ITEP Associate Director ::
Few tribal environmental professionals enter the field with an overwhelming desire to work in the cubicle honeycomb of some large corporation. Most of us want to make a difference at the community level, to see the fruits of our work ripen into effective programs that protect the health and natural -resources of Indian people. Whether we completed a college-degree program or entered the field as a complete novice, in some ways our real education only began in earnest after we began the work.
For tribal environmental professionals, developing skills through trial-and-error can be stimulating and rewarding; there are few greater satisfactions than struggling with a problem and finding an effective solution. But the process can also be frustrating when we tackle technical challenges without support. The kind of trial and error striving that tribal techies face often stems from a lack of resources, time, and experienced co-workers to help us through unfamiliar tasks. Many tribal environmental programs employ a small number of staff who shoulder a broad range of responsibilities. Many of us have served our tribal communities as air and water managers, compliance inspectors, and even, (myself, for example, in my former job with Jemez Pueblo) as natural-resource managers. The multifaceted responsibilities of tribal environmental work can sometimes leave us feeling overwhelmed.
Which leads to the topic of mentoring. For most tribal environmental professionals, a good mentor is nearly indispensable. Along with an endemic lack of resources, many tribal programs suffer from high turnover rates; often we exist in a state of ambiguity regarding our roles and expectations. Drawing on the expertise of someone who has been there, who has grappled with difficult issues and found solutions-sometimes through lonely struggle, but often with help from their own support system-can determine whether our program limps along or really accomplishes the goals we set.
The best mentors don't just offer skills and advice-they also offer a broad perspective on what being a tribal environmental professional is all about. It's hard to say when a person crosses the line between "apprentice" and "mentor," and in a sense, maybe there is no such line -once you've spent a little time in the field, you probably have something to offer novice staff. But there's no doubt that seasoned mentors can help make the difference between a program that stumbles along and one that thrives.
ITEP has long recognized the importance of mentoring relationships, and we've worked to encourage such bonds, through the extensive tribal networking we provide via courses and gatherings and through our student and professional internship programs and professional-assistance activities. Recently we've embarked on a humble but important effort to create a formal mentoring structure through our Environmental Education and Outreach Program. Utilizing this program, tribal environmental professionals can directly seek out and solidify mentoring relationships that, we hope, will enrich both individuals.
For this effort, we need your help. If you feel you have something to offer as a mentor, let us know. If you need a mentor or know someone who does, let us know.
We continue to encourage mentor relationships through our other programs, and there you can help, too. If you have a program that can accommodate a summer intern, let us know. If you're struggling with a technical problem, give us a call and we'll see what we can do to pair you up with an experienced technical expert. We have a database filled with the names of hundreds of tribal environmental professionals with insight and expertise in many different disciplines. Getting help for your program is just a phone call or email away.
Mentoring doesn't have to involve only tribal environmental staff. Students in fields such as environmental engineering and environmental science are often unsure how their education will translate into meaningful work. There you can help them immensely, sharing with them what you do, your successes (and struggles), helping them to expand their options and opening the door for new energy and perspectives in tribal programs. And you can do even more than share information. You can share your passion for the work, for the goals that brought you here in the first place and the energy that sustains you. Let them know that you love your work, difficult though it may be. Let them know your job is worth doing, and that when they need support and advice, you'll be there.
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Last updated: August 23, 2007