Blog Post By Jona Elwell

Women in Forestry and the Environment: Jeanne Braha

For Women’s History Month, we’re profiling some leaders in the environmental, horticultural and/or arboricultural world. 

Up first? Executive Director of Rock Creek Conservancy, Jeanne Braha! Rock Creek Conservancy is the only organization dedicated solely to Rock Creek and its parks. The creek meanders 33 miles through the Washington metropolitan area, crossing federal lands as well as district, city, county, and state boundaries. In particular, Jeanne  provides strategic direction and operational management for the Conservancy’s unique model of people-powered restoration. Read on to find out how she got involved in the environmental field, how 2020 has changed Rock Creek (or not!) and her thoughts on the underrepresentation of women and minorities in our field. Thanks so much for your time, dedication, and partnership Jeanne and Rock Creek Conservancy!

Casey Trees (CT): We know you lead Rock Creek Conservancy, but tell us more about your background and how you got into urban greenspace.

Jeanne Braha, Executive Director, Rock Creek Conservancy (JB): When I was in high school, I started volunteering at a small nature center tucked into a bend of the Schyulkill River (outside Philadelphia) as a way to earn service hours. I quickly fell in love with the power of nearby nature – the idea that  I could be just a few miles from home and feel like I was somewhere completely ‘away.’ I feel that same magic in Rock Creek – it’s so close, but makes the world feel so much bigger. Through work later on, running a watershed education program (at the amazing Alice Ferguson Foundation) that partnered with all of the national parks in this region, I discovered the special power of public lands to do this work. Because Rock Creek Park and other public lands belong to all of us, they offer truly democratic civic spaces in which to do this work. 

CT: It’s been a rough, unusual year for practically everyone. Do you have some bright spots or memorable moments from 2020 at Rock Creek Conservancy?

JB: Rock Creek Park has been the bright spot,quite literally! I always see people’s faces light up whenI tell them what I do – I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t love Rock Creek. But this year people had time to really get to know the park and create what author/naturalist Melanie Choukas Bradley calls their wild home. 

CT: As we work exclusively in the nation’s capital, we’d like to think our work is hyperlocal, but you work on Rock Creek Park alone! Do you have a favorite trail or spot in the park?

JB: Well, the Conservancy is an official partner of Rock Creek Park, which has almost 3,000 acres of awesome, but we also protect the 77 square miles of the Rock Creek watershed. I shouldn’t pick a favorite – we are committed to protecting them all, but I think it’s safe to say the park is my favorite among the watershed overall. I will flag a few special spaces in Rock Creek Park: 

  1. This time of year, the northern floodplains really come alive as frogs start breeding in the vernal pools and the spring ephemerals bloom where NPS has so assiduously removed the invasive plants, including lesser celandine, that just dominate the forest understory in so many other places. The Conservancy’s mini-oases are also great examples of this sort of restoration. 
  2. And I have been using Upper Beach Drive for walking meetings lately – it’s been closed to through traffic through the pandemic. There’s lots of space for social distancing, and it’s lovely to see all the different ways that park visitors use the space. Yesterday I saw runners, cyclists, strollers, rollerbladers, hikers, and even one person pushing a friend in a wheelchair. A colleague told me his kids call it the ‘bike highway,’ which is pretty perfect. That’s the magic – kids who otherwise have to be very careful on sidewalks or bike lanes feel a sense of freedom in these protected spaces.  

CT: In a nationwide 2002 study, researchers found that only 10% of urban forestry professionals were women (and women of color are particularly underrepresented in forestry). What, if anything, do you think needs to change to involve more women and women of color in urban forestry and greenspace organizations?

JB: A lot of these barriers facing women are not unique to urban forestry, they seem to permeate most professions. Some are unique to work that has a strong fieldwork component, where individuals can be more isolated or physically dependent on each other. So we all need to keep pushing for structural changes (DC’s family leave policy is a great example). Transparency helps too – the work of organizations like Green 2.0 to shed light on the progress (or lack thereof) that hold the field back is so key. 

But those of us who are in positions of power in our organizations and professions must work every day to keep pushing our organizations further. This can be things that seem small – correcting language that, for example, uses only male pronouns for foresters or volunteering a man to set up the next doodle poll or take notes when they hang back to let women take on these tasks – and policy decisions, like checking for pay equity as part of compensation reviews or ensuring diversity in hiring pools/recruitment. Or making sure we have uniforms or gear that fits women. I’m particularly short, but I remember one of my first weeks in forestry school when we were doing a unit on forest measurement that drove home the point that the field was so shaped by men (and white men, at that). DBH is measured closer to my chin, and there was no way I could hold a hypsometer 3 feet away from my eye. I could go on a lot longer here, but you get the idea! 

CT: Do you have any advice for women that are aspiring environmental professionals?

JB: Well, I would rather put the burden of doing things to make change on those who hold much more power (as I mentioned). But I’d encourage women to find some allies – whether a great mentor (I am so very appreciative of the amazing women I’ve had the pleasure of working for and continue to take my stray texts and calls for advice!) or peer group. This could be a few friends, some colleagues, or even an affinity group like DC Ecowomen or Outdoor Afro. And if your schedule permits, come out and volunteer with Rock Creek Conservancy – a great place to get some relevant experience and meet some like-minded folks! 

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