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Emerging Leaders: Stephanie Barron

As a part of the Western Collaborative Conservation Network’s Capacity Building Working Group, the Emerging Leaders Initiative works to support individuals by connecting them with mentors, one another, and resources that create career and professional development opportunities and empower change.

“Emerging leaders” are individuals new to the conservation field with an innovative vision for the future of conservation work and the motivation, passion, and collaborative mindset to work toward that vision. In this profile series, we’re featuring some of these emerging leaders to hear about their passions, the challenges they’ve faced entering the field of collaborative conservation, and their ideas for the future.

To find out more about the Emerging Leaders Initiative, contact Travis Anklam at travis.houle@umconnect.umt.edu.

Stephanie Barron is a core member of the Emerging Leaders Initiative, helping identify needed areas of support for those entering the conservation field through hosting conversations and reflecting on her own experiences breaking into the field. We asked Stephanie to share her perspective on the challenges emerging leaders face and opportunities for others in the field to support these individuals.

Stephanie Barron grew up in a place she described as having “no access to the natural world”: Lansing, Michigan. So she turned to books and TV like National Geographic and Animal Planet to learn. Now, at 29, Stephanie is getting a master’s degree in Environmental Science from the University of Montana, having worked with federal, state, tribal, and nonprofit groups along the way.

Stephanie Barron

Stephanie also joined the Western Collaborative Conservation Network’s Emerging Leaders Initiative last year as one of the initial members. The group works to establish what people entering the collaborative conservation field need to succeed from mentorships to resource sharing. Even though she’s just getting started, she has a lot of ideas on how to help other emerging leaders break into conservation.

For one, Stephanie sees value in learning a wide range of skills—something she’s done in the winding beginnings of her career.

“All experience is relevant,” she said in a recent conversation with the WCCN. “And I think this field needs to be more open and accepting to that reality because who in the natural resource world do you know with a linear career path? I don’t know that person. That has not been my experience.”

Stephanie’s interest in the outdoors as a child carried her to study biology and environmental studies at Randolph College, and a study abroad experience in Tanzania. While abroad, she had the chance to visit Burunge Wildlife Management Area, where she listened to local tribal members describe how different groups came together to manage the area, an effort that helped protect the region’s megafauna.

“I definitely knew after that experience that collaborative conservation was where I wanted to be moving toward,” Stephanie said. “From there, I took basically any paying field job I could get my hands on.”

From Virginia to California to Montana, Stephanie spent her post-undergraduate life exploring career paths in conservation. Most recently, she worked with groups like Ecology Project International and People and Carnivores. She also finished the Natural Resources Conflict Resolution Program at the University of Montana before starting her master’s program. Although she’s returned to academia for now, Stephanie says she’s glad to have experienced a variety of work and hopes others find support in stepping away from the classroom.

“We need to be having conversations with people about what is best for them and not defining success as just sticking in academia. Instead, present a charcuterie board of, ‘Look at all of the different things that you can do in conservation, and you can do many of these things,’” she said. “Life is long, and this career path is winding. So seek happiness and find your passion in any of these different options.”

Stephanie says a goal of the Emerging Leaders Initiative is to present those options. They hope to create a resource-sharing network based on individual connections. Stephanie got involved in the Initiative after a former supervisor heard about the group and thought she would be a good fit. Beyond just raising awareness of different options, the group hopes to match people with mentors that can provide more guidance and information.

Stephanie found her passion in human-carnivore conflict mitigation. But even in a field she is happy to work in, and across her many conservation-related jobs, she has noticed challenges. One of the biggest is low pay.

“When I was doing seasonal work, I wasn’t able to develop a savings at all,” Stephanie said. “And I was barely spending any money. That’s why so many people who love doing seasonal field work and who probably would be happy jumping from one place to the next for a long time end up leaving. That level of uncertainty and instability financially is really hard to do for a long time.”

While she is thankful for her diversity of experience through field work, she notices power in being attached to one place, not just for job stability, but for the impact one can have in a community. She says the opportunity to transition from seasonal field work to full-time positions can strengthen individual impact.

“If the work is just seasonal, we need to be creating more upward mobility, full-time experiences, so that we are facilitating, not just the growth and development of emerging leaders, but the growth and development of emerging leaders in specific communities where, over time, they can make greater change by developing and deepening their connection to a place.”

Stephanie has experienced the power of community connection first hand. During her time with People and Carnivores, she collaborated with the Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes Natural Resource Program to organize an apple gleaning program in Montana’s Mission Valley, followed by a cider festival to raise awareness about bears in the area. The community was excited, not only for the cider, but because getting rid of a major bear attractant made a big difference in the issues of human-wildlife conflict facing the community.

“You see these community issues actually being addressed in fun and creative ways that excite a community around the topic and facilitate positive change and relationships to the environment and to carnivores,” Stephanie said.

“That’s what you do through collaborative conservation. You’re figuring out, ‘Ok, how can I blend the issues of a community with the issues happening in an environment and actually make a lasting change? Everyone, let’s brainstorm and let’s talk about this together.’” She laughed. “How fun is that, to be trying to meet the needs of your community?”

Stephanie noted that effectively engaging with communities requires reaching out to the entire community. She sees limited access to conversations and actions on conservation issues as another challenge in the field. She sees diverse perspectives as the way to combat challenges like climate change, species loss, and human-wildlife conflict.

“In order to find more cohesion in this field and within society and nature, we have to actively be seeking more diverse perspectives and facilitating the success of those individuals we bring in. It can’t just be ‘Please, come.’ It has to be, ‘Please come, and what can we do? Here’s our ideas on what we can do to make your time participating in this effort or this group a success, but what else can we do?’”

Linking back to her thoughts on pay inequities, Stephanie sees a lack of generational wealth in certain communities as a barrier to increasing diverse perspectives. She says beyond inviting people into a space, providing them with resources like a thriving wage, scholarships, and mentorship opportunities are essential.

“I think we end up losing some incredible people who could make big changes because they literally can’t afford to take some of these opportunities,” she said. “That’s a huge thing that, in my work with Emerging Leaders, has certainly been the hill I’ll die on. In every meeting I’m like, ‘Let’s not forget, we need to be paying people well.’”

Stephanie sees inviting diverse perspectives and working closely with communities as a way to make the most impactful change in conservation.

As she continues working in conservation, Stephanie hopes to keep focusing on issues of human-carnivore conflict, all the while creating a positive culture of change toward the natural world. To get there, she says the biggest factor for her to succeed is continued support from the conservation community, whether it’s through mentorships, job recommendations, or just simple encouragement.

“Collaborative conservation takes cooperation to support emerging leaders,” she said. “We all have to be looking out for one another and be supporting one another and relishing the success of one another. When we celebrate, facilitate, and encourage each others’ success, it’s reciprocated in the long run.”

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