Labels, Legacy and Love

Editor’s note: This post is written by guest blogger Rhonda Vassar, director of operations for The Nature Conservancy in Georgia. She is a member of a forum within the Conservancy that is leading conversations about diversity and the future of the conservation movement.

By Rhonda Vassar

I am many things to many people—mother, daughter, colleague, friend. And those people would describe me as loyal, honest and hard-working.

But would conservationist top anyone’s list?

Probably not.

Maybe it’s the color of my skin. Or maybe it’s the fact that “conservationist” just isn’t a label people toss around all that often. Probably it’s some of both.

But my love of nature comes from the same place that my other defining qualities come from: a family background rooted in a deep respect for all living things.

So, despite the fact that I work for a conservation organization—and that my father is the first African-American to direct Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources—I’m okay with not being called a “conservationist.” Because life isn’t about labels—it’s about actions and experiences, feelings and memories, and our hopes for what we and our children can achieve.

How to Be a Conservationist Without Even Knowing It

As a child, there were certain things expected of me—respect for my elders, an appreciation for the home and comforts their hard work provided, and although unspoken, this deep ethic of respect also applied to the environment.

Growing up in Georgia, I lived for the warm, outdoor days of spring and summer. I remember the taste of tomatoes and peppers from my grandmother’s garden; she always grew more than our family could ever eat. My parents were great swimmers, so I spent countless hours in the pool at our local recreation center. And although public places like the rec center were no longer officially segregated, there were clear, unspoken rules in the community that dictated where we played.

My father began his career working for the rec department that managed the ball fields and pool that are the backdrop of my childhood. He later moved to Michigan where he continued to work in the natural resources field. After high school, with tears in my eyes and the knowledge that everything was about to change, I drove across the country in the new car my grandmother bought me for graduation. I was headed to college at Michigan State University and to live near my father.

When I arrived, I witnessed him going through a personal, philosophical struggle we all face at some point: What mark do I want to leave on the world? And based on his years of observation and experience, he concluded that his life’s calling was to help others see that regardless of race, gender, culture or other factors, we all need opportunities to appreciate the personal and spiritual benefits of nature.

After a life-long career to realize this goal, my father, Rodney Stokes, was named the director of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, the first African-American to hold such a post.

My father’s success and commitment has shown me that diversity is about the variety and depth of thought, talent and experiences that individuals can share. This influence and my own hard work has given me the confidence to be a leader within an organization that shares the conservation ethic I grew up with—The Nature Conservancy, first in Michigan and now in Georgia.

Our organization isn’t perfect, and admittedly still has far to go when it comes to engaging diverse audiences in our work. But I know that collective vision and tenacity can help us bring along other people to see that no matter how you might define yourself, a respect and appreciation for our natural world is a part of us all.

I feel it is my responsibility to honor those who raised me and build upon my father’s legacy to make a conservation ethic not a label my two daughters choose to pick up as adults, but rather a value that is part of who they truly are as individuals. Overcoming my fear of mosquitoes, or pretty much any bug for that matter, I make it a priority to get them outdoors often.

The three of us recently traveled to southwest Georgia where the Conservancy works to reduce agricultural water withdrawals in the Flint River Basin. With huge smiles on their faces and the sun shining in their eyes, I watched them eat raw corn while visiting a farmer that partners with the Conservancy.

I felt a swell of love in that moment, for them and all those that came before, and I found myself wondering when my girls might realize that these experiences shape the ethics and values they carry into adulthood. And I felt content, knowing they would share our family’s legacy of respect for nature.

(Image: The author, Rhonda Vassar, canoeing on the Etowah River in north Georgia. Credit: Sara Gottlieb/TNC)

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  1. Thank you Rhonda for telling your story. I am so delighted by your sharing as it resonates deeply with my own story and family history, which is the motivating force behind my website Outdoor Afro.

    I would definitely love to have you share more with the Outdoor Afro community, as role modeling outdoor engagement among ourselves is critical to help people and communities imagine new possibilities.

    Great article TNC!

    Rue Mapp
    Outdoor Afro

  2. Powerful message. We hope to pass the same values and experiences on to our children.

    Thanks for all you do as a conservationist.

  3. Great article Rhonda, and thank you for sharing your story.

  4. Inspiring. Truly inspiring.

  5. Profound insight and a unique perspective. I found your article to be enlighting, refreshing and a wonderful tribute to your father and his legacy. Maybe more minorities will at least “consider” exploring what is no doubt a field that very few seem to embrace as a possible (future) career.
    Let’s continue to hear more.

  6. Rhonda, I love your article. It tells a story that is not widely shared, one that if more of us knew, it would help us better connect with family and nature. I will certainly share with my family.

  7. Rhonda, beautiful article…thank you for sharing this personal story. Coaching with TNC has strengthened my conservation ethic. Thanks for reminding me to pass on the conservation tradition to my son.

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