How to Pursue a Career Protecting the Environment

In the Media

By Jen Walling
Executive Director, Illinois Environmental Council

While I’m sure 12-year-old me would be very proud of my current career (my friend Dorothy and I would stay behind after lunch to recycle milk cartons), I’m also certain I had no idea that advocating for the environment was a potential career option. As it turns out, it is a job, and I’ve been doing that job since 2011 as the executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council.

In my role, I’m contacted by many students who are passionate about environment protection, and are considering making that passion a career in advocacy. I receive enough of these messages that I thought it would be worth writing down my best pieces of advice:

Internships are just as important to determine what you don’t want to do as they are in determining what you want to do. As a high school and college student, I tried on a number of different career pathways through internships. My first internship was with SCARCE, an environmental education non-profit. SCARCE is a highly impactful organization that I adore and its founder, Kay McKeen, is my role model. One of the many valuable things I learned while with SCARCE is that working with young kids was not my strong suit. After working in many chemistry labs, I found there to be something meditative about washing beakers, flasks, and cylinders but learned I wasn’t meant for the lab. I worked for a corporation on environmental health and safety and found the culture didn’t match my passion. Then I found an internship in government, which stoked and kept my interest, and I knew I was headed in the right direction.

Trying different roles will help you learn more about what you enjoy in terms of career direction but also in terms of office environment, like fast-paced or detail-oriented, solo or group work, professional or casual. So try a bunch, and take note of your preferences for choosing your career later on.

Advocacy is a skill rarely learned in a classroom. The volunteerism and extracurriculars during your time in school are good for more than just resume padding. Learning how to tackle campus and community issues, working together with your peers, and developing leadership will be helpful in any job, but also are great practice for winning advocacy campaigns. Organizing is a skill that isn’t taught in most classrooms, but is critical for any advocacy campaign. (Although I do recommend attending skills training on organizing – Midwest Academy continues to influence my work). It’s one thing to sit on the sidelines and comment, another to be doing the work of developing coalitions, negotiating and enacting laws.

Throughout college, I was involved in a number of campus organizations and was president of Students for Environmental Concerns, the largest environmental group at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During my last year of undergrad, SECS led a campaign for a campus clean energy fee of $3 a semester to fund renewable energy projects. My work to pass that referendum and implement a committee to disperse the funds led entirely by students was great practice for the work I’m doing today, passing laws that impact energy on a statewide level. I can trace the career opportunities that I’ve had directly to this volunteer work.

Interviewing and getting hired is significantly harder if you’re not connected to the right networks. Cold interviews with a complete strangers are rare in the advocacy world. For me, my student advocacy work was a direct pipeline to the job market. As a student, I was asked to speak at a press conference about renewable energy by the Lieutenant Governor’s office. After the event, his staff asked me if I would considering interviewing for a summer internship. I did and ended up working in Lt. Governor Pat Quinn’s office for two summers. Eventually, I was able to use Governor Pat Quinn as a reference for my first job at the Environmental Law and Policy Center. Working hard as a campus organizer paid off.

If you are applying for a position, regardless of your references or network connections, make sure your resume and cover letter are free of grammar and spelling errors. Also, you should tailor these materials to fit each and every position. Be sure to focus your cover letter and interview not on how it will benefit you, but on how it will benefit the person that will employ you. In my experience, 90% of job applicants to IEC fail to follow these basic rules.

Don’t assume that you need a law degree for a policy or advocacy job. In fact, I’d recommend against it. I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in environmental science and a law degree, all from the University of Illinois. I find my science based degrees more important to understanding policy than my law degree.

While a law degree is great for deep research skills and logical thinking, you should only pursue a law degree if you’re sure you want to be a lawyer. The market for lawyers is oversaturated, with even the low-paying public interest positions pursued by ivy league graduates. A law degree is expensive and not the right tool if you want to pursue a career in policy. A better bet for an advanced degree might be a public policy degree, or even an MBA, especially if you’re interested in organization management or want to work on issues that are particularly relevant to the business community. In pursuing any advanced degree, I recommend finding a program that will strengthen and build your connections to the world beyond academia to help with finding your future career.

Advocacy is a difficult career, prone to burn out, and you also shouldn’t limit your environmental passion to just this one part of the field. There are a wide range of nonprofits dedicated to science, conservation, programmatic work and more that create positive impacts on the environment. I view it as vital that there are environmentalists in every career path – from bankers to architects to restaurant owners – who can bring sustainability to unique sectors and act as ambassadors and environmental leaders.

If you’re someone who gets burnt out on politics or avoids political campaigns, it’s likely that advocacy is not the career for you. Outside of work, I volunteer for political campaigns all the time because having the right people in place, and establishing relationships with them, can be just as important as the policy we are working to pursue.

Non profit advocacy can involve long hours, low pay, and conflicting with colleagues that are also deeply committed to the cause. In addition to these stresses, more and more has come out about the sexist and racist atmosphere in the Illinois State Capitol and governments across the United States. I’m frequently in negotiation meetings of 20 to 30 people where the only person of color or woman in the room (other than myself) is the legislator. It is difficult when you aren’t taken seriously because of your gender or race, or even worse, harassed by the people whose votes you need to win.

As someone who deeply believes that protecting the environment saves lives, and that polluting the environment hurts people, it can be hard to accept partial wins. Every victory in Springfield is bittersweet, as negotiations with stakeholders often require some element of protection be left on the table, or beating another stakeholder may damage relationships. To be successful, it’s important to know when you’ve reached the best offer and when it’s time to walk away from the table.

All things considered, I recommend it. Despite the drawbacks, advocacy is an awesome career. Sure I could always compost at home, but a bill I worked to pass in 2009 opened up commercial composting to divert hundreds of thousands of tons of food scrap from landfills. Yes I choose environmentally sensitive beauty products, but the microbead ban that IEC advocated for in 2014 will keep plastic out of Lake Michigan. And sure I switched to LED light bulbs, but the energy efficiency provisions of the Future Energy Jobs Act my staff and I spent years on will drastically reduce carbon emissions and lower consumer bills. There is something undeniably satisfying in working to make an entire state a better place to live.

In addition to the satisfaction of (sometimes) winning and making an impact, the people I work with are amazing. Some days I have to be nice to awful people, but every day I am privileged to work with volunteers, colleagues, and lawmakers that awe and inspire me with their accomplishments and dedication to making the world a better place.

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