The Blue Mountain Land Trust is a local environmental organization that is
primarily concerned with the establishment of conservation easements on undeveloped
land in the Walla Walla Valley. In conversations I had with Beth Thiel, the
executive director of the BMLT, she expressed frustration with the challenges
of getting publicity for the organization. My general impression of the organization
is that the BMLT is largely a one-woman show. Beth seems to be doing a lot of
the work on her own, particularly the ground work, although she has legal assistance
with the easements themselves, but by that stage in the process dozens of hours
have already been invested. Publicity is not a primary concern, although it
is a catch-22 situation. If the BMLT could get more publicity, it would be considerably
easier for Beth to get things accomplished, but she is so busy she doesn’t
have time to scavenge for press. The “Memory Spaces Essay Contest”
is a way to generate community support for the organization and the cause. My
job in working with the BMLT and Beth is to coordinate this contest. Last semester,
Beth had been working with Ashley Apel, another Whitman Environmental Studies
Intern, and they had made some headway on the recruitment of essays. Initially,
Beth and Ashley had hoped to have the contest done by December, but partway
through the fall they realized how unrealistic that date was becoming and pushed
the entry date back until the spring. Ashley had collected prizes and sponsors
for the contest and arranged with the Walla Walla Union Bulletin to publish
winning essays. When I took over Ashley’s work, Beth essentially handed
the entire project over to me. She gave me a few contact names and numbers and
sent me on my way.
The first thing I did was get in touch with Judith Johnson, the director of Kooskooskie Commons, another local environmental organization. It seems like Judith’s organization has a better grasp of the social aspects of environmental work, whereas BMLT is primarily concerned with legal wrangling. I met with Judith and we discussed the “power of story” particularly as it was relevant to the Memory Spaces contest. I expressed some frustration with the target audience of the contest – Ashley and Beth had decided to aim the project at high-school students. I felt that younger students would be more appropriate and interesting to work with. Judy agreed with me, which, based on teacher interest and support, could have radically changed the nature of the contest.
After my conversation with Judith, I was more determined to try to alter the goal of the contest to incorporate younger students. I contacted Beth with my ideas and she at first was hesitant but after discussing it with me seemed to feel that the only major problem would be in the suitability of the prizes that we had for younger students. I felt that if that was the primary obstacle, it was an obstacle easily surmounted and determined to go ahead with targeting younger students.
I also began to think about creating new avenues to contact students other than teachers, which at no point in the semester seemed interested. I worked briefly with the Center for Community Service Mentoring program here at Whitman, discussing the contest with Debbie Nelson and Molly Lindahl, the two campus organizers for that program. I felt that the perfect way to spread grassroots enthusiasm would be through the use of other Whitman students. Unfortunately, the mentoring program is primarily connected with elementary schools, with only a handful of people working in the area middle or junior high schools. Still, I felt this was a better lead than most.
I was unable to do much on the internship over spring break, which was inopportune in its timing. I felt that those two weeks would have been a crucial point for spreading enthusiasm in the schools, but I had made plans for spring break in California long before beginning to work on this internship and could not change my plans to stay in Walla Walla at the last minute. I was in touch with Beth over break however and we discussed my idea of working with the mentors. She was hesitant about this as well. She seemed extremely connected to the idea of having the contest run through the schools. I am not sure whether it was to spread word of the BMLT among teachers or not, she just felt it was extremely important that it be a school-administered program, which greatly complicated my life.
Soon after coming back to school from spring break, I was diagnosed with mononucleosis. This, to say the least, rocked my world. I soon found myself struggling with daily class work, and essentially incapable of completing larger projects. The Dean of Students emailed my professors and everyone at Whitman was great about giving me extensions, but the work still piled up. I was quickly overwhelmed and nearly broke down on several occasions. I was having such a hard time, it’s no surprise in hindsight that the BMLT Essay Contest quickly fell down my list of priorities. It was hard to get excited about a program that no one else was excited about either. I wish that Beth had been a little bit more of a hands-on supervisor. While I appreciated her trust in me, from the beginning I recognized that the situation was not conducive to producing my best work. I definitely work better when there is some oversight, but I was excited about the prospect of coordinating this contest on my own and having the authority to shape it as I saw fit, and so I was determined to make things happen anyway. As it turns out, some circumstances were beyond my control and once I got sick I had a terrible time motivating myself to do something as seemingly futile as chase down Walla Walla teachers. I was embarrassed by my own disinterest in this project and so I procrastinated contacting Beth to tell her that I was sick and having trouble getting things done. Many people have told me many times that it’s normal and not my fault, but something in my personality can’t handle being unable to finish what I’ve started. I have a really hard time letting people down and I was constantly feeling pressured to get going on this internship – I was literally dreaming about it for a week or two – and I felt awful for letting Beth down. When I finally emailed her with what was going on with me, she was really understanding. She is resigning from the BMLT at the end of this summer to spend more time with her children and she felt that this is as good a time as any to admit defeat with this contest. I offered to continue working over the summer or even into the fall to assist a new intern with getting things started, but she didn’t feel that this was necessary.
In conclusion, I think that a few key factors resulted in the essay contest being an essential flop. First and foremost, the disinterest of the teachers I contacted was frustrating and did not inspire me to work as hard as I should have to persevere on that end. Secondly, me getting sick was a huge factor. I believe that if more teachers had been involved at the point when I got sick, I would have been able to keep the momentum going a little better, even with very little energy. As it was, each contact I attempted to make from that point forward was essentially a new start, square one, which was horribly frustrating and disheartening.