Guest blog post written by Brooke Helstrom
It has been historically difficult for me, being from New Jersey and going to college in California, to introduce myself to strangers without them drawing initial stereotypes. New Jersey and California are arguably two of the most stereotyped and disliked states (California for its perceived “hippiness” and New Jersey for its perceived…everything) by people who have never lived or spent a substantial amount of time in either state. Luckily, these initial assumptions do not bother me, as I am secure and confident in both of my states’ intrinsic beauty.
Yet it remains a challenge, and I was faced with this predicament yet again when I sat in on a committee meeting with Zack in Helena. The only person in the room new to Montana, it was my first time meeting Montana outdoor enthusiasts. My flowery heels must have looked quite absurd next to the boots of the two people sitting near me. During the second day of the meeting, another member of the public sat next to me and introduced himself. It was immediately clear to both of us, and I’m sure to an onlooker at first glance, that my friend and I were an unlikely pair—him being a burly fisherman and me a dainty intern.
Of course, the first two questions that he asked were where I was from and where I go to school—and my shy answers merited his initial assumptions. As our conversation progressed and it was revealed that no, I don’t eat meat and no, I’ve never held a gun before, my stereotype closed around me. On my end as well, I was quick to close a stereotype around my new friend, one that required only one basic fact—that he was a hunter. However, a few minutes into our conversation, our over-simplified labeling was effectively torn down. We had a great conversation about our interests and reasons for being at the committee meeting. Despite neither of us wanting to change our opinions on wildlife management, we both had an appreciation and love of the outdoors. This appreciation, although often differing in origin and intensity, is a feeling that connects us all.
I had a similar conversation with a friend driving back into Bozeman after a backpacking trip near Hyalite Peak in the Gallatin Mountains. You can probably guess that I am not a hunter, and before my time in Bozeman I wouldn’t have even considered the possibility of hunting being an acceptable activity. My friend, who is an avid hunter, and I had a productive conversation; she expressed her views and I expressed mine, and we found common ground. These two experiences, along with a multitude of similar conversations I had throughout the summer, helped me to blur the line between “environmentalist” and “non-environmentalist.” People are much more similar than they are different.
An additional part of my experience with NRDC this summer was getting to see more of Montana and exploring outside. Being in nature has always been a captivating experience for me, and I was fortunate to experience a handful of gorgeous sunrises, mountain peaks, wildflowers, and lots of bug bites (which were a welcomed accessory for this city-gal).
I used to be a true “greenie.” The epitome of an east-coaster now going to school in downtown Los Angeles, a newly proclaimed vegan (after an unprecedented amount of pressure from my friends), and an ardent “intersectional environmentalist,” I used to scroll down my very blue Facebook timeline and feel completely satisfied. A true product of a liberal education, I was conditioned to see the world as a dichotomous hierarchy—the powerful versus the powerless, the environmentalists versus the non-environmentalists, etc. However, I became increasingly aware of my naivete, and was very uncomfortable with it.
Throughout my college career I have worked to address this uncomfortableness by constantly exposing myself to altering perspectives. My internship with NRDC has given me an opportunity to get involved in advocacy work in a non-urban setting and has helped in my mission of trumping uncomfortableness. I have been able to gain a perspective specific to Northern Rockies wildlife advocacy, a viewpoint that is as unique as it is useful.
I am learning to not seek diversity based solely on conventional divisions and to not see issues as split perfectly down the middle, as that division usually ends up also splitting human beings. In some of the conversations I have had this summer, I was quick to morph one basic fact about an individual into an uncomplicated stereotype. Although basic facts can be basic truth (i.e. my friend is a hunter, I am an environmentalist), there is a tendency on both ends to group these facts into massive stereotypes, and to ignore that philosophies within each large group vary dramatically. People are defined by much more than where they are from and how they choose to enjoy nature; people are much more than their basic facts.
I used to always be thinking about the next step—what can I apply for right now that will make me a more competitive applicant for the next step in my master plan? Search, search, search, stress, stress, stress. This is nonsense! My advisor Zack, my lovely coworkers, and my Bozeman acquaintances-turned-friends-for-life have shown me that it is possible to find passion in work and in life without an unhealthy agenda. I have learned valuable skills in coalition-building and common-ground-finding, can accurately point to and identify at least four mountain ranges while driving on the highway, and get bubbly with excitement whenever I see an agency sign labeling public land. The only negative of my time in Bozeman is the six office pens that I have inevitably misplaced (sorry, Zack). Most importantly, I will miss Beef the bulldog and his solo adventures to the café’s kitchen next door. Thank you Zack, Matt, Oliver, and Jenny for a great summer.
Brooke Helstrom was the summer undergraduate intern in the NRDC Northern Rockies office. She is a senior at the University of Southern California double majoring in Environmental Studies and Philosophy and is also a first-year Environmental Studies master’s student. She spent last spring studying in Botswana and the previous spring working in Washington, D.C. for an environmental NGO. She enjoys gazing at the stars while having existential crises and believes she is an exact combination of Phoebe and Monica from Friends.