Green Jobs is an occasional series on Sustainable Utah featuring people who currently make their living working on sustainability issues.
By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Office of Sustainability
Ashley Patterson has, at one time or another, worked in almost every facet of sustainability imaginable. From working for the forest service to studying conservation in fisheries, preventing pollution at an aerospace company to running her own green building company, Patterson has done it all. Now, she works as executive director of Wasatch Community Gardens (WCG), the local nonprofit that specializes in community and youth gardening and education. She sat down with me to explain how she got to where she is and what others who want to follow in her footsteps should do.
Q: What kind of education did you get?
AP: I was an environmental studies major in college [at Yale]. I always had a little bit more propensity for the liberal arts than science, but after graduating I was working in fisheries conservation and became frustrated that a lot of the folks that were doing the conservation non-profit advocacy work didn’t have a science background. I thought I was going to be doing that kind of work for a long time, and I wanted to be able to understand how to read and comprehend scientific studies. Eventually, I chose to go to graduate school [at the University of Washington] and get a scientific environmental health graduate degree.
Q: How did you navigate from conservation to what you currently do?
AP: I really liked fisheries conservation, but I never felt that it was quite right for me. After that, I worked various jobs: in nonprofit, for the forest service, doing pollution prevention plans in an aerospace company, for a land trust. I kept sampling and finding things I liked and tried to put them together and build on them. In 2001, I decided to take a summer to study green building, solar power, and alternative energy. It was what I had been looking for; it clicked. I worked in green building for about eight years [and eventually started the Green Building Center in Salt Lake City]. I really enjoyed green building a lot, but after the major housing crisis in 2007, the bottom dropped out of the whole building business. So I kept honing.The job I have now combines a personal passion with my career. [Additionally, Ashley worked here at the Office of Sustainability at the University of Utah from 2010 to 2012.]
Q: What are the major responsibilities and tasks that make up your current position at WCG?
AP: I have a staff of 10; 7 of them are permanent and 3 of them are from AmeriCorps. They all work within one of our three programs: community gardening, youth gardening, or community education. I oversee five of the staff, and they have people under them. I oversee the main budget for the organization and am very involved with the fundraising. I do a lot of speaking on behalf of the organization and manage the strategic planning process. I’m the main interaction with the board of directors and work as liaison with municipalities and other non-profits. It makes for a lot of meetings, but I love my work.
Q: Is there any advice you’d give to current students who eventually want to work in sustainability?
AP: Well, there really aren’t that many jobs that are specifically about sustainability. It was way easier to get a job in 1991 when I graduated than it is now in 2013. There are only a handful of companies in the area with sustainability directors, and those people are pretty seasoned. So consider having another, usable skill. Be an engineer, a businessperson, a communicator, a graphics person, an architect, or an urban planner. There are so many things you can pair sustainability with. Then, you get to have a job that doesn’t pigeon hole you into the environmental world but also get to make decisions that help the environment.
And if you can’t find a sustainability job, try to create that job for yourself. Take a more traditional job and start a green team or organize a purchase of CFL light bulbs. Convince your office to use non-toxic inks or print less. People do it, and have success with it.
Q: Are there skills you’d like your future colleagues to have?
AP: The most important thing is time management, though that’s neither a very sexy answer nor a specifically sustainability-related one. People spend way too much time on work-related email and social media. At some point, you have to turn it off and get projects done. Choose a specific time to check your email, and don’t tend to it right as it comes in, because they’ll keep coming in all day and you’ll never quite get your brain transitioned to the project at hand.
Also, most jobs involve a lot of project management, and my experience is that there aren’t a lot of people who are good at setting up a system. That would be a great skill to cultivate while still in college.
Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.