By Lydia Coburn, Communications Coordinator
To celebrate Women’s History Month, I decided to chat with three of the incredible female leaders we have here at Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust: Board President Emily Swan, Executive Director Angela Twitchell, and Associate Director Lee Cataldo.
For years, these three women have been leading our organization with outstanding professionalism, empathy, confidence, and tenacity. Our time together spawned rich, inspiring discussions about childhood experiences, professional legacy, parenthood, patriarchal systems, and privilege.
Due to their current passions and connection with the natural world, I was curious who first invited them outdoors. What first sparked their interest in the environment?
Growing up in a predominantly white, safe neighborhood in Louisiana, Emily never felt invited, per se. She “always just felt free to enjoy the outdoors.” She spent much of her childhood running through the bayous with the other children, exploring the local stream, looking for tadpoles and frogs. “It always felt like it was all completely available to us… the circumstances invited me, nothing prevented me from enjoying it. It created the presumption that the outdoors was a nice space to be in,” she shared.
Angela was quick to share the influence of her grandfather and father in her introduction to the outdoors. Growing up in a small rural town in Maine, she spent much of her childhood outside, fishing, canoeing, catching frogs and turtles, snowmobiling, hiking, skiing, you name it! Her grandfather taught her how to canoe and fish, while her father, a pilot, enabled her to access spaces in Maine that not many others had the privilege and pleasure to experience. This was her “exposure to the wildness of Maine,” as she put it. Angela shared that though her family introduced her to the outdoors, “the Androscoggin River moved me to do the work that I do now.” Growing up near the river, going to Bates College, and now living in Topsham, she’s seen it change over the years, and it truly awakened the environmental activist inside her.
Similar to Angela, Lee felt invited into the outdoors by her father. An avid hunter and fisherman, Lee’s father “knew the woods in the town where both he and I grew up better than anyone. People would go to him with questions because he knew the land so well. The local ice fishermen wouldn’t go out onto the lake until he did.” Lee grew up experiencing the outdoors with her dad, fishing and hunting. “He was the person that made me realize that being outside and being engaged in the place that you live is a part of who you are.” Lee shared that her father is very conservative, “in so many ways so different than who I am,” but because of that, he is a constant reminder not to “otherize” people in conservation. “Love of the land is a commonality that we have across so many different ethos,” Lee stated.
Within this very first question, there was a strong undertone of privilege recognition, how lucky we have been to have positive exposure and access to the outdoors, and the impactful family members and childhood friends that enabled us to feel safe and comfortable outside enjoying nature.
The rest of our conversations were dynamic and thought-provoking. We discussed professional and personal challenges, the incredible support systems we’ve had that propel us to continue our work or help to open doors for us, and the ways in which we can support other women in the conservation sector. We discussed the importance of female role models and strong male allies in enabling women to strive in STEM careers. All three women never really felt like they couldn’t or shouldn’t accomplish their goals because of their gender – due to these strong role models and allies, men and women alike.
The last couple of questions I asked involved how they think they’re helping to make conservation a more inclusive, empowering, and appealing profession in which to work and what they would say to young women or girls looking to work in the environmental field.
Emily said that she’s been focusing on making the Land Trust a better place to work overall, from competitive pay to positive workplace culture. She emphasized that she feels strongly to “never assume that just because you’re the boss, you have the answer. You should always be prepared to listen to other’s perspectives, to help you see things in a different way. Decisions are better when made collectively, there are always different ways of problem solving and nobody in charge should ever assume that they know everything.”
When I asked Lee what she may say to young women interested in conservation work, she shared, “Do it! I really truly believe that every little bit of the environmental disaster that we are in is a direct result of the colonial, patriarchal systems that we have. This directive of ‘control and take it all’ – is not natural to most women. If we’re really going to solve the mess that we’re in and make deep change, we need more women who are informed and empowered saying ‘no we’re not doing it like that anymore.’ We’ve laid the groundwork, there’s enough of us here. Young women should feel like they can stand up for their passions in a way that is not as scary as it may have been once upon a time. I in no way think that women can’t step into this field and be positive leaders for the work that we’re all trying to do.”
For Angela’s entire career in conservation, it has been “important that we make conservation and conserved lands more open to everybody. There’s this lingering belief that when land is conserved, it’s set aside by wealthy people to not be used. But for me, that’s never been the impetus for conservation. So many folks can’t afford to buy land on their own (especially along the coasts, lakes and rivers). We NEED public access spaces so everyone can enjoy the spectacular natural resources Maine has to offer. That’s why we’re doing it – for all to enjoy. As an organization, we’ve been reflecting on the history of the conservation movement and how we can ensure that a broad diversity of people can benefit from access to natural spaces and our programming. We’re thinking about how we can be a part of moving conservation forward in a better way.
We’re tasking ourselves to do better. I’m proud of the work that we do. And I would say to young women, that this is just such satisfying work. There’s nothing better than purposeful work. The land we conserve today will be here forever. We enjoy it today, but that’s not why we do it. We do it because it’ll be a lasting benefit for everyone to enjoy forever.”
Big thanks to Emily, Angela, and Lee for taking the time to speak with me this past week – and for being an inspiration and role model to me as I pursue my career as a woman in the conservation sector.