January 2020

Ben Greené: Can you talk about the impulse behind the networking events?

Hannah Newell: They were started as a way to introduce organizations to one another. By giving them a chance to host a networking event and highlight their facility, their programs, whatever they felt was important, they could share with organizations their successes and have a platform to talk through any challenges that they might be facing. This type of open conversation allows for collaborative problem solving and continues to build on that trust between organizations as they see each other as colleagues rather than competitors.

Ben Greené: What is the importance of trust building in collaborative work?

Hannah Newell: Building trust amongst Coalition members creates the foundation for successful collaborations. In my time as the Program Lead, I’ve heard hesitancy from organizations to partner with people they aren’t familiar with because they just can’t trust that expectations will be met or they don’t know how another organization would approach challenges that might arise during a project. The Coalition activities are the way to build that trust amongst organizations so that network of successful and equitable collaborations can continue to grow. I want every organization in Whatcom County to enter into a collaborative project feeling confident they will succeed and feel like they are equitably contributing to the goals of that project. These organizations are all different sizes and have vast differences in resources available to them. In the past year, I’ve worked on developing ways to address those differences and make sure no one group is feeling overloaded by work while another is taking on less than they could. Its a balance and definitely something that still needs a lot of work from organizations to be in that ideal place of equitable collaborations.

Ben Greené: What is missing for young people if organizations become too comfortable with existing relationships, and are not able to branch out and form new relationships over time?

Hannah Newell: I think there is an opportunity to create a better learning environment and develop better outcomes for students when they have access to holistic education. By having organizations work together to align their programming across grades and make sure that students are getting an experience working with a nature based education organization at every grade level, students have the opportunity to develop a deep sense of place with their home. Each organization approaches their specialty in a different way and exposes students to various career pathways in the green and blue sectors of the economy. By spreading out these opportunities, we ensure that students can continue to build on their knowledge at a pace that doesn’t just overwhelm them in one grade, but allows them to build it slowly over time. WCEE has been developing this pathway for PreK-12 that starts close to school grounds, just learning about what is around you and then building up and down the watershed to include multiple streams, valleys and mountain ranges that extend student’s sense of place and concept of their environment. This is the kind of connection we need our next generation to have with their homes so that in whatever field they pursue, they’re thinking beyond the human community and extending their work to include our communities of plants, animals, rocks, etc that encompass their greater bioregion. We need a drastic shift in the way humans approach building our communities, maintaining our environments and the way we build our social structures so that we consider our non-human neighbors in our decisions.

Hannah Newell facilitates the 2022 Bellingham Partnerships Convening

Ben Greené: What is the role that organizations in a trusted network can play in filling gaps that exist?

Hannah Newell: When thinking about students that don’t attend mainstream classes, have IEPs, are multi language learners or just don’t do well in a traditional learning environment, the Coalition has a unique opportunity to engage these students in an alternative learning environment. By working with school districts and the youth in those districts, organizations have identified certain groups of students that are being left out of traditional learning environments, that aren’t finding success in the classroom and they’ve pursued a path to programming that serves those student groups specifically. These opportunities often lie outside of the school day, but are in some ways, more important and beneficial experiences for these students. Not every organization works with specialty groups of students, but those who do, like Vamos Outdoors and Wild Whatcom, set an example for other organizations to reflect on how they can make their programming more inclusive. This is equity at work, identifying groups of students who could benefit most from these opportunities, who have historically been excluded from these opportunities and focusing on providing them with engaging learning experiences and connection building.

Ben Greené: What are some of the questions that organizations can be asking about their hiring and their internal culture and inclusivity to ensure that they're increasing diversity and inclusiveness?

Hannah Newell: I think some of the questions organizations can ask themselves are what kind of culture they’re wanting to create in their organization and are they providing the means for that culture to thrive? Nonprofits in particular are known to be a field of value work. You’re there because you care and you're willing to work yourself past your limits to get the job done. This focus solely on value work is a part of what has created this culture of overworking and underpaying staff, because they care about the work that they do, they’ll work themselves ragged and often still not be able to make ends meet. This type of thinking can severely limit your hiring pool because only those who are supported through other financial means can afford to work in a job that doesn’t provide a living wage. I have worked in non-profits since I left high school and was only able to stay in these positions because I was supported by my family and at times by government aid. This culture of underpaying and overworking is extremely toxic and I am grateful to see that some organizations are actively trying to change this narrative of non-profit work. Many are understanding the need to pay interns, provide housing security for AmeriCorps or seasonal staff, and continually increase wages to match the cost of living in their area. More is still needing to be done to increase diversity in staff and create inclusive work environments that go beyond pay and hours worked.

Ben Greené: Thank you for pointing out some of those important systemic issues in the non-profit sector. I wonder if you can share about some of the successes that you have seen, big or small, some impactful activities that WCEE has done in your tenure that you'd really like to highlight right now.

Hannah Newell: The most impactful activities that WCEE has done in the last year that I have seen is organizations investing time and money into the Coalition and into their community in Whatcom County. When I first started in this role, in the middle of the pandemic, it was really difficult to get people to show up to meetings, collaborative projects, or include other smaller organizations in their collaborative projects. Now, a year later, I feel like that is starting to shift. Organizations are thinking outside of their core groups, showing up to meetings and trainings that build connections and thinking about nature based education as a pathway instead of individual experiences. Sub-committees are working hard to develop pathways at county school districts and in some ways, now we’re just waiting for school districts to get on board so the work can start and grow. Coalition work is challenging, but the outcomes are extremely rewarding. I’ve been humbled by the small successes I see when an excited curriculum director wants to be a part of this vision of an environmental education pathway or when a student becomes deeply engaged in learning about their local environment. Over the past year, I’ve tried a lot of different things to work towards this mission of providing equitable and culturally relevant environmental education for youth in Whatcom County. Many of my thoughts haven’t been successful, but when something does work, even if it is a small success, I see that needle push a little more towards achieving WCEE’s mission and that is when I know I’m doing something right.

Hannah Newell worked with Children of the Setting Sun Productions to incorporate local environmental organizations at the 2022 Mother Earth Day Celebration at Maritime Heritage Park

Thank you Hannah!

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