Photo by Kristin Carroll

New Beginnings

By Karen McLeod

Sep 6, 2022

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Minute Read

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I recently had the honor of being part of an inspiring plenary panel focused on building resilience and restoring connections within ourselves in service of creating a more just and equitable future for the planet. We spoke of the importance of remaining present to the full range of emotions we experience doing the work of conservation – and the ways in which turning towards grief also opens us to joy and possibility. Now, as I wrap up my time with COMPASS, I find myself immersed in that very practice of turning towards it all, as I reflect on 19 amazing years of memories and milestones. 

My tenure here has spanned many chapters – at times focused on science synthesis, other times on organizational direction and leadership, and most recently on leadership development. The threads that unify it all are the opportunities to spark connections – between people and nature, among people and perspectives, and even within me. 

People and Nature

I started with COMPASS shortly after finishing my PhD in marine ecology at Oregon State University (OSU) in 2003. The focus of my first decade was on the scientific foundations of ecosystem-based management (EBM). In a nutshell, EBM is an approach to management and policy that better reflects the connections among the many ways people value and interact with coasts and oceans. This work spawned rich opportunities for impact and relationship-building, including the opportunity to edit the first book on EBM with my wonderful colleague, Heather Leslie, and the chance to address big, juicy questions, such as ‘what is ocean health and how do we measure it?’ In partnership with countless others, we convened dozens of meetings, workshops, and working groups that forged new connections among ideas, among scientists and other thought leaders, and ultimately helped shape more integrated approaches to state, regional, and federal policy. This work highlighted that the most impactful solutions must include the multitude of connections between people and nature. The heart of the matter, both then and now, whether for the ocean or land, continues to be innovating in ways that better reflect and heal these connections.

Forged in Fire

Another milestone on my journey to spark connections was COMPASS’s first major foray beyond the ocean – our work on wildfire. In 2014, Nancy Baron and I co-led the first of what would be several workshops that brought together a cross-section of the scientific community working on various dimensions of wildfire to address big questions around how fire is changing and what that means for society. One of the greatest rewards of this work was the realization among participants that their perceived differences – and the divisiveness that reverberated in the media – were actually much smaller and less important than their common ground. By supporting scientists to connect face-to-face around the high-level implications of the collective insights from their work, they recognized just how much agreement and alignment already existed. This initial workshop spawned many subsequent collaborations and convenings – some by the COMPASS team and some by scientists in the community – all with an eye to integrating diverse perspectives to help inform solutions for how to live with wildfire in a hotter, drier world. My work with the fire science community has been some of the most rewarding and impactful of my time with COMPASS, largely because of the depth of passion (it is fire, afterall!), dedication, and commitment I’ve experienced from the scientists I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know. And while working across differences is not without its challenges, it is essential to breeding stronger, more inclusive solutions. 

Wholehearted Leadership

2017 Wilburforce Leaders in Conservation Science. Photo by Tim Fullman

The final chapter of my journey has focused on leadership development. While this work spans all dimensions of sparking connections, I’m struck by the power of supporting scientists to more fully realize they are amazing humans who do science, rather than scientists who occasionally admit their humanity. Grounding leadership in purpose, meaning, and intention, within the supportive container of a cohort, creates opportunities for leaders to feel a sense of belonging and connection, and ultimately thrive. Many scientists do not feel safe or supported to bring their whole selves or various aspects of their identities to the ways they show up as scientists. By creating spaces where leaders are able to bring more of who they are – as they are right now –  they are able to thrive and have impact in new ways. In the words of Carolyn McHugh

“… when you see somebody in the full flow of their humanity, it’s remarkable. They’re at least a foot bigger in every direction than normal human beings, and they shine. They gleam, they glow. It’s like they’ve swallowed the moon.”

I’ve had the privilege of experiencing many people shine in this way – both in person, and remarkably the past few years, even on Zoom. The vulnerability, humility, and grace I have experienced from the leaders in these cohorts, from the Scientist Sentinels to the Leaders for Sea Change to the Wilburforce Leaders, has impacted me deeply. I’ve learned so much from them about science, leadership, and navigating change and adversity.

Full Circle

The next chapter of my journey takes me full circle back to a position with OSU, returning to my ocean roots, where I will be serving as Director of the Marine Resource Management Program – a cohort-based, interdisciplinary master’s program, whose amazing alumni include COMPASS’s own Heather Reiff as well as our former Executive Director, Brooke Smith. In this role, I’m excited to continue to expand opportunities for those from historically marginalized groups to be the next generation of leaders and to continue supporting scientists to be agents of change in new ways. 

I’m deeply grateful for the countless opportunities that COMPASS has granted me to stretch and grow and bring my gifts for seeing and making connections into so many different spaces. And, for the treasured relationships with the incredible people I’ve gotten to know along the way – within our team and beyond. Looking ahead, my hope is that the cultural changes I’ve witnessed within science over the last two decades will continue. That we will continue to grow and nurture more inclusive webs of support  connectedness – akin to the ways in which trees nurture other trees around them through vast underground mycorrhizal networks. The commitments of the next generation of leaders to creating a better world by restoring connections – within themselves, with one another, and with the world – inspire me daily. I’m grateful for the opportunity to continue sparking connections in this next chapter of my professional journey.

September 8th will be my last day at COMPASS. After that, you can reach me at ko.mcleod@gmail.com 

 

Photo by Brock McLeod

 

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