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The zombie dreams are worth it

Nelson alumna shares the challenges of communicating for the common good

November 23, 2011 | By Willow Russell (M.S. ‘06)

I admit it. Sometimes I think it would be easier to have a job I don't care so much about.

The other morning I woke up from a post-apocalyptic nightmare. It was The Hunger Games meets Zombieland, and my desire to survive was trumped only by the need to protect the laptop I clutched to my chest as I backed away from the creature with glowing yellow eyes and dripping teeth.

Willow Russell
Willow Russell

I'm in the midst of launching our organization's new website and I'm slightly haunted by the fear that I'll lose weeks of work in some sort of computer crash, klutzy accident or - you know - zombie showdown.

It's one of those all-consuming projects that takes over weekends, and - after the fourteenth time I've forced her to discuss the home page content - causes my girlfriend to flee to a coffee shop, so she can read her book in peace.

Despite this, I love my job. It's not exactly what I imagined my career would look like, but then I never had a clear image of how I would apply the things I studied. At least not since my dream of becoming a wildlife veterinarian was dashed when six dead white mice were laid out for dissection in my cell biology class and I ended up sobbing in the supply closet. (Turns out an I-can't-even-kill-mosquitoes, lifelong vegetarian-style love of animals doesn't necessarily mean you're cut out to be a vet.)

I knew what I was interested in, and what I cared about - protecting the environment, conserving biodiversity, improving the lives of all people - all that do-gooder, Pollyanna stuff. What I didn't know was what that looked like in a day-to-day job. Academia wasn't quite the right fit, environmental law turned out to be pretty dry and so rife with acronyms it practically constituted a second language, and well - we've already established the wildlife biology issue.

What do you say?

In Common invites Nelson
Institute alumni to write
engaging personal essays
for the magazine. We welcome
first-person essays on topics
you feel passionate about
related to your environmental
work, your time at the Nelson
Institute or other relevant
subjects that In Common
readers will enjoy. The tone
can range from serious to
humorous, from sad to
uplifting.

Any alumnus or alumna
may send us an idea for
an essay or a draft of 700-
800 words to be considered
for publication. Submit
ideas or drafts to
incommon@nelson.wisc.edu.

Luckily my lack of direction was supplemented by a little twist of fate. While studying at the Nelson Institute, I moved into a studio blocks from an environmental communications organization - the Biodiversity Project - where I finagled an internship that eventually developed into a full-time job.

Here was a career I had never considered. As many environmentalists can attest, we're not usually the life of the party. My breakdown of how global warming, toxic pollution and the general demise of the planet are connected to the plastic beer cup in your hand is kind of a conversation killer. And this applies on a broader scale.

Surprisingly, people don't respond well when you beat them over the head with the dire straits that they have only themselves to blame for. To motivate people you actually have to communicate in a compelling, understandable and inspiring way. (What a concept.) That's what the Biodiversity Project was trying to do - joining the ranks of Grist and other groups striving to make green mainstream.

In 2008, with a few years of communications (and one too many Wisconsin winters) under my belt I decided it was time to move. Not as far as my home state of Hawaii, but to the much more temperate Northwest where I was hired as the communications manager for Social Venture Partners Seattle.

My job involves message development, brand management, e-news production, and the above mentioned website among other things. But the most enviable part of my job is storytelling.

SVP connects and engages philanthropists, helping them make the greatest impact with their giving while funding and strengthening nonprofits that are improving the lives of kids and protecting our environment. Our members give both money and time, using their unique professional skills to bolster all the behind-the-scenes systems (financial management, human resources, leadership development, etc.) that help nonprofits achieve their missions most effectively.

And I get to help tell their stories - in videos, images and writing.

I don't do any of this alone, of course. I work with photographers, web developers, video editors, you name it. Together, we produce stories about a wide range of people - whether they're curing corneal blindness, protecting our region's most precious natural areas, or striving to end youth violence.

A recent story (see video), about a mother transformed by a violence prevention program, represents the core of SVP's work - connecting people with diverse skills and a shared passion for the common good, allowing each to have greater impact than they could alone.

In a lot of ways, it applies to me as well. I certainly don't have the skills or credibility to work directly with youth caught up in a cycle of violence, but I can help tell their story. We shared this video with hundreds of potential donors - hopefully attracting more contributions of time and money to their cause.

It's some of the most rewarding work I've done, and it constantly reminds me that I'm part of something bigger. So if the price of that is the occasional zombie dream ... I say, bring 'em on.

Willow Russell is Social Ventures Partners Seattle's communications manager. She previously managed communications campaigns among coalitions working to restore and protect Mississippi River and Great Lakes ecosystems.



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