Mary Ellen Kustin; Director of Policy for Public Lands; Center for American Progress

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The National Wildlife Federation EcoLeaders Career Center is celebrating the motivating stories and career accomplishments of young professionals making their names (and a difference) in the sustainability movement. We’re calling this group of change-makers and rising stars “The EcoLeaders Top 50 Inspirations.”

Interviewee: Mary Ellen Kustin
Director of Policy for Public Lands
Center for American Progress

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Mary Ellen is the Director of Policy for Public Lands at the influential Center for American Progress. She is also a board member and acting president of EcoWomen, “community of women inspiring each other to create a healthy and equitable society.” In 2009-2010, she was an intern with NWF working on various advocacy initiatives.

David Corsar: Looking back at your experience with NWF, how did participation as an intern in 2009-2010 help shape your career?
Mary Ellen Kustin:
I had just finished grad school, and the market had crashed. I always wanted to work on federal policy issues for a nonprofit, and it was an excellent entry into that area. And, this internship program in general is known as being pretty robust – it’s an 11 month paid program – essentially it’s an entry-level program. So, when I applied, I knew that it wasn’t just a summer “friend of the boss” intern type of thing. It got my foot in the door; it got me to make great connections. And that helped me shape my career path. It connected me to people in the field to whom I wanted to be connected – both professionally and as friends.

The internal support was amazing. Elizabeth Wallace was such a fabulous den mother and mother grizzly on our behalf. She would organize brown bag lunches; professional development opportunities; plenty of time to network; and then sort of silly stuff too that I didn’t really appreciate would be so useful. For example, we were the “people power,” so if there was an event, we would go set up and break down. That which means that not only would we get a free dinner, but we’d get to meet all the cool people that were there too. And that was incredibly valuable.

My career path is one that is very policy-oriented – wonky – with a good dose of politics thrown in. So, the opportunities to wander around on the Hill, talk to people, lobby, and just familiarize myself with all the weirdnesses that make up DC were really helpful.

DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF?
You can never write too much, and I mean that not in the length of a given piece, but to keep refining, keep writing.
Because I went to grad school right after undergrad, I hadn’t had a long-term, full-time job yet. So, I think the other big thing I learned was that you’re basically always interviewing. Your performance matters on a day-to-day basis.

DC: What are you up to these days? What is your role with Center for American Progress and why did you choose to work there?
I am the director of policy for the public lands project here at CAP. Actually, I am new; it’s my fourth week.

DC: Congratulations!
Thanks! It’s my first foray into think tanks. I had been working exclusively for green or enviro-focused advocacy nonprofits, and this is a different beast. It definitely has its advocacy component, but it’s a broadly progressive organization with a lot of teams working on a lot of different stuff, which is really cool to me. I get to stay in my environmental comfort zone, but I also get to be near other stuff and to connect to it when it makes sense to, which is really empowering. It’s a great opportunity. It’s definitely a thought leader in progressive politics with great ties to fabulous people in the administration. It would have been hard to pass up.

I had been a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and while there, I learned a lot, and I wanted to dip my toes in politically a little bit more. So, going from more strictly policy analysis to policy analysis with a bite (laughs).

DC: We ask EcoLeaders to identify a personal EcoMission – to think about their skills and their strengths; their interests; and in what sectors they may see themselves making a difference. Basically, this is where I think my puzzle piece fits into the bigger picture for sustainability. What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability or for the environment?
I think the driving force behind all of the work that I’ve done professionally has been access to clean air and clean water for all people. What I’m doing now on public lands has many facets of that – though it’s not just the air and water but actually the land itself and making sure the National Parks System is inclusive – that people can get outside no matter their station in life, and that various members of congress don’t try to sell off our public lands, which keeps them away from people. So, there’s a defensive posture.
I’m very passionate about people getting good quality healthy food, air, and water and getting people outside and connected with their surroundings, especially underprivileged people, and them being healthier inside and out because of it.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
As a kid, I was always playing outside from an early age. My folks were awesome about letting me run wild and get dirty; we took family vacations to campgrounds and the Grand Canyon, just very “all-American” environmentalism growing up. It wasn’t a combative environmentalism; I grew up in South Carolina. My folks and I don’t hunt or fish ourselves, but that was definitely part of the culture, so I was appreciating environmentalism from all sides without realizing there were sides.

But then specifically getting into it professionally; it was probably studying abroad in Australia that made me realize that I could do this professionally and not just as an underlying passion and hobby. To first of all realize that there even was a whole world of environmental policy and that there might actually be a way for me to break into that world.

DC: What was the study abroad program in Australia?
It was a semester of direct exchange, so a few Australian kids came to my university, and I and others went there. I could probably have done this to some extent where I was in the States, but it wasn’t really clear to me that it was even an option. For instance, my undergraduate program didn’t have an Environmental Studies or Environmental Science major yet, so while I had done an Environmental Studies minor, going abroad made me realize that there was this whole array of classes to take.

I think that the freedom that comes with feeling that you’re on like a bit of a study “vacation” led to a feeling of, “hey, I can kind of pick whatever.” I remember, for instance, that eco-feminism was a class, aboriginal studies, you know other classes that just weren’t available to me back in the U.S. There was a sustainability class, which was back when the word “sustainability” was new and shiny, and I felt like I was getting in on the ground floor of that discussion, which was really exciting and empowering.

Then I came back to the States and realized “Oh! There is this one little class, kind of hiding in the corner, called Green Politics; I guess I could check that out…” And I’m not sure if I would have taken that if I hadn’t gotten out of my comfort zone and had that space to evaluate things and to realize that that was okay to stray off the beaten path a bit.

DC: Who would you say are your primary “influencers” or inspirations within the sustainability movement?
MEK: The reason I went to grad school at the University of Maryland was to be near to and to take the class of Professor Herman Daly, who is now retired. He’s one of the godfathers of ecological economics, and so that was really a great opportunity. He’s definitely an inspiration and helped shape the way I think about the world.
If you think of natural resources economics, you think, “We need to maximize the fish stock! We’ve got these resources, and they’re a subset of the economy. The economy is a big circle, and the resources are the little subcircle inside, and we need to make sure we use those well.” Well, Dr. Daly explained that, actually, the big circle is the stuff that we’ve got, and the economy is a subset of the resources. That, you know, ruffled a lot of feathers at the World Bank - to be able to think about it and flip the circles inside out and realize you can’t get very far if you don’t have the planet.

And he would prove it so eloquently with the laws of thermodynamics, for example, like you can’t unburn the log. No matter how much energy you put in it. And if you scale that up to everything that’s in the economy, and the way we treat things, it was really a powerful message, and it comes into the policy work that I do. I’m always that person in the room, that’s like, “How do we internalize the externalities?” Which is not really the way I talk elsewhere in the world and in my life, but it is the constant question of “the how” because otherwise we’re going to keep thinking of the world as a subset of the economy, and that’s dangerous.

DC: Have you had any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
Yeah, I would say I have. First of all, a fabulous network through EcoWomen in DC. Full disclosure: I am on the board and the acting president of this organization, so I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid, but I started going to the EcoWomen’s speaker series back in 2007 when I was in grad school and really feel like I found my people. There are so many wizened women as part of this group who I would say I lean on more heavily than others. But just to have the network there in general is pretty awesome.

One person I met through EcoWomen who had come to speak was Heather White. Heather was the Executive Director of EWG until recently, and she is awesome. She definitely pays it forward; she looks around her and sees up-and-coming young professionals and people that want to connect to somebody that’s farther along in their career and has more experience, and she definitely makes the time to make that happen. And I was no exception, so I was very lucky that our paths crossed, because she’s been not only an inspiration but a mentor and a patient listener.

DC: You mention patience and a knack for listening; is there anything else about that relationship that you would say helped make a successful mentor-mentee pairing?
Yeah, we really clicked. I know that sounds a bit cliché, but hear me out. I have been on a number of informational interviews, networking opportunities, happy hours with your resume in your hand, and that kind of thing. And I’ve certainly made fine connections, decent relationships, but nothing that felt like it had staying power. And this one did.

Comparing this to dating is a little odd, but there is chemistry there. There’s two people; it’s a relationship. There’s something more than just a pen-and-paper checklist of their resume, and their schedule, and their proximity to me. It’s also, “does it work when you sit down and talk to each other? Is this fun? Do you both like this? Do you both get something out of it?” I think with those qualities, it’s a case of “the total being more than the sum of its parts.” You have all the right stuff in line, but it’s also just awesome to be with them.

DC: Do you plan to seek out opportunities to act as a mentor or mentee again?
Absolutely. I think people should always be doing that, no matter what stage of life they’re in. I do that formally through EcoWomen, and I do it less formally through my professional and friend network.

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability on the policy side of things, or anywhere else?
Always be on the lookout for how you can be the “value added.” It’s definitely good to be part of a movement, and you should be, but at some point there’s diminishing returns, so while you may not figure it out immediately, just be on the lookout for ways to plug in to really add value.

DC: Do you have any suggestions on subjects to study or credentials to seek for current students?
I think more important than exactly what to study is to really care about what you are studying because there’s not really one right magical class or set of classes. Stress out less about what those should be, and take seriously whatever you are taking. And you can never have too much math!

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Date Added: May 15, 2017
Date Last Modified: May 15, 2017