Alison Zajdel, Executive Director of the Cope Environmental Center, recently announced that she would be stepping down from her role there to pursue new opportunities. Alison is someone I consider to be an incredible model of leadership, hard work and creativity when it comes to community-building and organizational development, and while I’m sad that Cope is losing her talents as ED, I’m excited to see what she does next. I talked with Alison about this change, what it means for her, and what stands out to her as some of Richmond’s strengths and challenges. (Full disclosure: I’m a financial supporter of the Cope Environmental Center.)
Chris Hardie: Can you give some context on the transition you’re going through right now with stepping down at Cope?
Alison Zajdel: This is my sixteenth year at Cope. I started off as Resource Coordinator working with membership, then moved into the Development Director role, working with fundraising and marketing. Then I moved into the Executive Director role, coming up on five years now.
I’ve been here for a long time, and it has been a wonderful ride. There’s just a ton of stuff that we’ve gotten done, and it’s certainly had highs and lows as every organization goes through. Everything that we’ve done has come to a nice transition point with getting through the campaign and finishing the new building – we’re ready to dedicate it in a month now. It felt like a really good time to pass the torch to somebody else for a different style of leadership, and that will be needed with the new opportunities that the Center has. I keep saying I was meant to be a “chaos director,” and that’s what I am, that’s what I did. I was Director during a chaotic time. I was trying to figure out how to navigate the Living Building Challenge, campaigns and Bicentennial projects all while managing the Center. I think it’s ready for somebody that can steer the ship straight and keep moving toward our mission.
I’m excited to turn over the reins. It’s going to be very sad and it’s certainly bittersweet. I’ve just grown to be completely head over heels in love with this place. It’ll be a difficult move, but I think the Center is ready and I’m ready.
CH: Sixteen years is a really long time. What stands out to you as something that’s been the most rewarding part of your work at Cope?
AZ: The people that I work with and the volunteer corps that we work with here. Watching people work so hard for a cause, I think, is extremely rewarding. We have done a lot to protect and preserve and honor this piece of land, and to teach people — mostly kids — to fall in love with it. There’s a saying that you won’t protect what you’re not in love with. That’s the same kind of concept that we like to teach: fall in love with the land, the environment, something, so that you’re more ready to protect it when the time comes.
CH: What would you say is one of the hardest parts of bringing sustainability education and research to Richmond, Wayne County, this region? What’s been one of the biggest challenges that you and your staff have faced in doing that work?
AZ: Politics. Politics gets in the way. I have said often that I get very frustrated that one political party gets to own the environmental movement. I think it’s crazy and completely backwards. And I don’t think that’s unique to Richmond, it’s everywhere. Tons of people on both sides of the aisle are very concerned about the environment. To shove it on one side and say that everybody on the other side doesn’t love it or vice versa, it’s just crazy.
This is why the Cope Center tries very hard not to involve politics, and to remind people what our core values are, what they are protecting and what they’re in love with. I think that has gotten us further and helped more children and adults come in to nature.
CH: Do you find that children show up at Cope with any awareness of the environment as a political issue? Or are they mostly blissfully ignorant of that when they come to the Center?
AZ: Thankfully they’re blissfully ignorant, maybe because we see them when they’re young. Some have never been in the woods by the time they get to the Cope Center…it’s their first experience. They do have a lot of preconceived notions about the environment. “My mom and dad always kill snakes, we kill every snake.” That type of mentality about nature is dangerous, the idea that nature is terrifying and dirty. That kind of stuff is what we battle way more in the kids, and it takes a lot of time to un-do that mentality. But once they see a snake and touch a snake, and understand what the snake is doing there, then they have no desire to kill the snake. They realize that it is a part of protecting their health and their homes.
Nature isn’t always pretty. But it’s definitely not as dangerous as some parents often make it out to be.
CH: Five years from now, if someone were to bike on over to the Cope Center and explore what it has to offer, what do you think they’ll see?
AZ: I would love for them to see a beautiful match between current sustainable trends, sustainable thinking, and accessible sustainability.
CH: What does accessible sustainability mean in that case – is it about the cost of bringing sustainability to your own home? Or just better understanding the concepts?
AZ: I think it’s both. I think people for a long time have thought of sustainable living as a kind of a high-brow way of operating. We are getting better, at Cope Center, in the community and the environmental world as a whole, at relating sustainability to people’s wallets and to human health. We’re making it not so far off in the distance, something only people with money can think about.
That’s hard to do when you’re doing things like green building because it is more expensive, you are paying a premium for quality construction. So I hope that in five years, somebody will look at the property and say, “Gosh they’ve done a beautiful job, leaving nature alone in a lot of places on that property.” We’re figuring out how to incorporate sustainability so that nature is honored, instead of brushed aside. Often times, it’s either sustainability, or it’s nature, and we really try to make a combination happen here.
CH: You’ve gained a lot of experience now with fundraising. What’s your best pro tip on how to ask people for their financial support?
AZ: I’ve been doing fundraising for fourteen years now. It is very different asking people to support a capital campaign project than it is asking them to support an annual fund project. It’s a whole lot easier to sell a thing to people than it is to sell a concept. So you have to link people, maybe not always to things, but to programs, parts of the property, things that are important to them. Saying, “Please support environmental education” is just hard for a lot of people to wrap their heads around, and really know what you’re talking about. But if you’re saying, “Support these water testing kits, so that we can get kids to understand what makes good water quality” — that kind of sell is a lot easier for people to grasp.
I think it’s very generational. I’ve found that the younger you are, the more specific of a thing you want your gift to be tied to. The older you are, it seems the more trusting you are of an organization to just spend it where it’s needed most. It’s important to find the thing or the hook that makes that person interested in your organization. Then link their gift directly to it.
CH: After you’ve settled in to not being an Executive Director anymore, what do you think your ideal day is going to look like?
AZ: My ideal day will involve picking my kids up from school, which will be exciting! I’m also excited to have some flexibility to take on projects that non-profits are wanting to do, but may not have the time or the resources to get them done internally. I’d like to be able to help in any way I can with that.
CH: You seem like someone who’s already incredibly involved in lots of different local projects and organizations. How do you decide which ones to put your time and energy into?
AZ: I’ll go where people need me. There are certainly areas that I have a passion for. It’s obvious that I have a passion for environmental causes. I have a passion for attracting people to this community, who might otherwise not give us a glance because we’re small. And I’m very eager to help those that are not given as many chances as others have been given.
I have a real interest I just haven’t explored lately, though Cope Center has explored it a little bit, in food insecurity: how to stop the waste of food and the food stream. I’m hoping that can be an area where I can be helpful, and I’m encouraged by some things going on in Richmond right now along those lines.
CH: As a community leader who is also a woman, what have you noticed or experienced when it comes to Richmond’s progress in treating women equitably in a professional and community development context?
AZ: I remember a lot of women as leaders when I was growing up in this town, so it didn’t seem abnormal to me to have women in high leadership roles. I think that right now, we’re about 80% of the way there.
It’s especially hard, though, if you grew up in this town. There are people who knew you when you were little and it is very hard for them to make the transition in their brain, that you are now thirty-seven, doing a real job, instead of babysitting. That’s a tough transition, and I think it’s especially tough for young women. It just seems like young men are somewhat catapulted into leadership roles. For some of the younger women, it just takes it a while for the community to remember that they are now grown up. That’s something I feel like I’ve experienced quite a bit.
But, I do believe there are tons of women right now in very powerful positions (whether it looks like it’s powerful on letterhead or not). We always have a place to go, but I feel very confident that Richmond is ahead of a lot of communities in gender equity.
CH: If you had to pinpoint a single issue that you think Richmond and Wayne County need to wrestle with, more than we already are, what comes to mind?
AZ: Well, there are like eighteen single issues that I have. (Laughs.) I think the biggest one has been people not having pride in Richmond. I know that’s a cliché answer, because a lot of people say it. But it’s a big deal. I think there are a lot of people that move here from out of town or out of state, and just fall in love with the place. But then people who have grown up here and have never left often times get fairly down on it, maybe just because they haven’t seen the other side of the fence.
CH: What do we do about that?
AZ: It’s hard. I like that fact that Richmond is willing to be a little wacky. It’s kind of the “Keep Austin Weird, Keep Portland Weird” concept. I think Richmond’s getting a little of that, and I love it. Why wouldn’t we have the premiere ice festival in the midwest? It’s just a good way of just saying, “I don’t care if people think this is a crazy idea, we’re gonna try it anyway.” I think that gives young people a ton of confidence in the town.
So we should continue to try, even if ideas aren’t completely flushed out, things that are just a little funky, and build up the reservoir of people who think differently. A lot of communities would write those projects off as too expensive or too hard. I think Richmond has a beautiful way of saying, “we don’t care, we’re gonna try it anyway.”
CH: When you are traveling and you meet people from other parts of the country and tell them about where you live and why you’re here, what do you say? How do you sum up Richmond?
AZ: I say a lot that Richmond has a new food awakening. I’m a total food crazy person and I love that in the last fifteen years we’ve gotten so many new restaurants and new ethnic flavors. It’s great, and it feels like they’re doing well too, which is just awesome that the community is supporting it.
I also talk about how Wayne County as a whole has done a very good job of preserving green space. A lot of times it was out of necessity because there wasn’t money to develop, but there is a lot of green space here throughout the community: tree lined streets and things like that that I think are unique and make our community way more attractive than a lot of communities our size. I talk about that a lot.
Being close to family is just super important for a lot of people. When anybody asks why I live here, one of my first reasons is: my family’s here and my roots are here and I love being in a familiar place. I love having my kids know their grandparents, it’s very important to us.
Photo credit: Greg Pyle Photography