Letter to Young Environmentalists: Be Aggressive, Be Prepared For Change

John Kassel

Last week I stood in front of a group of young, energetic and extremely well qualified people and welcomed them as CLF’s 2012 summer interns – an act being repeated thousands of times around the country this summer. As I looked across the room at this highly talented group of young people, two thoughts occurred to me: among them are our future leaders, and our movement – the environmental movement – will be very different when they are standing in my position, welcoming interns to their organizations in the years ahead.

The movement certainly was different when I joined it, 35 years ago, as an intern with the Sierra Club. Working out of their DC office, I worked on issues related to Native Americans in Alaska. At the time, when the American environmental movement was still young, our issues were advanced primarily by litigation, by males, and by people who were predominantly well educated and white. That, thankfully, is no longer true.

Looking into the faces of our interns, I saw not just lawyers but city planners, economists and biologists. I saw people from all over the country, and people from all walks of life. Their toolbox is larger and more refined, their network larger and more informed than ours was 35 years ago. Looking around the room, at the new members of CLF’s family, I thought: some of these people will change the world. Of that I am convinced.

I also have little doubt that our movement will continue to change, as it has during my lifetime. In talking to these interns, I wondered: what advice could I give them, and people like them at other environmental organizations across the country? What advice could I give to young people hoping to enter the movement? I have three suggestions.


Be aggressive. Be creative.

Many people are hired as interns for specific projects that match their interests and the needs of the organization. This is a good thing, certainly. But it has been my observation that people often find their calling – where their skills and their passion combine with their work – when they least expect it. A career is often made not of straight lines, but of surprise turns that, once taken, are committed to.

Be aggressive in pursuing that which interests you. So long as you get your assigned work done, everyone will benefit from you going the extra mile and pursuing your interests.

Let it change. Help us grow.

Just like any movement, our movement needs to change so as to remain effective and fresh. Innovation and change occur because people have new ideas, and new people join the movement.

We have been successful as a movement, but the challenges facing us remain systemic and, at times, daunting. We need change; we should welcome and encourage innovation.

How do you do this as an intern? Become an advocate. Recruit your friends. Don’t settle for a system you think is broken. Make a ruckus, and make it as loud or as quiet as you need to be effective.

Be substantive.  Communicate well.

People trust others who know their stuff. Learn the details. Understand the science behind the positions we take. Learn the policy-making and regulatory processes you’re working with. There is no substitute for depth of knowledge and understanding of nuance. But hone your ability to explain what you know to ordinary people. It’s an art, and it takes constant practice. It is essential. An expert in isolation is a waste of an expert; and expert who can make her depth of knowledge readily understood is a gem.


On the day I greeted our new interns, someone else greeted my son as he began his internship in Chicago. I hope that person felt about him as I do about our interns: here at CLF is one of our new great leaders.

I’d like to think that CLF is fertile ground for nurturing environmental advocates. Among the ranks of our alumni are the leaders of companies, leading environmental advocates, leading public servants, and two current, long-standing CLF staff members who started as interns and never left.

To all those working for us this summer, I say: welcome to the CLF family. Now, go out and change the world. Make New England, and our world, thrive.


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