Interview: Shawneece Hennighan
She came to The Nature Conservancy as an intern a decade ago. Now, as TNC's college programs manager, she's bringing a new generation to conservation.
Nature Conservancy: You work with college and graduate students who intern at The Nature Conservancy. How much cachet does your own 2010 internship give you with them?
Shawneece: It plays a huge role. It gives me that experience of seeing both sides and sheds light for them that this is where you can go. It’s nice to be able to say I’ve been there, I’ve done that. And for students and young professionals, it’s a great way for them to build trust in you.
Nature Conservancy: You were one of the first interns to make the transition to full-time TNC employee. In fact, your transition was even more remarkable—you started out volunteering in the TNC legal department in 2009 in order to qualify for public assistance. Tell me about that.
Shawneece: I had lost my job; lots of people were losing jobs then. I had been working in the car industry doing social media marketing and executive assistant roles. Arlington County [Virginia] said, “If you want to receive your assistance, you have to volunteer at a nonprofit.” There were two choices and TNC was close to where I lived. My son was so young, I didn’t want to work farther away in D.C. The words “nature” and “conservancy” meant nothing to me, but I thought, “I’ll take a chance.”
Nature Conservancy: It paid off: You ended up enrolling in college courses to be eligible for a summer internship program. Then you were hired full-time and have helped transform TNC’s internship program known as GLOBE—Growing Leaders on Behalf of the Environment. How has the program changed from your time as an intern?
Shawneece: It’s grown, and I’m casting the net wider than ever before. We want to make sure we’re capturing the students who are representative of the places we work. We’re talking about sexual orientation, religion, veterans. And we’re not just saying we need to have more Latinos [for example]; we’re really making sure we build the organization out. Making sure we engage them in the classroom, in nature, and we’re making sure they can build [career] pathways. At the end of the day, these students are going to be our next volunteers, board members. And they’re going to be me.
Nature Conservancy: Why should conservationists care about a diverse workforce?
Shawneece: When I hear that question I think, how can that even be a question? Nature is everywhere whether you’re talking about farmland, the grass in my backyard, the river as I drive down the highway. Nature is global, and I don’t understand how you can know that nature is global but only deal with one sector of people. I grew up in an area of Arlington that’s more than 90 percent African-American. My nature may look different from your nature. If you’re not talking to me, you’re only going to be able to cover that other part of Arlington. I can’t go into New York talking about the bison of Minnesota. They’ll be like, “What bison?” Our mission is not going to move where we want it to move if we don’t include other people outside our own boxes.
Nature Conservancy: What was “your nature” growing up?
Shawneece: It was really about going outside to play. We had a yard and one tree. That was my piece of nature. That was how far I could see. I never knew the expanse of what it could be.
Nature Conservancy: You’ve taken students to see some of that expanse firsthand in places like the prairies of North Dakota. What was that like?
Shawneece: It was land after land. I’ve never seen that much land. The word “tranquility” comes to me. You could clear your mind. In the city, you have to teach yourself how to be free. When you’re out in the middle of a prairie, you have nothing else to do but enjoy what’s out in front of you. We hear that from our students all the time: “I didn’t know that this was what nature had to offer.”
Nature Conservancy: And you took some of your city friends hiking nearby to give them a similar experience.
Shawneece: That was after I went on my first hiking trip with TNC, and I thought [it] was the coolest thing. Then to be able to do this-—with other women, African-American women—was like, “Wow!” I tell my students, take each one of these experiences and share it. You never know who else is going to like it.
GLOBE Interns at Work in Rhode Island
Nature Conservancy: Besides understanding the scope of environmental work, what are some of the obstacles these interns face?
Shawneece: Final careers. At the end of this internship, I wish there were opportunities where we could say, “Here’s what we have for you.” It would be great even if we could say we have five posts or fellowships at the end. We have so much access to amazing young professionals who are working hard, and then at the end of the internship, it’s kind of like putting them back at the bottom again to start over. I think that’s a huge barrier. We’re working on it.
Nature Conservancy: You estimate some 1,300 people have passed through TNC’s internship programs. How do you keep up with trying to help them all?
Shawneece: I just want to be able to inspire others. If I can touch someone in any way possible, I think I’ve done my job. Whether I made you feel better about your day or you’ve put that positive perspective on my thinking—that allows me to network, to be able to inspire the next student, the next person. I like to match people up; everyone comes with a different perspective, talent, skill. I don’t have it all, but if I can connect you with someone else, then I’ve done my job.
Nature Conservancy: Is that true even if these students don’t end up working for TNC or another conservation organization?
Shawneece: They’re not going to all end up back at The Nature Conservancy, though I would love that. They’re going to be the next teachers—some will be in the classroom and some will go into business. If we can touch them in a way and engage with them [so that they know] more than they knew before about the environment, we make them our ambassadors.