Highstead would not be what it is today without the steadfast leadership and diverse experiences of its team members. Meet the experts, conservation leaders, scientists, and staff that embody Highstead’s mission to build a healthier, more liveable world for all in our new interview series.
What is your role?
Katie: I’m a Conservationist at Highstead, and in this role I support the work of Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs) across the Northeast.
What drew you to Highstead?
Katie: I always admired the thoughtful conservation work that came out of Highstead and their leadership through the initiatives they led and supported. Back in 2012, I served as the Coordinator for the MassConn Sustainable Forest Partnership and got to work alongside Bill Labich, who was on the MassConn steering committee at the time. During my time at MassConn, I learned about the Wildlands and Woodlands Vision that guides Highstead’s work and became a regular RCP Gathering attendee. When the Conservationist position opened up in 2019, I jumped at the opportunity!
“There are several entry points into following your dream; you just have to be open to connecting your diverse experiences and background.”Katie Blake
Where does your motivation come from?
Katie: My motivation comes from a deep-rooted sense of responsibility to be the best advocate I can be for our natural world. While pursuing my undergraduate degree, I began to wonder if I should have followed another more lucrative field. However, during an environmental economics class, I realized that no part of our modern world would exist if we didn’t take care of the place we entirely depended on, yet often take for granted. Our natural world and the resources on which people depend are in no short supply of challenges, and it is these challenges that get me out of bed ready to get to work every day.
What is the professional accomplishment you are most proud of?
Katie: I’m the first generation in my family to go to college and the only person in my extended family to earn a Master’s degree. I’m most proud of the years of hard work, dedication, and the years of piecing together several part-time jobs so that I could pursue my interests in conservation. In my family, it was a luxury to pursue my dream, and one we couldn’t necessarily afford. I grew up in a working-class family and watched my parents work multiple jobs so that we could have the opportunity to go to college one day and make a life for ourselves that was better than what my parents had. My love for the outdoors and wildlife led me to wildlife biology and ultimately conservation. Unlike many of my peers, I couldn’t afford to take unpaid internships, so like my parents, I had to work part-time jobs and find work outside of seasonal fieldwork. I learned to build and rely on the network I was shaping to continue to advance in my career and move toward gainful employment.
Who are your women conservation heroes throughout history and today? Why?
Katie: When I was 18, I got tickets to see Jane Goodall speak as part of an honors class I was taking at a local community college. I didn’t know who Jane Goodall was at the time, so I almost didn’t go to the event. I still remember that when she took the stage, and before saying hello, she pant-hooted like a chimpanzee. I was hooked! I then spent the next five years or so learning everything about her.
What I admire most was that she didn’t have a traditional background in science before Louise Leakey sent her off into the jungle to pioneer the study of chimpanzees. She completely changed how we define ourselves, what it means to be human, and what we knew about our closest kin. I also admire Jane’s dedication to the work and to the bigger vision and the hope she carries for our planet, even though many have worked to discredit her throughout her career. Jane sent me off into this field, and although I ended up chasing after birds, not chimpanzees, I owe her for lighting up this path for me to pursue.
What are some challenges you see facing women in the conservation and stewardship communities in the next 10 years?
Katie: I am so blessed to have found my way to an organization that values a healthy work-life balance. As a new mom, Highstead offered me flexibility in my schedule as I got back to work after maternity leave and currently during the COVID pandemic as my husband and I navigate childcare challenges. My “seat at the table” in the initiatives I lead and projects I participate in is still very much valued even when I’m not always able to be in my seat because I’m balancing work and home.
However, this is not the case for many women and working moms in the conservation field, or in most fields for that matter. I think women will continue to face challenges to advance in their careers while maintaining a work-life balance. Women will continue to face challenges they have for years— earning less than their male counterparts, advancing to leadership positions, facing opposition to their ideas and research, and so on. But, the field of conservation is dominated by women, and it is my hope that as we work to amplify each other’s work, that we also help normalize and support a healthy work-life balance for all people, so we can really make the progress that is needed for our environment.
Do you recommend any books, podcasts, or other resources that have had an impact on your life or work?
Katie: Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I read this during my first year of college and I think it’s an excellent reminder of the overt and covert ways women scientists are attacked, threatened, or discredited in their work. Carson’s book accused powerful chemical companies of widespread environmental degradation due to indiscriminate use of pesticides that we still see the effects of today, particularly how DDT affected bird populations. It’s also a great reminder to me to stick with the challenging work we take on in conservation and trust myself and my work’s integrity, especially in the face of opposition.
Where is your favorite place to recreate in the Northeast? What makes it special?
Katie: One of my favorite places is the Massachusetts coastline. I spent years studying the breeding and post-breeding habits of Common and Roseate Terns, which meant living on remote islands, and spending hours on beaches looking for these birds. I was so plugged into the rhythm of the tides and ecology of the coast, and of course the terns, that to this day, whenever I hear a tern, I am instantly transported back to my time on the beaches in Massachusetts.
What advice would you give to the next generation of conservationists?
Katie: Listen. Listen to those with different perspectives. Listen to what people see and experience in their communities and hear what it is people want and need. Listen to the scientist and non-scientist equally. Listen to your fellow environmental advocates, from those who have just entered the field to those who are readying for retirement. Listen to your partners, especially those outside of the conservation field. While our conservation challenges will require innovative remedies and technologies, the key to developing them and successfully implementing them is to understand. The key to understanding is building transformational relationships with people because we can’t do this alone. It’s going to take everyone.
What advice have you received that has stuck with you?
Katie: Often times, your route to following your dream isn’t a straight line. Because I had to take jobs in between field seasons or make up for a low-paying internship, I often had to find work outside the conservation field. Before graduate school, I needed a longer-term job to help me save, so I took a position as a paralegal for legal aid. I remember feeling like this was a significant detour from my field, and I felt self-conscious about that. My future graduate school advisor helped me see that the skills I was learning in this job were completely transferrable to conservation: problem-solving, building arguments, understanding legal jargon, advocating for those who can’t advocate for themselves, and so on. There are several entry points into following your dream; you just have to be open to connecting your diverse experiences and background.