If you said, “yes”, you are “my people”. I am, by nature, a shy, introverted individual, who by accident or fate ended up being an advocate for the environment and for the need for more inclusive and collaborative forms of water governance. These are not topics for the faint of heart. They do require patience, commitment and consistency – and being out on the public stage. I am not a natural, as I would prefer to be at the back of the room observing and analyzing what I see. Somewhere along the line, however, –actually– quite early on, I lost control of my own agenda by becoming an advocate for public life and the role we need to play in creating a just and fair world.
At first, I tried to ignore my passions and stay safe. As a child, I was absolutely terrified when speaking in front of an audience. I did not like to draw attention to myself. I was reluctant to share my ideas. That was a pretty safe place to be and I loved it.
In high school, I took my first reluctant step into public life by circulating petitions among my fellow students to save baby seals from cruel hunting practices and to stop whale hunting around the world. These actions were still quite safe, as I could talk to people one-on-one and stay in the background where no one would notice me. I would drop the signed petitions in the mailbox and be done with it.
As time went on and I engaged in my college work and career, I began to see the gaps in our environmental programs, where I believed change was needed. I knew that if I ever wanted to be a part of making the world a better place, I would have to step up and challenge myself to be more. I tried to talk myself out of it. If I became more involved, I would have to face my fears. I would often curse the universe for making me care so much about issues while not giving me the personality to match my passions. I basically had the inclinations and soul of a wall flower.
When I came to Minnesota in 1990, I was still the reluctant leader. I had come from Washington, DC where I worked for the US Environmental Protection Agency in the Water Division. In my capacity there, I was many times removed from the water. I had little to no connection with lakes, streams or wetlands. I rarely interacted with citizens who cared about water, and when I did, I was almost blissful. I lived vicariously through my regional and state counterparts who at least got to go out into the field to study the water now and then. I longed for connection to the water I had loved so much. Instead, I found myself working on agency guidance documents, bureaucratic letters, educational publications and the like. My soul was struggling and I knew I needed to make a change.
A job became available at the MN Pollution Control Agency, and I quickly applied. It involved coordinating citizen engagement activities in the Minnesota River basin. This sounded too good to be true. I could actually go down to the river, put my big toe in the water, hear the ripples, and best of all, work with the people who lived in the basin. This job required a whole new Lynne to emerge. It often terrified me. I found myself in front of groups, speaking, on TV, running open houses, public meetings and serving as the Coordinator for the 25-member MN River Citizens Advisory Committee. I became deeply inspired working with civic leaders that were simply born to be on stage – and I was very jealous of their ease in the public eye.
Since then, I have continued to push myself to be in public life. I have spent many hours in front of people talking about civic engagement, civic governance and sharing hopeful stories from my work in communities. It still is not easy or second nature to be in these places, but the rewards have been enormous, and I cannot imagine what I would have missed by trying to play it safe.
I know that there are probably millions of people like me who would rather blend into the woodwork than be seen. But those are often the people that are deeply observant, caring, civically-minded, and concerned for generations yet unborn. If this sounds like you, I urge you to put your toe in the water, too, and take your first step into civic life. Get involved. Join a Toastmasters Club (as I have) to gain more comfort in front of others. Dare to lead some small effort. Get some training on leadership. Get inspired by watching others develop their own capacity as citizens. Get a public life! And enjoy the journey.