President's Letter: Conservation and the art of active listening

Carter Roberts headshot

Carter Roberts
President & CEO, WWF

By many measures—landscapes conserved, corporate climate commitments made, funds raised—we just closed the books on one of the best years in the history of WWF. And we did so making use of a myriad of technologies to connect us with each other in the midst of a global pandemic. It was only when we began to venture forth and travel again that I realized with great clarity how much we had missed in the absence of those most human of connections: face-to-face conversations, just being together, learning about each other’s lives and, most of all, listening.

Once it was safe to do so, I joined several colleagues in venturing to Bozeman, Montana, the home of our Northern Great Plains (NGP) program. We went to visit our staff, but also for the privilege of meeting with and listening to our partners from ranching communities and Native nations. We wanted to hear firsthand about the challenges they face and how we can be most helpful in supporting their connection to wildlife and the landscapes that they call home.

In meetings, in hallways, on hikes, and over meals, we dug into specific needs and requests. The first one was to hire local—to fill open positions with candidates from the Native nations and ranching communities with whom we work. Although this approach was already a part of our NGP program’s hiring practice, we learned why it should be more of a norm in order to ensure a constant informal flow of information and facilitate faster decision-making, greater creativity, and earlier and easier conflict resolution.

Second was the need to provide measures that facilitate continuity. The group explained that continuity includes not just the flow of funds to sustain initiatives and conservation positions within Native nations and local communities, but also the provision of technical support and a communications platform so that our partners’ stories can be told.

A third request was to make sure WWF staff have a deep understanding about where and with whom we are working. As one of our partners put it, “You can’t understand our problems without examining the ugly roots at the bottom of the pot.” She went on to detail the profound importance of taking the time to understand their history and their experience before we consider what support we might offer.

“Listening is a seemingly simple act, but done right ... it can make all the difference in the world.”

Carter Roberts

And they articulated—and demonstrated—the importance of something I didn’t expect, which was the power of ceremony. Ceremony to set the stage for connections and dialogue. Ceremony through the power of ancient resonant prayers to begin meetings, to honor and acknowledge each other, and to call on our better selves to show up for the conversation. Ceremonies that give each individual the space to tell their own story and then to move on, so no one person dominates the gathering.

Finally, we looked at how this unfolds in practice, in the context of the Buffalo Nations Grassland Alliance (BNGA). A collective idea developed and owned by the region’s Native nations, the Alliance aims to ensure that the diversity of life in the Northern Great Plains flourishes for current and future generations. Conservation is a living discipline, and it is ideas like the BNGA that will keep moving us forward.

I came home from my trip to Bozeman reflecting on those voices and the lessons that I learned, and on our staff’s dedication to solving problems and embracing opportunities. I was impressed by their devotion to ensuring respect for communities whose life stories and livelihoods are intertwined with these lands. And I thought: This is how conservation should be practiced.

Listening is not just a part of our work; it’s the foundation. I came away from this trip feeling immense gratitude for the chance to listen to our partners—not through a Zoom screen or over a phone line, but face to face, registering emotion and nuance that is all but undetectable otherwise. Listening is a seemingly simple act, but done right, and under the right circumstances, it can make all the difference in the world.

Carter Roberts

President & CEO

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