A Conversation with NRDC’s President

Rhea Suh explains how her lifelong passion of the environment and becoming a mother drew her to an organization that "gets things done."

Suh developed a love of the natural world at a young age, skiing, hiking, and fishing in the beautiful blue peaks to the west of the Front Range. That early appreciation for wild places led to a career of protecting the environment. Suh started out teaching environmental studies to high-school students and went on to spearhead successful efforts to protect Canada's Great Bear Rainforest and help lead the U.S. Department of the Interior.

As Suh took the helm at NRDC in early 2015, she was energized by the opportunity to pass the same legacy onto her daughter, Yeumi. "I believe that the vast majority of Americans are environmentalists," Rhea says. "We value clean air and water and open spaces, and I think those values make our movement extraordinarily powerful." Here, she talks to Lisa Benenson, NRDC's chief communications officer.

You recently left a senior position in the Obama administration. How did that role influence your outlook as an environmentalist?

I served for five years as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of the Interior, whose reach and impact on our environment is breathtaking. It manages 20 percent of the the country's lands—national parks, wildlife refuges, and public lands—and another 1.7 billion acres of offshore resources along the Outer Continental Shelf. Interior is a unique agency charged with protecting our natural heritage for all Americans. Our public lands are the very physical embodiment of our democratic principles as a nation. I can't imagine a wider window through which to view the challenges and opportunities we face in this movement.

Rhea Suh with President Barack Obama in May 2011

What is it about NRDC that made you give up that job?

I've had the advantage of seeing a lot of environmental groups up close during my tenure in government and in foundation work. Without question, NRDC was always among the most strategic and effective. This is an organization that has a great combination of the pragmatic and the hard-edged; it gets things done. In fact, I don't think there would have been any other environmental group I'd want to work for. NRDC is the definition of effective.

As NRDC's leader, you represent more than two million members and activists. What's the no. 1 thing they should know about you?

I have a lifelong passion for environmental issues, and that has only been bolstered by becoming a mother. We can and must leave the world a better place for all our children. NRDC's members have long understood this collective responsibility. I am committed to ensuring that NRDC stays visionary, resourceful, and effective in carrying out this overarching mission.

Tell us about your parents.

They were both born in Korea, and as young adults, they experienced the tragedies of the Korean War. Like so many immigrants before them, my parents came to this country with outsize dreams of making a better life for themselves and their children. When they arrived in California to pursue their graduate degrees in the early 1960s, they had very little money and a tenuous grasp of the language but a reservoir of determination and belief that if they played by the rules, worked hard, and educated their children, they would succeed. I feel as if I have inherited their huge optimism for this country and their grit and determination it takes to make our dreams a reality.

They both attended the University of California, Berkeley. Where did they head after California?

My father got a tenure-track job as a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where I grew up and where he continued to teach for 40 years. My mother was working on a degree in education but quit her studies because she became pregnant. I'm the youngest of three daughters. My eldest sister Maggie works for the Peninsula Humane Society in Silicon Valley, taking care of some of the most vulnerable animals. My other sister, Betty, is a leading researcher in gynecological oncology and practices with Kaiser Permanente in Walnut Creek, California. My name, Rhea, was the name of my mother's best friend at Berkeley, a woman who helped her learn how to speak English.

How did your love of the outdoors take root?

My father grew up in a fishing village in Korea, and when we moved to Colorado, he was all about the lakes and trout fishing. Every weekend my parents would load us into the wood-paneled station wagon, and we'd go to the mountains and dig for worms and sit on the rocks waiting for the fish to bite. They weren't really into hiking—you know, when you grow up having to walk just to get food or water, it's just a different thing. But I do have to give it to my parents in terms of their willingness to learn new things that they thought would help us assimilate. They both learned how to ski and taught us to ski. They bought us tents and camped with us. And every summer vacation, they took us to all the amazing public lands and national parks throughout the West.

Rhea Suh with her mother in 1977

When you think about your life in the outdoors, is there a particular landscape that really sticks with you?

The Great Bear Rainforest. It's a collection of marine channels and forests of western cedar, spruce, and hemlock running some 250 miles along the coast of British Columbia. It's just stunning, mind-blowing. There are only two roads that transect it. Every valley you go into is like a whole new Yosemite. Waterfalls cascade from cliffs 7,000 feet up, and you're surrounded by orcas and dolphins and seals. It's an unbelievable landscape, one I hold very close to my heart. The last time I was there was when I was pregnant with Yeumi. I can't wait to take her to see it. The vastness of it all makes you realize what things used to be like, and how important it is to preserve those extraordinary places. And, of course, Colorado also holds my imagination. It's the place that defined my view of the world and of nature—wild, spectacular, colorful, and clear.

But college took you far from the Rockies, right?

I came to New York City to study at Barnard College at Columbia University, fresh out of high school. It was such a crazy time. I was thrust into this huge city in the late 1980s—graffiti all over the subways, and crime was really pretty bad then. I came to love New York, though. I graduated with a degree in environmental science and education and taught high-school earth sciences in the city's public-school system.

And from there?

I got a Fulbright Fellowship to go to South Korea to teach and do research about the nascent environmental movement there. It was a serious burnout job, with more than 60 students in each class. By the time I went back to Colorado, I had decided I didn't want another teaching job.

How did you wind up working in the U.S. Senate?

The Yellow Pages! Seriously—one day I just began going through the list of Democratic officials in the phone book and calling and asking if they needed a volunteer. The second number I called was the office of newly elected senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, and the woman who answered the phone talked to me for a while and then encouraged me to apply for a job that had just opened up, doing environmental work out of the state office in Denver. I did that for a year and then transferred to the senator's D.C. office.

And then Harvard for graduate school.

I left D.C. to attend the Graduate School of Education, where I focused on the intersection between environment and education. I graduated in 1997 with a master's in educational policy and administration. In 1998, I got my first foundation job working for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in Silicon Valley.

What was it like to transition to the foundation world?

I remember really clearly attending my first Environmental Grantmakers Association meeting. Those are pretty big meetings—maybe 500 people—and I was one of only a few people of color. It wouldn't be the last time, and it was really shocking to come into such a homogeneous community and to so often be the only minority and many times also the only woman. I remember thinking there was just something dramatically wrong with this.

You're known for your work on diversity issues. Was that where it began?

The issue had already had a lot of resonance with me. I did my master's project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on the need for the National Park Service to diversify its constituencies. At the Hewlett foundation, we called it New Constituencies, which kind of bothered me. It's a little bit of this phony thing that somehow Asian people don't like to fish, or Hispanic people don't like to hike—just not true! But in any case, the program focused a lot on environmental justice work.

What else did you focus on at Hewlett?

Hewlett has become one of the largest funders of climate and energy work in the country, but when I arrived, they were still a pretty small shop. Two years into my tenure, California was in the middle of an electricity crisis that was hurting millions of customers—soaring costs and rolling blackouts. Companies like Enron were gaming the system to create an artificial shortage of energy to increase their profits. We helped NRDC and others push for policies that prevent this kind of free-for-all from recurring. And we also promoted the efficiency measures that have helped California meet rising demand, save money, and reduce pollution.

When you think about what climate change means for our future, are you an optimist or a pessimist?

An optimist—and with good reason, I think. We're living in a moment when people are feeling the impact of climate change directly or indirectly more than ever before. Millions of people in the West are facing water rationing because of drought. Thousands have homes directly threatened by longer, hotter, and more dangerous fire seasons. And thousands of people have had property damage due to severe or "freak" storms. You don't need to be a scientist to recognize that things are changing in dangerous and economically disastrous ways. That shift has created a real and growing movement to combat climate change. I was born the same month that the first Earth Day was celebrated, when millions came out to stand for clean air, clean water, and the protection of our planet, and I was the beneficiary of that advocacy for decades. Now it's time for my generation to stand up and demand that we uphold the environmental values that people stood for that day. I think what we saw at the People's Climate March in October 2014—with hundreds of thousands of people rallying for change—really demonstrated that we are ready to step up and take this to the finish line for our children.

Rhea Suh with her daughter in 2015

How has the birth of your daughter impacted your thinking?

Having a child, as any parent knows, is truly a life-changing experience. And like my parents, I want to make sure she has the opportunities to have a full and fulfilling life. I want her to have all the things I grew up with: drinking water from the tap without concern, breathing clean air, having any number of outdoor places to play. My parents didn't have a lot of these things growing up in what was then a poor country. Our family never took it for granted that we have these basic rights in the United States. Today it's climate change that is the largest threat to our environment, to our communities, and to our way of life. We aren't fighting one battle to protect a single watershed or to promote a statewide energy policy—we are fighting the mother of all battles. If we don't win this one, all the others may not really matter. But I truly believe that my daughter can inherit a world that is better in any number of ways than the world I have lived in. And I am most certainly going to do everything I can to try to give her and all the other children on this planet that opportunity.

How do you view the role of NRDC members in tackling climate and other front-line energy issues like Keystone XL and fracking?

Our members provide the drive, determination, and accountability that we need to solve some of the most urgent and pressing issues before us. We can only be successful in these battles by ensuring that the voices of millions of Americans are heard and are registered in the policy arenas throughout our country. Our members have been at the vanguard of so many fights. We're moving into a decisive phase on all these issues, so member activism is going to be that much more important.

How do you think NRDC could become even more effective? And what about the organization should never change?

I would never want to change NRDC's unique combination of legal action and grassroots power. That goes for NRDC's tenacity as well. It is well-known that when this organization takes on an issue, it's for the long haul. In terms of becoming more effective, I think we need to reach millions more people —of all ages, races, and classes—and make common cause in saving our planet.

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