Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Skye Borden and I am the director of Environment Montana, a statewide advocacy group. I run campaigns for clean air, clean water, and open space at the local, state, and federal level.
What has been one insight or lesson that has been most helpful in your career?
My favorite piece of organizing advice came from a seasoned DC lobbyist, who once told me, “Start with the yucky things first.”
Every new project or campaign is going to have aspects to it that you simply dread. Maybe its something that makes you nervous, like public speaking, or its something socially awkward, like smoothing over a rocky relationship with a coalition partner.
Whatever it is, just take care of it. Get it out of your way first, and then free yourself to focus on the aspects of the work that you really enjoy.
What has been your favorite mistake? A mistake that in retrospect led to a great lesson and progress.
A couple years ago, we released a research report that contained some pretty explosive allegations about Montana school drinking water. In the rush up to publication, I spent a lot of time making sure every data point was accurate and that every detail in the discussion section was defensible.
But I forgot to pick up the phone and tell our school superintendents I was releasing the report. When the report came out, and the inevitable deluge of press calls came in to their offices, they were all completely blindsided – and also understandably furious with me!
In my rush to be correct, I had forgotten to be courteous. And in the process, I burned some bridges that would have been helpful for me later on. I learned an important lesson through that experience: relationships matter just as much as facts.
Project forward ten years. How will your industry or field be fundamentally different then? What opportunities do you see?
Its no secret that our political world is currently in turmoil. I think that, in some ways, the past few years have been America’s version of “rock bottom” – the precipitating event that awakens us to the need for significant, structural change.
We can all agree the current system is broken, but what comes next?
To remake our political world, we’ll need all hands on deck. We need visionaries, like Greta Thunburg, who can galvanize international movements for radical change. But we also need countless nameless heroes doing the day-to-day work of community building – campaigners knocking on doors, soccer moms running for local office, volunteers picking up trash in neighborhood parks.
What are some bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
The worst advice I’ve gotten is to look out for yourself.
Sure, it’s important to establish your organizational brand and make a name in your field. But we should never forget that we are part of greater movement, and that we are all stronger when we work together. Selfish behavior may rack up a couple short-term wins, but the most effective long-term advocates are constantly reaching a hand back to pull others up with them.
So, my advice is this: go to other people’s events, volunteer for their campaigns, pass the microphone if someone has a better story to tell, and share the connections that you’ve been able to make. The more you do it, I think you’ll find that folks will do the same for you.
In the last two years, what have you become better at saying no to?
I’m still terrible at saying no. But I’m working on it! Ask me again in another two years…
What is the one book you recommend most often and why?
It may be cliché to say, but I think Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is required reading for any would-be environmental advocate. It’s the gold standard for how to advocate passionately for a cause with both your mind and your heart. Plus, it’s just some darn good storytelling.
What advice would you give a smart and ambitious recent college graduate? What advice should they ignore?
One of our office motto’s is: Eat dirt if you have to. Not all my work is glamorous – sometimes I get to host swanky events, but I’m also usually the one scrubbing the office toilets before guests arrive.
My advice is to never assume that you’re above a task just because you’ve got a degree to your name or some years of experience on your resume. My best workers are the folks that are skilled enough to tackle complex, high-level projects but humble enough to roll their sleeves up and take care of whatever needs to get done.
In terms of advice to ignore, I’d say that graduates should ignore pressure to settle into a lifelong career right away. Some of the most successful adults I know took a winding route to get to their chosen field. Don’t feel like your path is set in stone just because you picked a certain major or took a certain first job. Don’t be afraid to reinvent yourself, at any stage in life.
What is your favorite quote, one you aim to live by?
Advocates are a pretty motivational bunch – there’s so many great organizing quotes out there! But my favorite, the one I keep hanging in my office, is from Saul Alinsky:
“This is the world as it is. This is where you start.”
Every campaign will have some dark times when things just aren’t going right: a bill sponsor goes AWOL, a big funder backs out, or a coalition partnership gets messy.
In those days, it’s easy to feel powerless. But, it’s important to remember that nothing is permanent. That’s just the world as it is – and if its unacceptable to you, then get to work changing it.
My email is sborden[at]environmentmontana.org and my work line is (406) 201-1325. Environment Montana is part of the Environment America network, which hires dozens of entry level campaigners for full-time positions every year. I’m always happy to talk to folks about the opportunities we have available, both here in Missoula and across the country.