Last month, Development and Communications Director Calah Pasley sat down with Executive Director Erica Donnelly-Greenan to interview her about what makes her uniquely qualified to lead Save Our Shores into the future.
The two talked about Erica’s childhood and what inspired her to pursue work in ocean conservation. They also discussed the many barriers to making our beaches and coastline accessible to all demographics in our community – and the actionable steps Save Our Shores will employ to break down those barriers.
“There is a whole generation out there counting on us.”
An interview with Executive Director Erica Donnelly-Greenan
When did you first fall in love with beaches and the ocean?
Growing up, my family spent our summers in a cottage on a Paw Paw Lake in Michigan. I was always really drawn to the water and have had a deep love for nature and animals for as long as I can remember.
I was always trying to be as close as possible to animals and my parents practically had to drag me out of the water every day during the summer. I sometimes wonder if part of that influence during the 1980s was Lisa Frank. Do you remember her?
Oh yes! How could any young girl look away from those bright alluring images?
Lisa Frank, Trapper Keepers, the cute marketing tactics from the 1980s. That certainly wormed its way my young mind! There was a lot of ocean imagery going around during that time.
Growing up in the Midwest, the ocean always had this mysterious draw to it and I remember many adults in my family being afraid of what the ocean held. That just intrigued me more…why are you afraid? I was incredibly drawn to orcas and found them fascinating and mysterious, while my little brother was drawn to sharks – neither of us had that fear of the ocean.
I was (and still am) very drawn to other animals like a magnet. I wanted to not only learn about them, but to be in their world, their environment and protect their right to exist. I never connected with the idea that other species had a value only if humans found them attractive, cute, or could use them in some way, shape, or form.
Tell me more about Paw Paw Lake – it sounds important to you.
That summer cottage was my happy place. I spent a lot of wonderful days there. I remember always looking for birds, fish, snakes, whatever I could find. I also vividly remember advocating for the water snakes that were often fished out of the water and killed – purely out of human fear.
I remember being very upset watching this happen as a child (lots of tears were shed). I specifically remember a live snake being caught when I was a teenager. Before it could be killed, I picked it up (I had learned how to handle snakes properly), put it in a bucket, and released it in a nearby marsh.
It’s good to have a healthy respect for wildlife, perhaps even a healthy fear in some cases, but killing out of fear or ignorance of the role that species plays in the ecosystem wasn’t something I could stand to witness.
Well, I think that really contributed to the direction of my career. I wasn’t OK with watching destruction occur if there was something I could do to take action. Even if that meant taking one small action and helping one individual at a time.
You have a background in marine science and did very different work prior to joining Save our shores. What made you decide to change course?
I saw in science that a lot of the information was staying within the science community – at conferences, in journals. There were these entities trying to make the connection between science and the public, but a lot got lost in translation.
An example that comes to mind is plastic ingestion in seabirds. I think that now, in 2022 most people have heard that seabirds and other species are ingesting plastics and that this is a huge issue.
Back when I started jumping into the research in 2007 and as late as 2011, I found that the friends and acquaintances outside of the scientific community were shocked to learn that wildlife was ingesting plastics – even though this had been documented in the scientific literature as far back as the 1960s or prior.
It took literal decades (a half-century or more!) for that information to really hit the mainstream. Of course, I realize that the problem was increasing in scope and scale throughout those decades. But I think it highlights a good point that there is information that readily circulates within the scientistic community for years, and sometimes takes decades before it becomes a common “known” to the public.
Why do you think the science community struggles to communicate with broader audiences?
This is often the result of information getting lost in translation – the scientific community trying to convey sometimes complicated concepts. It’s tough to get that information into a clear, concise, reader’s digest form. It doesn’t always go to plan. There’s also the issue of trends in mainstream media and what becomes a popular topic to amplify.
I think it’s important to point out that once the science started drawing the parallels between wildlife health and human health, well now you have a broader audience that is paying attention.
It’s important for us to communicate what the science is telling us in a way that people from all backgrounds, communities, and walks of life can connect with, care about, and understand. That means communicating the same information multiple ways to reach people of various demographics.
This also means helping people draw the parallels between what the science is telling us and how that might impact their lives, their families, and their communities.
What direction do you see Save Our Shores going into the future?
I want Save Our Shores to underscore the land-to-sea connection for all. What happens along the coastline is not a closed loop – all ecosystems and communities are connected.
What happens here in our backyard impacts our neighboring communities and keeps expanding out from there; it’s a ripple effect. There’s also the consideration of what’s happening socially and economically in our communities.
What are some of the specific actions you hope to take to achieve those goals?
Our new Junior Sanctuary Stewards program will reduce barriers for underserved youth to learn about and access the coast through a 15-week after school program. High schoolers will make up a Youth Advisory Council and will be directly involved in the development of elementary school curricula.
The Youth Council will help ensure that the middle school programs are fun, educational, and culturally relevant. Engaging youth and learning what is important to them is central to the future of conservation.
We’re also taking steps within our immediate community to reduce single-use plastics. We’re now seeking a partnership with the Meals on Wheels program to establish the use of reusables in their honorable effort to feed those in need.
It’s a small piece of a bigger effort to reduce and eventually eliminate single use plastics. And in this case, it’s benefitting a demographic that is often overlooked. At Save Our Shores, we aim to serve all demographics that make up our local community – and beyond. I personally share that tenet.
Given how dire climate change predictions are, how do you remain hopeful for the future?
Coming from a science background I’ve had an insider view of some of that data for the past 15 years. I see we only have two choices, 1) lose hope or 2) leverage information to make the changes that need to be made.
It means educating and inspiring people to take personal responsibility. Then, we snowball that effort to put pressure on our government, corporations, and businesses to change and evolve – so we have a real chance at a sustainable and equitable future.
Your motivation seems internally driven.
My general personality and outlook on life is hopeful and optimistic. I don’t have a doom and gloom personality, never have. That doesn’t mean I don’t have my moments of frustration and disappointment in what I see going on within our country and around the world. I’ve certainly had moments where I thought about giving up because the issues feel too big to tackle.
But when I have those moments, I remind myself that there is a whole generation out there counting on us to do the heavy lifting and make real changes – and I will certainly show up to do my best.
If I can be a part of something that inspires others to do the same, then we are on the right track! We owe it to them, to ourselves – to all creatures on the planet – to correct the wrongs and ensure there is a real chance at an equitable future on earth.