Love is a verb. So is conservation and so is equity.

What binds us together is love

In a meeting this week, I was reminded by a district manager that love is a key component of the work that we all do in support of local conservation delivery. I’ve previously written about the L word:

Every one of our 45 districts is unique. Every person governing or staffing or partnering or being served by a conservation district is unique. What binds us together is love: love of land, of water, of wildlife, of farming, of forestry, of voluntary approaches, love of each other, and more. With love comes the opportunity to express that bond by telling people how much you do appreciate and value them. We don’t do it often, and we certainly don’t do it often enough.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://wadistricts.us/2021/03/appreciating-our-people/?highlight=love" target="_blank">The importance of appreciating our people (or where I use the L word)</a></span>

Love and our community

Our conversation brought back a memory that may illustrate my contention that we just don’t acknowledge the L word enough.

About 22 years ago, the Conservation Commission regional managers were asked to present to conservation districts at WACD’s annual statewide meeting. I was working for the Commission then, alongside some truly awesome coworkers. Stu Trefry (recently retired from the Conservation Commission) was one of those folks.

We were not given a topic. I chose to talk about an undercurrent I had observed in many conservation districts that seemed to be under the surface, unacknowledged and unspoken. This unspoken thing was the idea that love drove us in our work and bound us together. For lack of a better term, I’ll call this our conservation commons, something we all own and are a part of.

The commons is the cultural and natural resources accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately. Commons can also be understood as natural resources that groups of people (communities, user groups) manage for individual and collective benefit.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commons" target="_blank">Commons, according to Wikipedia</a></span>

After putting together my brief presentation, the regional managers previewed their talks with each other. My opening line was something like: “I would like to talk about something we never seem to talk about, a powerful force in what we do: love.” When I uttered my opening line, Stu literally came out of his chair. (He may actually have levitated!) “You can’t say that!” he exclaimed, quivering with pent-up energy.

“Why not?” I responded. “Because that’s not who our people are! They are gritty, determined, down-to-earth people. They don’t want to hear some kumbaya twaddle from us!” (Please note that because my memory of this has dimmed over the years, these statements are very liberal interpretations of what Stu may have said. The emotion and intent are accurate even if the exact words are not. I’m sure that Stu will correct me!)

And so, being the contrarian that I was (and still am), I went ahead and talked about love with our conservation district community.

Even though I could feel Stu sitting near me, vibrating with energy, I pushed on and finished my little talk. And it was good. Nobody reacted negatively. Heads were nodding. Nobody levitated out of their seat. I took that as a good sign.

Love is an action word

Love is not just an emotion – it’s an action word. We demonstrate our love of community and conservation every day by showing up to work, listening to our customers, striving to be gracious even in the most difficult of circumstances, putting in extra time and energy to serve our people, and being there for each other.

Those things that we do are driven by motives like caring about each other, wanting to see others succeed, and being a productive member of something that is larger than any one of us. Those pure motives are some of the drivers that help us overcome our differences as we pursue our common goals and desires.

We own this work. We own it individually and in the collective sense: our conservation commons. Love drives us, acting through us, providing much of the energy we use to achieve our individual and collective goals.

Conservation is an action word

I love conservation. I love the mission, and the people, and the outcomes. I love knowing that I am helping food and fiber producers thrive and that what we will leave for future generations will be better than what we inherited. Love is central to why I am engaged in our Washington State conservation community. After countless conversations over the years with folks all across the nation, I know that love is a fundamental force for many of us.

We are effective because to all of us, conservation means doing. It is not an abstract concept. It is hunched over, knees dirty, grit-under-your-fingernails doing. Conservation is an action word, just like love. When put together, we have the potential to achieve something great.

Equity must be an action word, too

Today, we are beginning the hard work of looking at diversity, equity, and inclusion in our conservation district community. How do these concepts connect with our day-to-day conservation work? How might they improve our work? Is this set of topics just political correctness or is it something more fundamental?

Rather than try to dissect all three topics at once, I choose to focus on just one today: equity. What is it? I like this summation by Guy and McCandless:

To be clear, “equity” and “equality” are terms that are often used interchangeably, and to a large extent, they have similar meanings. The difference is one of nuance: while equality can be converted into a mathematical measure in which equal parts are identical in size or number, equity is a more flexible measure allowing for equivalency while not demanding sameness.<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1540-6210.2012.02635.x" target="_blank">Social Equity: Its Legacy, Its Promise</a></span>

Just as love and conservation are action words, I believe that equity must also be an action word. It is a concept that is made real by the actions we choose to take.

As I explore for myself how equity is a part of the work I have done for 30 years, it begins to feel more like a symbiotic relationship. How do we mutually benefit and help each other succeed? Retired conservation district supervisor Monte Marti once said (and I paraphrase loosely): “Partnership means helping others succeed, because once they succeed, they are able to help you succeed.” 

So in my very young thinking about equity, I’m not really focused on correcting past inequities. I’m most concerned about how we embed equity into the work we do going forward. I worry that if I dwell too much on the past, it will overwhelm my efforts today. As a sailor, I know that I have to keep my eye on the horizon ahead or I will lose my way. I am becoming more and more aware of what is in our collective wake, but I want to remain focused on the future because that is the only thing I can really affect. While past inequities fall inside my circle of concern, the future falls inside my circle of influence.

One issue that bothers me is an idea that treating people the same can result in inequitable outcomes. Cost-sharing, for example, is a system where people have equal access but only those who can afford to front the cost of their project can participate. Or to quote Leonard Cohen from the song Everybody Knows: The poor stay poor, the rich get rich. I’m troubled by that. I’ll share more thoughts on this in a future article.

Differences and bonds

Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

I’ve said before that we have delightful differences. Each of us is unique and not a day goes by that I don’t learn something new about someone in our community. Our stories are part of a great tapestry made up of different threads, woven strongly together. Where there is a stray thread or two, eventually we pull those in or just celebrate them for being unique.

Conservation work binds us together in a special way that many people will never understand. We touch the land and it touches us. Land and water and all the other natural resources are important to us as individuals and as a community. And while conservation connects us, love fuels our work as individuals and as a collective.

Extending the concept of a conservation commons to all of the communities we serve or are accountable to, isn’t our job to help those communities use natural resources in ways that ensure that future generations will also be able to benefit from those resources? Since we are not all the same, does that mean that the way we accomplish this can’t be the same for every person…or stated differently: if we provide access to programs and services in equal measure to each individual, might we miss uplifting those most in need?

Fortunately, conservation districts are filled with very smart, very caring people. I have great hope that we will figure out some ways to help more people with varying financial capacity do great conservation work in ways that bring people together in the conservation commons they share.

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director