Women’s History Month can feel redundant, or it can be a time for personal or community reflection. We hear from Carrie Strohl, a board member here at The Watershed Project, about her personal growth and experiences as an environmental educator and advocate for women and youth leadership, her reflections on Women’s History Month, her “sheroes” and the challenges she continues to face in a patriarchal society. Discussion hosted by Dan Kirk, the Education and Communications Coordinator.
DK: Briefly describe your career/passion path and how did that lead you to your current board position?
CS: I’ll start off by saying I was a classroom teacher in a large city in a midwestern state. In 2008, I moved to a smaller agricultural town in California, so that was a bit of a shift for me. It was 2008, so no one was hiring teachers at the time even though I had transitioned out of the classroom and was teaching teachers. It was just the beginning of the recession and so I landed a job at the Lawrence Hall of Science. I worked there for several years developing curriculum, which was a highly collaborative and fun engaging job. At the same time, I was also pursuing a PhD at UC Davis. I eventually combined my background as a teacher and my science literacy specialist background and my experience as a gardener and researcher, to found a non-profit organization to support garden based science wellness and environmental education. Part of the non-profit is that I use my research lens to focus on what I refer to as evidence based practice, like, how do you know what you are doing is working? I contract with the local conservation district to evaluate their watershed education programs. So when a friend asked me to join the board at The Watershed Project (he had been on the board for several years), it seemed like a good fit.
DK: How does your identity as a woman shape what you do for work and/or what you do outside of work?
CS: Well, I’ll start by saying I went to an all girls high school, and you know, gender segregated education isn’t super common outside of the Midwest and it’s definitely confined to the denominational and parochial schools, so it was a catholic high school. When I went to college, I realized that many of my female peers didn’t have the same experiences I had, like, I learned that they were afraid to raise their hands in class. I was sort of astonished by this, but it also helped me recognize the ways I was fortunate. Even though I had taken a bunch of science classes in high school, it had never occurred to me to pursue science as a career, even though I loved science teaching in the classroom. When I worked as a curriculum developer, part of my role was to develop supports or accommodations for making lessons more accessible for all different kinds of students, regardless of language abilities or language background or their intellectual ability or what their background experience might be, all of this is especially important when you develop curriculum that is distributed on a national scale. Curriculum distributed at the national level is really telling of how we categorize marginalized groups of people and don’t make any special accommodations for girls in the classroom although they are a marginalized population when it comes to science. If science is taught at the elementary level, it might not be taught all that well because elementary teachers don’t get well prepared and so some youth may be inhibited from participating. But women make up 29% of the STEM workforce, so that makes a difference, right? By 4th and 5th grade, students are turned off to science for whatever reasons. So when I was working in a school seven years ago, there was a need to maintain a school garden in the absence of a position to maintain a school garden. When that need arose, I started an afterschool club called Dirt Girls, and I think I just had that experience of gender segregated education as a framework. When I started it, I thought, what would be the dual purpose of it? We would do garden work, but in that space increase access to science in an outdoor space and at the same time try to nurture agency, connect kids with nature, mentor leadership abilities and grow problem solving capacities. It became this alchemy because there was way more going on there than just maintaining the school garden. So I turned that into a signature program for the non-profit.
DK: Who are your women role models (growing up or present day) and why?
CS: I just finished Michelle Obama’s autobiography and the title is Becoming. The message is really strong that “you’re not finished, but you are enough” and I mean, I have to just claim that. I felt very strongly that that is the message that we miss. So I would say that one of my sheros, is Michelle Obama partly because of her work in planting a garden at the White House. Gardens are sometimes also marginalized spaces. They are seen as working class or dirty, and even though everyone likes to loud school gardens, there is no support for the policy. So for her to do that, to lead by example and say that this [garden space] is something we need, is powerful. I think she is incredibly humble and overcame gender bias in her career – she was a high powered lawyer and had to make the choice about motherhood and I see that. I see that we are in another recession, pandemic induced, but have you heard the term “shecession”? More women are leaving the workforce in part because that’s who’s taking care of these undone childcare responsibilities and schooling responsibilities. And so I’ll say I don’t remember my mom being specifically like “you are a woman, you will do this” but she was incredibly independent and she taught me how to speak up, especially on behalf of those who can’t — she had strong ideals for what it meant to use your voice for good. She wouldn’t have used those words, you know, they are very academic words to describe it, but she felt it and wanted it for me.
DK: What’s the biggest thing you had to fight for as a woman?
CS: I just want to acknowledge my privilege first as a white person and as a well educated woman. I’ve had the agency to choose my own career path and advocate for myself — Not everyone has that opportunity, I just want to put that out there. That being said, it’s very well established that women put their needs behind other people’s needs. So the thing I’ve had to fight for is to prioritize my own mental, physical and social emotional needs; I am a person and I’m only human and I need to make sure I take care of myself so that I can continue to do the work that I have chosen to do or that the world has positioned me to do, whichever way you want to look at it. Lately, I’ve been propagating this message through house plant based education and I call this “plant empowered education”. I’ve been hosting these little events, hosting gatherings with teachers, teaching about house plants, and at the same time I’ve transitioned Dirt Girls to a home gardening situation where I send them house plants and we get on Zoom and do the Zoom thing. Nobody loves the zoom thing, but it’s something to help the connection. If you have a plant in the room, there is an opportunity to look at it and it can improve your focus, and it can increase the air quality in your room, and it can boost your productivity, and these are scientifically based claims. So thinking about using that space and remembering to breath and manage stress and recognize the impact of stress on the body.
DK: What does Women’s History Month mean to you?
CS: It’s so easy to fall into tokenism and not feel like you’re just putting a message out there to just have a message. So I’ll just say that for me, it’s been trying to hold the meaningfulness of Dirt Girls in a community space. So I started, for Women’s History Month this year, everyday posting on a private instagram account that only participants of Dirt Girls, supporters, donors or women I look up to or personally know have access to. Everyday I’ve been posting an image with a word with the hashtag “herstory”. I use this time that I’m not fully realizing the potential of the program to document its potential, so that I can use it in full force when this is all over, when life maybe returns back to something resembling normal. So this year it’s been about rethinking; what does Women’s History Month mean to me? I’m using “herstory” to not just prop up the things that women in the past have done, but to recognize what we are doing right now today.