Real Talk: "What advice would you give a person starting out in conservation?"


Dear R,


Your original question was, “What’s the most important value that a person starting in conservation should have?” I struggled to answer this question, and I promise I tried — I wrote and rewrote, and after the third draft, I figured I was struggling because I couldn’t pin down just one value that a person should have. In the process of reflecting, I thought about my younger self. If I met her now and I was assigned to be her mentor, what are the hard-earned lessons I would share with her? I took the liberty of rephrasing your question and instead answer: what advice would you give a person starting out in conservation?


There will always be people who will doubt you. That’s okay. They have a right to. You also have a right to prove them wrong. But the necessary work is to prove yourself right.


Most of the time, we are sensitive about what other people say about us because they reveal unresolved issues we have with ourselves. People have questioned my background and my credibility (or lack thereof), and my knee-jerk reaction was to be hurt, defensive, and overcompensate. For example, I used to be insecure about being an English major in a world of marine scientists, so I studied a lot. Once I gained the respect of one detractor, another one popped up. And another. And another. To prove others wrong can be a useless and tiring pursuit. We can only work on what’s under our control - our work ethic, improving our skills, and creating the change we want to see in the world. Everything else is noise.


(The people who used to criticize me now share our punny campaigns and proudly say they once worked with me. Awww, so sweet...)


(But also, fuck u powhz.)

Learn to listen. Don’t listen to respond, listen to listen


Seven years ago, I organized a livelihood workshop in an island community. The island had a lot of plastic waste and unemployed women, so I brought instructors who could teach them how to upcycle plastic and weave them into products so they could make souvenirs and earn income. During the post-workshop evaluation, I asked how it was. They enjoyed the workshop, they said. But they wanted to be hairdressers and manicurists. Not a single participant pursued the livelihood project. 

It was a failure because I didn’t listen, I just assumed. What an arrogant bitch! I’ve never, ever done that again. Since then, every SPS project is designed through participatory means, and with rigorous monitoring and evaluation methods and reflection sessions so everyone’s opinions are heard and considered.


Keep your ego in check. Surround yourself with true friends and mentors who will help you do that.

When I (reluctantly and surprisingly) became the face of a big campaign, my phone was ringing non-stop. Reporters, government officials, and the people we pissed off wanted to talk. I crawled into my bed one afternoon, overwhelmed and scared. I texted one of my best friends, “I can’t do this. This isn’t about me. I don’t want to talk to anyone anymore.”


“Exactly. This isn’t about you. This is about [the place we want to protect]. Simula pa lang ‘to. Get your shit together,” he replied.


Para akong nabuhusan ng malamig na tubig. Ang arte ko lang pala?! I was letting my emotions get in the way of our objectives. I closed my eyes, took a few deep breaths, and started responding to the messages and missed calls. 

Until now, I recall his words when I get overwhelmed:


This isn’t about you.

Simula pa lang ‘to. 

Get your shit together.


We need true friends and mentors who call out our bullshit and hold us accountable to our decisions. It hurts sometimes, but we are always better for it.


Stay hopeful, but don’t replace action with hope. Persist.


It’s always strange when someone asks, “Do you think there’s hope for the Philippines?” Luh. Gagawin ko ba ‘to kung sagot ko “no”?


Hope is a survival strategy. If you don’t have hope, you’re already defeated before the race starts. The belief that a better outcome is possible serves as a north star to get you from one point to another. Hope lights your way, but you need to do just that -- get yourself (and your team, if you have one) from one point to another.


There are good days, bad days, and really bad days. It’s okay to be upset and take a break when something you worked so hard on is rejected, but don’t take it personally. (See previous section: keep your ego in check.) I know it’s hard not to take it personally because we’re passionate about what we do. But if we want the outcome bad enough, it’s our job to understand why we failed, then figure out what we can do differently to move the needle.

Laugh.


This field is already pretty depressing (more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050? up to 90% of corals will die in the next century because of climate change? vaquita near extinction? mygad). Take the problems of the sea seriously, but never take yourself too seriously. Or else you’ll drown. If you’ve ever worked with me and my friends/teammates, you’ll see how much we laugh at ourselves and at each other. You'll witness how absurd our sense of humor has become. Kailangan eh. The ability to keep a sense of humor is a superpower. Use it.

These are lessons that would have helped me starting out, and I hope they help you whether or not you pursue conservation. In many ways, I still feel like I’m “starting out,” and these are lessons that will continue to be part of my playbook decades from now.


Good luck.


Love,

A

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