Trust, respect, and inclusion build belonging and community


What does the word community mean? A community is a group of people who live in the same area, or a group of people who have the same interests, or a group of nations. We do live in the same area: Washington State. We do share a common interest in conserving natural resources. And our individual conservation districts are akin to small nations that come together in mutual support and purpose. We are a community by definition.

Next year, WACD celebrates a remarkable milestone: our 80th anniversary. Eighty years ago a group of conservation district supervisors chose to create a statewide entity to help them be more successful. In the intervening decades, WACD has had many successes. But that’s not the full story because, without you, we could not be successful. WACD is an organization built from the grassroots upward. WACD succeeds when you succeed. Our successes are really your successes. We are together. We are a community working in common cause in almost every part of Washington State.

Yet we are not the same

But working together and having common purposes do not mean that we are the same. Each of our 45 conservation districts is different. Each person on each conservation district board of supervisors or employed as a professional conservation district employee is unique. We each bring different things to our local work and to our statewide community.

You may not have grown up around here. You may be new to our community of people or you may have been around for longer than many people can remember. You may have political beliefs that are different. You may worship in ways that others find unusual, or not at all. You may have hobbies and interests that are so unusual you might feel as if you stand apart from the crowd. Everything about us that feels different or looks different can contribute to a sense of not belonging, of being somehow other.

When we feed those feelings that someone is other – that they don’t quite belong – we potentially drive them away. At the beginning of a recent Zoom meeting, I realized that I was doing this by exchanging joking pleasantries with a group of conservation district people I have known for decades. It was an innocent moment of sharing past experiences together, but imagine if you were on that call and fairly new to our community. You might feel as if the references to shared experiences that happened long ago means you’re not part of some secret club. As I bantered, I recognized that some newer folks had gone quiet, and at that moment, I realized that I might be contributing to a sense of division instead of togetherness. I immediately changed my behavior.

Excluding people creates negative energy that feeds on itself. When one feels that they don’t belong, they don’t engage. And that’s a shame because our community needs every person who brings passion and commitment to our shared work of conserving natural resources.

We are believers

We regularly come together to celebrate our people, herald our successes, and rally in support of the issues that are most important to us. We believe not only in conserving natural resources but also in the way conservation is delivered through locally-led, non-regulatory, cooperative means. We believe that conservation districts are the answer. Dare I borrow a phrase being used by our conservation friends in California? Districts make the difference. We are, day in and day out, a community of believers in conservation.

The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.Frank Lloyd Wright

Our large group of people contains unique individuals with widely divergent points of view, but they choose to come together in honor of our natural resources and the communities served by those resources. Sometimes individuals seek support from others in our community or from our leaders. Sometimes we reach out to help someone become better motivated to participate more or to help channel their boundless energy toward more productive pathways.

Much of what we do comes down to our belief that implementing conservation practices makes things better. Sometimes we can quantify those improvements, but in large part, we simply have faith that what we are doing is right and true. We trust what our hearts tell us: that conservation practices are beneficial.

We meet together, following common patterns. We often say much the same thing in much the same way. Our people may break bread together, bonding over banquets, potluck meals, pizza parties, and light refreshments.

WACD’s members support their statewide association with dues. Our leaders arise from within our ranks by popular acclaim, in recognition of their knowledge, passion, and leadership.

We often act very much like a congregation of believers because we do believe in our purpose, our people, and our practices.

Disagreeing when we value being of similar mind

I think we would all agree that the easiest path forward occurs when we all agree. Some call it consensus, some call it being like-minded, and some might say we’re all on the same page. Whatever you call it, we all recognize that when we agree, our interactions are easier. We experience less of the social friction that can heat things up.

But disagreements are both important and inescapable. They can produce better work outcomes, provide opportunities to learn and grow, help us improve our relationships, lead to higher satisfaction in the work that we do, and help create a more inclusive work environment.

Disagreements are an inevitable, normal, and healthy part of relating to other people. There is no such thing as a conflict-free work environment. And you shouldn’t want to work in one. Disagreements – when managed well – have lots of positive outcomes, such as better work products, opportunities to learn and grow, better relationships, and a more inclusive work environment. To reap these benefits, you have to get over any fear you have of conflict. Start by letting go of wanting to be liked. Instead of trying to increase your likability, focus on respect, both giving it and earning it. Don’t think of disagreement as unkind. Most people are willing to hear a different perspective if you share it respectfully. You might also try to emulate someone who is comfortable with conflict. If you’re not yet good at dealing with tense conversations, try on the persona of someone who is. Whichever tactic you decide to try, practice in small doses. Be direct in a low-stakes conversation and see what happens, for example. Chances are it will go better than you expect.Why We Should Be Disagreeing More at Work

Disagreeing is important and very valuable…when we do it well. As I write this and pause to consider my words, I am reminded of WACD’s Guiding Principle #2: “We serve people with dignity and respect, acting with integrity and operating with transparency and accountability to all.” Working respectfully with each other – even when we disagree, or maybe even particularly when we disagree! – is crucial to working well together and maintaining our relationships.

Disagreement also presents opportunities for people to think that they don’t fit, that they don’t belong, that they are other. When we don’t allow time for people to share their thoughts, when we don’t listen to them, and when we act dismissively as if their contributions have little value, we harm our ability to move forward toward the best outcomes.

How can we disagree respectfully? From 6 Smart Ways to Disagree With Someone Respectfully:

  1. Focus on facts.
  2. Don’t get personal.
  3. Recognize the good.
  4. Remember to listen.
  5. Use “I” statements.
  6. Know when to move on.

Special committees demonstrated working respectfully together

The Washington State Conservation Commission will hear recommendations of the Joint Committee on Elections (JCE) at the September 16th Commission meeting. (Those recommendations are already available in the Commission meeting packet.) The WACD Board of Directors will hear those same recommendations at their September 20th meeting.

The JCE met frequently and took a fairly deep dive into some very difficult issues. With excellent leadership, great facilitation, and strong staff work, JCE members were able to avoid getting personal as friction emerged and instead were able to focus on the merits of each idea. Committee members experienced quite a bit of respectful disagreement and as members listened, they became more informed about nuances in the ideas they were hearing. Every member learned from the experience.

Similarly, the members of the Committee on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (CDEI) were able to express their thoughts and feelings safely and with respect toward each other. The facilitators did a fantastic job of making sure that we had a safe environment and that everyone had opportunities to contribute to the work of the CDEI. The committee was able to produce a draft WACD policy statement in response to resolution 2020-05 and a slate of recommendations in response to resolution 2020-06.

WACD’s Guiding Principle #2 was a crucial factor in the success of both committees. The steering committee for both of the large committees focused on helping committee members work respectfully together. Committee members often disagreed but those disagreements tended to resemble a wandering negotiation toward outcomes that none of us could clearly see at the time. It takes a lot of trust and respect to travel together on a trail that is not clearly mapped in advance. I am deeply impressed with the manner in which both committees operated.

We did that work together

The word that resonates with me as I think about the work of the two committees is together. We were groups of individuals who chose to seek agreement together. That work took trust. It took respect. It took investing time and extending faith with each other. Those commitments to each other created work products that committee members support.

We rarely talk about what makes our community strong. It can’t be because we are all the same, because clearly we are not. We come together in common cause, but the vitality in our community comes from the things that make each of us different. Our strength comes from extending trust and respect to each other, producing a community that exudes a sense of belonging and togetherness despite our differences. We learn from the different points of view expressed by our people; we thus become better informed and arrive at better decisions. The more we can embrace the idea that differences bring value, the stronger we will become.

How can we build trust and respect?

Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

It is easier to talk about building trust and respect than it is to do it. Before trust and respect can become embedded in the way we interact, we have to know that people – with all their quirks and differences – bring value to our work. Including them is the first step toward hearing their ideas. Recognizing them for the special, positive things they do helps them feel valued. Celebrating their good work can reinforce the bonds that keep us pushing forward, even when we hit those inevitable, invisible speed bumps in our road.

Recognition doesn’t require that you nominate someone for a WACD award. You can celebrate someone at each board meeting or district event. Be sure to recognize not only the highly visible folks who always seem to be out in front but also the quiet people who get the job done behind the scenes, day in and day out. Pick a person’s name out of a hat and circulate a praise certificate where each person in your group writes something positive about the recipient. Make a habit of writing personal thank you cards for all of your people. There are countless ways we can celebrate our people that reinforce their good work. Most of all, maintain an attitude of appreciation for every person who brings their heart, mind, and energy to our conservation mission.

We are believers in conservation. We are believers in each other. We know that together, we are better. Let’s celebrate what brings us together and the differences that add value and vitality to our important conservation work.

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director