Hawks to Watch: Rachel Myslivy, Director of Statewide Programs

Rachel Myslivy, Statewide Coordinator, Double Up Food Bucks; Board Member, Climate + Energy Project

Age: 38

KU Degree: MA – Religious Studies; Graduate Certificate – Environmental Studies (2013)

Why she’s a Hawk to Watch:

Rachel’s experience shows that hard work, education, and collaboration can really change the course of one’s life while benefiting the larger community. She used her advanced degree in liberal arts to pull off a successful mid-life career change while remaining engaged in her community. As a grad student, she conducted a state-wide oral history project; led a local elementary school to achieve the Kansas Green School of the Year Award; coordinated a multi-faceted visit from a nationally-recognized scholar; and formed a statewide network for women in Kansas. All of this was done while she worked full-time, ran a farm, and mothered two strong, young women.

Sidebar button template 2016 2.0_smallerWhat do you feel is your biggest achievement so far?

I could answer this question in a million different ways, whether I’m responding as a director of statewide programs, a local community organizer, a farmer, or a parent. Easily, I think my biggest achievement has been balancing all of my passions and interests! I’ll answer this in segments.

When I started with the Climate + Energy Project in 2012, my first task was to form a steering committee to guide the direction of a new program that would identify farmers and ranchers who were successfully innovating to save water and energy in Kansas. We wanted to draw attention to the nexus of water and energy in a positive way that focused on solutions. Within a few weeks, I was meeting with high-level representatives in water, energy, agriculture, and natural resources, and trying to win them over to the idea of participating in the project. One of the things that I heard most frequently during that time was that – while the intentions were good – we would never get agreement with such a diverse group. Over the course of three years, the Water + Energy Progress initiative brought together diverse individuals and organizations around common ground solutions for water conservation, energy use, and regionally-appropriate climate adaptation strategies in Kansas. In two award cycles, Governor Brownback recognized 20 producers with Water + Energy Progress Awards. Guiding this program from an idea deemed admirable, but unfeasible, to a well-recognized, statewide award has been incredibly rewarding.

As a volunteer community organizer, my greatest achievement by far is the creation of the Kansas Women’s Environmental Network. After many years volunteering for environmental causes, I went back to school to pursue a master’s degree with the hopes of a career change that would better align my passions with my professional life. During my final year at KU, I landed a great job working with farmers in Kansas – mission accomplished! Still, I knew that many women were in the same situation as I had been: trying to get a foothold in conservation, agriculture, natural resources, climate work, etc. in Kansas. A long-time partner in community organizing, Kim Bellemere, and I often talked about the need for women to support each other in this work. After many conversations about the idea, we decided to move forward with the first networking meeting. The response was absolutely overwhelming, and the group quickly grew beyond our wildest expectations.

Personally, I am incredibly proud to report that we have improved the health of the soil on our farm to such an extent that it is now teeming with beneficial insects, producing great yields, and attracting wildlife in much greater numbers. Every year, new blooms appear and new creatures visit the farm. It feels like we are doing good work on our little spot of earth, which is incredibly gratifying.

What’s your lowest career moment and how did you pick yourself up and move on?

Hands-down, my lowest career moment was the time when our executive director informed us that our organization was in financial difficulty and that we would need to make serious adjustments. The very next day, I was hosting a regional bus tour visiting two farms and featuring several great speakers. It was incredibly challenging to “put on a happy face” throughout the tour when the idea of unemployment was ever-present. Regardless, I was committed to following through with a successful event. By all accounts, the tour was fantastic. The crowd was very diverse, the speakers were excellent, and everyone had a wonderful time. Working through the heartache and uncertainty was challenging, no doubt, but I maintained my focus and ultimately pulled off a memorable and educational event. In this situation, the lowest point was also a starting point for growth.

Financial fluctuations are a harsh reality for nonprofits. In recent years, many of the best organizations in Kansas have had to cut staff or reduce programming just to keep the doors open. Fortunately for us, some emergency funding came through to get us past the rough period, and we were able to fill the gap with more secure long term funding. As a result of that time, I learned a lot more about successful fundraising strategies. I’m now much more confident asking for money (support your local nonprofits!). In every challenge, there is an opportunity for learning and self-improvement.

Where do you hope to be in 10 years?

In 10 years, I hope to be the executive director of an environmental nonprofit educating the public about the importance of our natural resources while promoting regionally-appropriate, practical solutions. I hope that I will still struggle with complex issues, be challenged by new ideas, and find new ways to bring about positive change in my community.

By that time, I’ll be almost to the half-century mark. If everything goes according to plan, I will be a doting grandmother and an empty-nester! I hope that our kids will be happily doing wonderful things and that my husband and I are still working the soil, saving the harvest, and living our dreams.

I hope that I will still be learning. In short, I hope to be growing community, preserving natural resources, and cultivating gratitude, while making enough to maintain a simple lifestyle.

What do you know now that you wish you could tell your 18-year-old self?

In language that the younger me would appreciate, I would tell my stubborn, hard-headed, individualistic, know-it-all 18-year-old self that it’s time to suck it up, get over yourself, and start working with other people. It took me many, many years to see the value of collaboration and networking. By networking, I don’t mean fake smiles and schmoozing with lots of post-event eye-rolling and sarcasm, I mean cultivating a real and sincere appreciation for the people and ideas around you. Building relationships should not come from a self-serving desire to get something out of each interaction, but from the realization that every voice matters – even the ones that disagree with you. If we could all support each other, get over catty competitiveness, and work together, imagine what we could accomplish!

What’s your best career pro-tip?

I think my advice to the younger me is applicable in this section, as well, as many adults do not see the value of collaboration and supportive colleague relationships. But, I can offer another perspective here. My best career pro-tip is more of a cyclical process: ask, delegate, and collaborate.

Sometimes it seems that the only way to get something done is to do it yourself, but that is simply not a sustainable model for community organizing or organizational growth. It’s a recipe for burnout. By asking for help, you acknowledge your own shortcomings and create the opportunity for improvement. We all have weak spots either educationally, technologically, or practically. When I was an undergrad, I worked with young people with autism. We taught an “I don’t know” program to help one of the students get over the habit of making up answers. I carry this concept with me in my daily life. Saying, “I don’t know,” is the first step to learning something new, asking for help puts that thought into action. Similarly, delegating tasks to others doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do everything yourself, delegating and sharing responsibility are critical components of strong leadership. Successfully delegating tasks reflects that you value the others in your team and want to best utilize their skills, while also cultivating buy-in. When a project is successfully completed, give credit where credit is due. I’m a firm believer in the shared leadership model; we all have the ability to lead, if given encouragement and opportunity.

What do you do after you’ve clocked out?

When I “clock out” from work, I “clock in” as a farmer, parent, and community organizer. I value my unpaid work on an equal footing with my professional activities. Although splitting wood and hauling manure doesn’t necessarily make it on to my resume, our farming practices keep me closely connected to the ecosystem I inhabit; farming keeps me honest, in a sense. We have sheep, chickens, guineas, honeybees, a home grafted orchard, and an heirloom vegetable garden. The chores never end. I am a knitter, quilter, baker, food preserver, wildcrafter, and, most recently, a handspinner. We are in the process of starting a business marketing locally-sourced yarns.

One of my most important jobs is being a mother, so all things stop when my kids need help. I spend a good deal of time ferrying my youngest from activity to activity, volunteering at the school or in extracurriculars, and making sure she gets exposed to some quality Lawrence culture.

What is a fun fact about you that no one knows?

How’s this: I am fascinated with the decomposition process. In particular, I think dung beetles are just about the coolest creatures around.