Food for thought: Secrets to a prosperous life in conservation

By Jessie Panazzolo

In the early years of Lonely Conservationists, I wrote a number of food for thought blogs, but I haven’t contributed to this string of amazing stories in a long while now. I thought I’d take the time in this lull week to share with you all some insights that I have learnt in the past three years of founding and fostering this incredible community. To give some context, I started Lonely Conservationists because I thought I was destined to never make it in the conservation industry. I was sad, frustrated and extremely isolated in my struggles after a lifetime of volunteering, studying and networking. Now I have found myself a little corner of the industry to call my own, two corners even, environmental education and conserving conservationists. Today I’d love to share with you all some career-changing tips that I have uncovered along the way that I hope can help you as much as they have helped me, without the arduousness of uncovering them yourself!

Recognise and value your own skills

Until I signed up for a mentorship program with CoalitionWILD and got myself a handy dandy mentor, I always believed that the work I was doing for Lonely Conservationists was irrelevant to my career experience. For some unknown reason, I believed that because growing the community was something that I was doing on my own, and not for an income, that it was irrelevant to employers. Over time, my mentor saw how much work I was putting into building this community and hits me with a:

“You do know that you’re a project manager, right?”

Because I didn’t take the time to recognise or value my learned skills in project management, community building, and all the other skills that I have developed over the past three years, I was sacrificing a huge opportunity to sell myself in job applications and in interviews. Once I realised this and started to articulate these skills, I went from being eligible for basic fieldwork jobs to sitting in interviews for project management positions with a much higher income. Just because you aren’t working for anyone or earning money from your hobbies, doesn’t mean that you aren’t honing invaluable skills for your future in the industry.

This includes your social media too. I never even thought to put my social media handles on my resume until a fellow LC pointed out how much work we all put into our accounts, especially those of us with a science communication focus. Curating a successful social media footprint is becoming more important to workplaces as it shows successful communication, outreach and the curation of content. As a 90’s kid myself, I wasn’t keeping up with the times and the importance of technological literacy skills.

Find your perfect pairing

I have come to learn that conservation specialists aren’t as valuable as conservationists who can apply their conservation knowledge to other industries. I found my education career in mid-2019 where I started to teach excursions in a forest and marine park and ever since then, I have stayed in the environmental education space with continuous opportunities for career growth. Until I found education, I was always searching my skillset for past experience that would allow me to appeal to the job that I was applying for, in hopes that I could secure any job that would take me. I worked with tourism, koalas, restoration and I would apply my skills to whatever a position needed from me. My job hunt was more a desperate flailing than a directed and linear progression of my knowledge and skills.

Now that I have specialised in a field, I can focus on growing and developing my skills with more focus, and apply my in-depth conservation knowledge to businesses that may only have staff with a surface-level understanding of environmental issues. Whether it’s filmography, engineering, IT or marketing, find the way that you can add your conservation knowledge and skills to a sector that needs them, and most likely a more resource-rich sector at that!

Open the gate

I thought gatekeeping was an issue in the conservation sector, but the extent became more evident when I heard some of the ingrained messages that people had seemed to instil in their brains.

“But what if someone steals my idea?”

I think this information should just be kept to scientists”

I came into Lonely Conservationists wanting to find every scientist, industry person and member of the public who was working on or interested in helping to understand or accommodate for the lived experience of being a conservationist. Through this time, I have been able to build a network, connect people together and help to strengthen this niche part of the conservation world. If I had tried to gatekeep the concept of conserving conservationists and push everyone away, I’d have fewer resources, less knowledge and no network of people to strengthen my cause. If you are frustrated with the seven elephant organisations that don’t band together to share knowledge or resources for the sake of the elephants, for instance, it’s important that you also don’t segregate yourself or your project from other similar projects or people of interest.

Another tip on this is to not restrict meeting with people due to their social status. Sure, a student may not be able to get you a job or give you funding, but some of the most important and inspiring conversations I have had, have been with students. I met with a student once who wanted to focus on the mental health aspect of the conservation experience and it was so relieving for me to know that there are specialists who can take the reins on that niche. Another student helped me to produce my education program, and was a dream to work with because of their access to scientific journals and discounted software. Open the gate to everyone, and good things will come to you, I promise.

Close the gate

The only time I recommend closing the gate is on organisations, businesses and people who give you dangling carrot style opportunities but never actually deliver on handing you the carrot. If an organisation talks about paying you, make sure they do and that you don’t give anything away for free in the meantime, no matter how much they highlight future opportunities. Always seek action rather than promises.

This year I took the time to have a meeting with a business where I set my boundaries. I disclosed how much I was comfortable communicating and when and how much I’d like to be paid for my services. It was a great exercise in transparent communication and setting intentions moving forward. It’s important to remember that the knowledge you have has been accumulated over years of research and experience, so don’t give it away so easily! It’s so easy to believe that we are worth nothing in an industry that demands so much free work of us, but now is the time to set boundaries and no longer work for people who don’t value us!

Also, if a funding source doesn’t align with your values, don’t be afraid to turn them away. Knowing when, and having the power to close the gate is the best way for you to stick up for yourself and advocate for the value that you deserve.

Advocate for yourself

The proudest moment of my year to date has been contesting a wage offer for a new job. They offered to pay me minimum wage when at this stage in my life, I believe that I am worth more than that. I sent off an email response reasoning why I believed I was worth more, and the business agreed and upped my wage. This is when I realised that there is space in our lives to advocate for ourselves and that we should do it if we think that we need to. If the organisation doesn’t value you from the get-go, do you really want to be working for them?

Always be telling stories

People remember stories way more than they remember facts, so in interviews, meetings and on social media, say everything you need to say with a story. A simple framework for your stories should be:

Problemwhat is the issue?

Action- what did you or what can we do about it?

Result- what happened or what can happen in the end?

I also recommend writing out a personal narrative, a story about your life and what inspired and drove you to get to where you are today. It should be short, no longer than five minutes, emotive and punchy. I created one at a community organising training program and I have honestly used this narrative to introduce myself succinctly in every professional encounter whether it be a meeting, interview or presentation. Personal narratives are also the main tool used in campaigning, so if you are successful at storytelling, you will be successful in creating positive change. A good framework is:

Introduce the source of inspiration for your journeyWhen I was five my mum handed me a stuffed toy gorilla, which inspired me to want to learn about great apes. After some research, I realised that their habitat was being destroyed by logging.

What steps did you take I spent my whole life trying to get myself to a position where I could conserve great apes. I studied conservation and took every opportunity I could to volunteer, learn and network in order to reach this goal.

Resolution – I finally ended up in Indonesia studying orangutans for my honours project, but I soon realised that as a foreigner, I could not have a long term impact on the forests of North Sumatra. I returned to Australia where deforestation rivals that of Indonesia, to help conserve the forests of my homeland

Call to action- So join me in using FSC approved recycled paper to help to save Australia’s forests

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In conclusion

If you didn’t notice, all of my tips have the common theme of advocating for yourself and recognising your value in the industry. Over the past three years, I have realised that it doesn’t matter how much you know, and how useful you think you are if you can’t advocate for yourself as to why and how you are so knowledgeable and useful. I understand how challenging it is to unlearn years of behaviour thrust upon you by organisations who want cheap labour, trust me, it has been a long rollercoaster of ups and downs for me to get to this point. As soon as I unlocked the key to the industry, however, I have found that navigating it is now a hell of a lot easier. Be your biggest advocate, I’ll be your second biggest advocate and let’s be our own success stories together!

Jessie Panazzolo

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Hi! I am the founder of Lonely Conservationists and I am a proud conservationist conservationist- someone who works to save those who are saving the world 🌍

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