Kaylon Paterson; Founder; Amicus Terrae

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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: Kaylon Paterson
Certified EcoLeader and ​Alumnus, Morehouse College
Founder, Amicus Terrae

Interviewer: David Corsar, NWF

Kaylon is a Certified EcoLeader and an alumnus at Morehouse College. The project for which Kaylon received certification sought to unify the student sustainability organizations at three campuses (Clark Atlanta, Spelman and Morehouse) and a coordinated clean-up event.

David Corsar: Looking at your experiences with NWF, how has participation as a Certified EcoLeader help shape your current or planned career pathway?
Kaylon Paterson:
It has helped to make me more focused on environmental work as a career path; initially it wasn’t as much of a focus of mine – it was something that I was passionate about but not something that I thought of as a career path. But with starting up an organization and with all the work that we’ve done in the community, my eyes have been opened to a lot of different career paths that I can take. It’s also given me a lot of direct opportunities with various organizations that I was able to meet through my mentor Eriqah Vincent. She was able to connect me with some of the people with whom she works, and I’ve had job offers, internship offers, fellowship offers. So, it’s definitely given me a lot experience and exposure.

DC: What was the top thing that you learned in your professional development at NWF?
KP: Definitely perseverance and organization - being able to not just come up with a plan and an idea but to actually organize and see it through to the end.
Even if, along the way, there’s a lot of hiccups or if there’s not a great turnout at an event, just making sure that it happens is important because it doesn’t matter how many people are in the room as long as I impact someone. That’s something that I had to learn. Sometimes we judge our success based on the amount of people there or the amount of feedback that we get, but sometimes it really matters even if there’s just one person that we impact seriously or that we cause to think differently.

DC: What are you up to these days? Where do you see your work with Amicus Terrae going?
Over the last two years – that’s how long the organization has been up and running – I’ve been trying to develop it and also trying to figure out what to do with it after graduation. It’s definitely something I want as a lifelong project. Right now, there are a couple projects that we were able to start in the last year. One of them is in my home country of Trinidad and Tobago where we’ve been working with some of the government organizations to fix the recycling plan that we have in the country. It’s a fairly new project, so there’s a lot of issues and a lack of drive for the actual population to want to recycle because of the amount of work that it takes. That’s one project we’ve been working on, and then another one is with an organization in Waycross, Georgia where they are working towards getting attention drawn to businesses that had been polluting the area and some of the results of that pollution such as health issues and concerns for the population. So those are two major projects that I’ve been trying to devote my time to. In terms of where I see myself going, right now I’m looking to get as much experience as possible. So over the summer, I’ll be working with NRDC to see how it works with a larger organization, and perhaps I could bring that knowledge back to my organization and help push it forward.

DC: What would you say is your personal mission for sustainability?
To work towards reducing the strain that mankind has put on the environment. For the last, say, thousand years, we’ve sought to advance ourselves through technology and kept technology and nature separate - technology is technology and nature is nature. And it didn’t matter what the side effects of that progress were, as long as we became a “better” society and we gained knowledge and moved forward. But what we hadn’t realized was that planet needs to be preserved, and technology doesn’t have to harm nature. Technology and nature can definitely coincide; we can advance ourselves technologically without the negative side effects of destroying our home.

DC: What motivated you to begin this path?
So, a funny story that my mom likes to tell – I don’t necessarily have any recollection of this because of how young I was, but when I was a baby, my dad would watch Nat Geo and Animal Planet. He would be taking care of me while watching TV, and once he realized that I was paying attention, he would change the channel thinking that I would rather watch something like cartoons. As soon as he changed the channel, I would start crying, and when he would change it back, I would stop. So, it’s kind of always been ingrained in me since birth. As I matriculated through school, I got exposed to science, and it really sparked my interest in terms of finding that balance between technology and nature. You have the natural sciences, like biology, geology, etc. that are focused on what happens to the Earth what happens to nature, but then you also have the applied sciences and engineering that really push towards advancing as a society. But they both fall under science, so why is there this divide? That’s a question I’d been asking myself since I was in high school. When I got to my senior year, I felt like I had to make a choice between the two, so when I went to college, I chose to go into engineering but with the hope that I could make that balance possible. At first, I came to Morehouse, and my idea was that I’ll focus on the engineering. I’d learn what I could, and then I’d apply it to both sides of science and technology. But then I realized that I was pulling myself away from who I was – which was the person who cares about the environment, who stops to really absorb nature and really appreciate it. Then in my sophomore year here, I got into the environmental activism side of things and started working with Eriqah and working with my school to encourage people to care and to be active, voice their opinions, clean up, etc.

DC: Who are your primary “influencers” or inspirations in the sustainability movement?
So, for those that have influenced me, I would definitely say Eriqah Vincent at NWF, as well as Dr. Robert Bullard and Dr. Beverly Wright. Those are my three primary influencers. Additionally, Debra Butler has really pushed me to develop the professional aspect of my organization, and Dr. Duane Cooper always reminds me to stay true to myself, question why I do things, and ask why they are important to me.
KP: My inspirations would have to be the students around me who find their voice and find their position among all these social and environmental issues and who get up and get active. It doesn’t necessarily have to be in sustainability – any type of opportunity, such as the Black Lives Matter movement. Just being able to see that has been motivation for me to continue the work I’m doing, even in the times that I feel like I’m not having an impact.

DC: Did you have any mentors or career coaches assist you in developing your career path?
A lot of my professors here at Morehouse have been mentors – and not just ones in my field of study, but also other areas that I’ve had to take classes in. Specifically, I’ll mention Dr. Mel Foster, who is in the music department. He’s been really encouraging throughout this whole journey. Funny enough, the project that really got me to take the jump and get back into the sustainability work was for one of his classes – an Intro to Music class where he made us make a video on something that we’re passionate about. I did my video on environmental issues – specifically this issue of people living near dump sites and how it affects their lives. I would also say my mom, definitely. She made sure that no matter what I do or end up doing with my life that I’m doing the right thing and that I don’t give up. And also my girlfriend. She helped me get on this whole idea of resilience, whereas before, being persistent wasn’t really my nature. If I saw something wasn’t working out, I just wouldn’t continue or I would find a different way or go into this slump of not doing anything for a while. But she pushed me to keep trying – she gave me that drive to reach out and go to different events and speak my voice.

DC: Looking at professors that have mentored you, such as Dr. Foster, what characteristics made those mentorship relationships successful?
It can take on an approach similar to parenting – not in the sense of telling you what to do – but saying, “Hey, I see that you’re interested in something, and I want to see you continue with it because it’s important and something that we need in the world.” So, that idea that they will always check up on you. And then with some mentors, I guess it’s similar, but with people like Eriqah, it’s more of an older sibling approach. Making sure that I’m doing what I need to do, making sure that I’m staying active, that I don’t give up and also exposing me to opportunities. If it wasn’t for Eriqah, I wouldn’t been able to go to COP21 last year. So, extending opportunities that they get exposed to and following up with people and just keeping that relationship going.

DC: What would you recommend to students who want to make a difference for sustainability?
No matter what the situation looks like when they get somewhere, I would suggest that they don’t give up, that they speak their voice, and things get heard. When I started to really voice my opinion about the sustainability issues at my college, I was told that I couldn’t say those things because there was already a sustainability organization on campus. But the organization had been inactive; they were nowhere to be found; I had looked for an organization, but I had never heard of them. So, that’s just to show it doesn’t matter what the situation is, it doesn’t matter what you walk into. You, yourself, need to make sure that something happens because if you don’t do it, and no one else is doing it, then nothing will ever happen.

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