2017 and SEJ: Pittsburgh and the Point of Perseverance

Fountains at the Phipps Conservatory


Dear Society of Environmental Journalists and fellow readers,

Hi, it’s me again, Kelsey – the graduate student at CU Boulder who works in the Center for Environmental Journalism. You might have read my piece last year about the SEJ conference in Sacramento. I’m trying to make writing a reflection on my experience at the conference a yearly thing. (We’ll see how that goes.)

Schenley Park Bridge, Pittsburgh

This year the Society of Environmental Journalists met in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I had to drive around the city on my road trip back from Washington, D.C. this summer, so it felt fitting to be able to come back and give it a thorough visit. It’s been dubbed the “Paris of Appalachia,” with its rivers and bridges and the like (see locks above). We came to see how the city has changed from its history forged in iron to a present and future made in the image of sustainability, green technology, and clean(er) airs and waters. We also came together to address environmental issues around the world and how we can contribute to a cleaner, healthier, more resilient – and more just – planet with environmental journalism.

I came with excitement, with anticipation, and unfortunately, a lot of anxiety.

I spent the summer in Washington, D.C. as an intern with the American Geophysical Union, reading new scientific papers, interviewing scientists, writing press releases and blogs, making some of the best new connections I could have in the world of science writing, and having my faith in myself completely reborn.

D.C. is home to some of the best people I now know, and working at AGU almost did more in three months to improve my journalism skills than my entire first year of graduate school was able to accomplish. Plus, living in the capitol region wasn’t as scary or intimidating as it was simply overwhelming, tiring, and expensive. And the negatives (the humidity and the heat, my goodness) were easily outweighed by the abundant and free artistic and cultural opportunities, making for a lengthy adventure around the mall or the DMV area every weekend. I returned to Colorado in August feeling truly self-confident and capable of accomplishing my career goals for the first time in my life.

Yet my last week in D.C. was overshadowed by the very real threat of war with North Korea, as initial threats were made on Guam. My best friend there and I made a plan on the way home on the metro, just in case, only sort of, kind of, joking. I worked quite close to the White House, and would occasionally walk down to it after work and just stare at it. I couldn’t even bring myself to get close to the Capitol. I toured the monuments at night under a full moon and finally cried next to Maya Lin’s architecture. And I thought a lot every day about what it means to be an American in a city vastly different and more diverse than any I have lived in before. But at the same time that I was making great new friends and having the time of my life at the Hirshhorn, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and National Museum of Women in the Arts, I think part of me was eroding.

Once upon I time I almost went into art history for a career. Then I found my passion for journalism through writing about music, and still wonder about that option as a full-time gig. But instead, I now find myself working with the other of my three loves, the environment. And no matter how hard any of my other work has been, covering the environment remains the most difficult of all. Because of all the anxiety it causes me, the depression, the grief: the environmental melancholia.

In her recent piece “Constant Anxiety Won’t Save the World,” Julie Beck identifies the disconnect between alarm and action, reminding us: “Anxiety is not a necessary prerequisite for action.”

Every time I come back to that phrase, I realize that’s been a consistent pattern in my life for far, far too long. In order to take action, to accomplish something, I first find myself worrying. Anxious. Freaked out. Especially when I’m unfamiliar with what I’m supposed to be doing. When I feel unqualified. When it’s my first time. When there are high expectations. Even when it’s a simple as running an errand. The list could go on and on.

My usual counteraction for this response is to work on getting excited about whatever such thing instead. To get curious, not crushed. To become inspired, instead of intimidated. To make it something that I want to do, instead of have to do! This still works when I make, experience, or write about art, music, travel, people, (most) science, and all sorts of subjects. I know the direct benefits of such things. I know the types of people who will also enjoy them, the specific friends who will have a better week because of them, the difference my writings or coverage could make in my community.

Why then, do I still find it so hard to get excited about reporting on the environment? Or why does that desire not seem to last? I know I care about nature, wilderness, biodiversity, climate change, pollution, environmental justice, sustainability, etc. I know the science is important. I know it affects real people all over the world. It affects my own backyard. It affects me. I just continue to question if I can really affect it.

But to question if little ol’ me can affect any ginormous, global issue? Of course it’s ridiculous. The answer isn’t yes or no. It’s just “not yet.” Not quite. Not alone.

What I can do, and what is easy to forget as an amateur/student journalist, is 1. to just work on getting better. At everything. To get excited about learning new subject matter, figuring out how to fact-check, experimenting with the settings on my camera, cold calling sources (that anxiety never goes away), and all the rest. To stop negatively comparing myself to my peers so much. And to give myself grace in the process.

Infinity Dots Mirrored Room, Yayoi Kusama, at The Mattress Factory
Community Garden, Pittsburgh

And 2. to keep doing what I do best. Even if it isn’t profitable, professional, or potentially either. In my case that means getting extremely, stupidly excited about photographic opportunities and wildlife, visiting every art museum when I’m in a new city, getting lost in community gardens, dancing my heart out to live music, making silly jokes no matter the context, unabashedly pursuing people I like spending time with and giving pep talks to friends at one in the morning at the hotel bar.

These are two rather different types of perseverance, but they are equally important. No matter how scary the world news gets, how dire circumstances seem, these continue to be essential for becoming a person the world needs and supporting the person that you should like spending time with – yourself.

The point of perseverance is not to be perfect, it’s simply to keep going. So please, continue to grow and learn and to do what you already do best. The world really wants and needs you to, especially if you’re an environmental journalist.



Dancing at Carrie Furnaces