Hye Yeong Kwon on being seen

In August, HerChesapeake welcomed Hye Yeong Kwon to our meeting. Hye Yeong is the Executive Director of the Center for Watershed Protection: a national nonprofit organization that provides consulting services, a database of scientific research, and trainings for stormwater practitioners to understand how our actions on land impact the waters around us and to prevent and alleviate potential harm to streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, and bays. She spoke to us about how the workforce has changed for women, what she tells her daughters to look for in a job, and why she has learned to be comfortable being seen.

Hye Yeong Kwon is the Executive Director of the Center for Watershed Protection, and has worked with the Center since 1996. (Photo courtesy Her Mind Magazine)

Hye Yeong Kwon is the Executive Director of the Center for Watershed Protection, and has worked with the Center since 1996. (Photo courtesy Her Mind Magazine)

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

HerChesapeake: Tell us about your career path.

Hye Yeong Kwon: I grew up in Baltimore City. The few experiences I had with nature were always positive, so I knew [working in nature] was generally what I wanted to do. I majored in biology, and worked at a drug research company for a couple of years. I didn’t know anybody in the [environmental] field, and I responded to an ad [posted by the Center for Watershed Protection]. At the time, I think, the Center had four people, so I basically agreed to do everything, with the idea that I would learn the technical side of it. And I did, for a long time, do a lot of the technical programs, but now all I do is payroll! So that’s how I ended up where I am.

What makes you stay? What motivates you to get up every day and go to work at the Center for Watershed Protection?

I am somebody who thrives off of learning and [doing] different things. My mind needs to be engaged, and [this job has] never really been the same job for long.

Tell us more about your work with green jobs.

Seven years ago, [I got together with] a group of people much like this [and] talked about the fact that the environmental field was so exclusive, and didn’t have logical entry points for people who were not necessarily college-educated. We talked about the fact that environmentalism seemed very elite, and about the fact that in our business, which is stormwater and watershed management, there were no standards for how some of our work was conducted. We talked about [developing] a national certification program, and a couple of funders approached me about developing green jobs for under-employed and unemployed people. I thought that was great, but I can’t do recruitment; all I can do is help with the technical piece. We ended up partnering with Civic Works in Baltimore City, and this year, we’re going to meet the American National Standard for [the accreditation of a] certificate program. We’ve trained about 50 people so far. The idea is not to put [participants] through yet another expensive training, but to place them into jobs, which we’ve been successful at doing.

Do you have any advice for people navigating a career change?

I haven’t had much of one! It’s been a long time since I’ve navigated a career change. Everybody finds their own path. I have two daughters; one is 10, and the other is 14, and I tell them, you spend a lot of time at work, so you kind of have to enjoy it. If you don’t, you’ll have a hard time, although there’s lessons to be learned by having a job you hate, because I’ve done that, too. Working is hard, and most of us do it for a very long time, so it’s got to be something you enjoy.

What do you see as our biggest challenge, as women continuing to grow in a world that’s still dominated by men?

It was not uncommon for me to go to presentations and be the only woman and the only person of color there. It’s definitely a challenge. All you can do is what you can do.

I was much more introverted before I became an executive director. Now I have to do talks, I have to network. My natural tendency is to be a little extroverted, but I am not highly extroverted. This job requires you to be that way. But it’s taught me so many things: public speaking, talking one-on-one, dealing with a diversity of people.

[Women make up] more than half of the population, but we don’t dominate the business world. It’s very frustrating. When I first started working, I was harassed regularly. It was something that is just totally unacceptable now, but I’d get love messages, offers to “sit on my lap”; it was the way business worked. We’ve come a long way, but we’ve still got some work to do.

Do you have challenges asserting your authority?

I think I do. It’s pretty intimidating. I think my name, in particular, and being seen as a foreigner, is a challenge in its own right. People ask, “Where are you from?” Well, [I’m from] Baltimore City. But you’re always sort of seen as an outsider. It’s taken a long time for people to even know I’ve been at the Center for 23 years, 16 as executive director. It’s a challenge that’s hard to name. I’ve been in a room where I’ve been the only non-white person, and someone is introducing us—and two or three times this has happened—they just completely skip over me. Whether that’s because I’m a woman or a person of color, it’s hard to know. It’s a challenge just to be seen, but my job requires me to be seen.

In those moments, do you express your frustration?

I try humor, sometimes. I usually don’t keep anything to myself. But if you want to be heard, you’ve got to say it a certain way.

Who do you look up to? Who do you admire? And what have you learned from them?

I have a lot of people that I look up to. I was very lucky that people saw enough talent [in me] that they were willing to help me, and that’s really been critical to my success. And the staff I have now! I make mistakes, and they tell me, and I’m glad they tell me. I feel very fortunate.

What is your biggest career accomplishment? What are you excited to learn about going forward?

I’m a constant learner. In fact, I thought, when the girls go to college, I may go back to [school] to learn law. I don’t know; it may happen. As far as my accomplishments, one is the Clean Water Certificate Training Program. And I didn’t even run the program! I just said, okay, we’re going to do this. When we were actually able to graduate people, and to place them into jobs, I was so proud of the staff and the program. It was exactly what I wanted to do. I’m also proud of seeing how other staff have grown, and how they’re [now] recognized as experts. Not that I did anything but provide them the space to do that.