Sabbaticals Are Not Vacations: Back to Work and Where to From Here

2019-09-19T13:51:31-06:00 September 19th, 2019|About, Field Notes, Uncategorized|2 Comments

For those who have asked, sabbaticals are not the same thing as a vacation.  Sabbaticals are a period of paid or unpaid leave that is granted to an employee so they can study, travel, volunteer, write or whatever it takes for an active pursuit of purpose. One of the goals is to be recharged and refreshed when coming back to the job, so ideally the purpose is in a different but conceptually related discipline rather than the same old thing. This awakens new ideas, fosters a broader viewpoint and improves performance on return to work.  Yes, not working comes with the perks of less structured time and formal commitments, so it can feel like a vacation. A vacation with purpose. In an earlier blog, Kenya Travels: If There’s Not Dancing at the Climate Crisis, I’m Not Coming, I talk about this awkward paradox – feeling like I’ve had something of an exotic vacation while grappling with challenging issues surrounding poverty and justice in climate migration.

My first days of sabbatical took some getting used to.  What? I can skip the alarm, read the full paper including the horoscope and do the crossword puzzle?!  Sweet.  No kidding, check out my horoscope from one of my first days of sabbatical:

Pisces (Feb. 19-March 20). It’s pretty rare for you to feel totally free to do what you want. Perhaps you keep thinking that someone is going to need you or that somehow you’ll get in trouble.  Let it go so you can embrace freedom.

I’m telling you, I wish sabbaticals were more common in the workplace outside of academia. Everyone deserves the freedom to be creative and explore their passions with their employer’s purpose in mind. I head back to work full-time soon, making this my last blog while on sabbatical. Thank you for indulging an engineer in pushing my comfort zone. I’d like to use this post to summarize, reflect and share where to from here in my return to Brendle Group.

We Were All New Once – Yvon Chouinard

A photo I took in the Denver Patagonia store while planning my sabbatical. A helpful reminder that even Yvon Chouinard started somewhere. Yes, we were all new once and life is truly an adventure.

First, what a joy it’s been to be a beginner again. Climate Migration is a growing intersection between climate change, poverty and conflict. Growing up professionally in the climate change field, I’ve learned so much this year about poverty and conflict and the related professions of international development, humanitarian work, peacebuilding, human geography and migration. While I let curiosity and a heavy appetite for reading be my guide, I couldn’t have made so much progress without the guidance of  Farnam Street and its various posts about mental models, critical thinking and the importance of reading voraciously, including how to choose what to read and becoming a syntopical reader.

Oh the People You’ll Meet

While finding the time for reading and critical thinking has been awesome, there are certain things you can only learn by talking with people. I’ve had the honor and joy of interviewing over 50 people this year.  I was able to gather information and hear perspectives from universities, non-profits, businesses, artists, community leaders, humanitarian workers, and peace builders. These experts covered a range of topics. Poverty, conflict, gender equality, water scarcity, energy supply, sustainable design in human resettlement, international development challenges, decolonial sustainability, cognitive psychology and climate denial, arts in social movements and so on. Many of these interviews led to introductions for more interviews and some turned into new collaborations and friendships.

Safari boat ride with my new friend Anicet Adjahossou on Lake Naivasha, Kenya.

Here’s a case in point. In reading about sustainable resettlement I learned about Anicet Adjahossou’s leadership role in this field at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I decided to connect with him on LinkedIn where I discovered that while his career has covered much of Africa for more than a decade he actually lives nearby in Denver, Colorado. Not only that, he’s pursuing a PhD in systems engineering at Colorado State University. Of additional interest, he was born and raised in Benin, West Africa where my son is currently serving as a Peace Corps volunteer. Naturally an initial informational interview quickly evolved into more direct ways to collaborate on our shared interests, including our workshop together in Nairobi that I posted about previously.

Beginner’s Luck: Open to Opportunity and Happy Accidents

Reading and interviews can sound like work if one’s not careful. To help me shift my mindset away from work, I created a simple drawing in my sabbatical sketchbook, depicting a four-leaf clover. I’ll spare you my rudimentary sketch, but picture each leaf of the clover labeled with an important angle in pursuing my sabbatical goals: Leaf 1. Knowledge; Leaf 2. New Skills; Leaf 3. Behavior Change; Leaf 4. Luck!

For Leaf 1. Knowledge, I’ve already talked about the reading and interviews, but I also took a couple of on-line courses and generally tried to embrace each day as a learning opportunity.  Leaf 2, Skills was my way to get away from higher-level management activities filling most my days at Brendle Group to more independent hands-on activities. Even this blog is a new skill for me. I also got a new drone. I’m a clumsy newbie at flying it now, but I’m hoping to grow my skills during a 4-day drone flight and pilot licensing course next month. Leaf 3, Behavior Change was a reminder  to leave my comfort zone, embrace a beginner’s mindset and to rest, relax, have fun and recharge. On the R&R front, after returning from East Africa I packed over 200 miles of hikes and trail runs in a 6 week period to be ready for a 2-day self-supported trail run with friends. Trail running to me is the ultimate in recharge. While these 3 leaves were helpful, most of all Leaf 4, Luck has been my guide. It helped me to be open to opportunity, serendipity, happy accidents and the things that seem to make magic happen, the X Factors in life.

Enjoying a laugh with IHA founder John Shavers on the shuttle boat to Bussi Island, Uganda

For example, when my sister drove me to the airport for my trip to Uganda, I had an East Africa Visa allowing me to go to Rwanda and Kenya as well, but no firm plans after Uganda. I went to Uganda as a volunteer with the Interethnic Health Alliance (IHA). This in itself was a leap of faith, having only been recently introduced to IHA’s founder John Shavers through a referral from an informational interview. No kidding, I literally met John in-person for the first time aboard our plane in Amsterdam where we were able to arrange the same connecting flight down to Uganda.  Being open to half-formed opportunities turned out really lucky for me.  John is a gem of a man. His board and Uganda-based team are all good people, doing good work. Salt of the earth.  How lucky for me that our paths met.

Capstone Event: Climate Migration Panel at the UN Civil Society Conference

Posing with our favorite UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (pictured with Kim Schmitt and Anicet Adjahossou)

While the four-leaf clover sabbatical canvas was a good high-level guide, I knew I needed a professional milestone to help me transition from full-time sabbatical back to half-time work in August. The solution I found was the UN Civil Society Conference, held in Salt Lake City Utah in late August. For the conference I moderated a workshop on Climate Migration, convening some of the new colleagues I had met through my research. In addition to Anicet Adjahossou from UNHCR, I was joined by Kim Schmitt from Bridging Borders and Natalie El-Diery, the Executive Director of the International Rescue  Committee (IRC), Salt Lake City office.

The conference was an inspiring culmination of my reading, interviews, and travels. I’m intrigued by the similarities between global climate migration and the challenges we face in our country with racism and poverty especially when it comes to housing.  In a Native Women workshop I met the first native american woman to create a Super Pac in the U.S. The women on the panel made such a compelling case of their capabilities and why we should include Native Women more in society. During the social impact investing thematic session I learned that trillions of dollars are needed to reach the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. But coincidentally, literally trillions of dollars are currently held in private family wealth in the U.S.. Apparently, private family foundations are eager to help but there’s work to do in educating them on their role. For example, billions of dollars in private family wealth will be transferred to the next generation in the coming years. Only 4% want to keep doing the same thing that earned them their wealth, yet only 8% have the knowledge and skills to pursue impact investing.

Native dancers at the opening ceremony of the 68th annual UN Civil Society Conference

The most memorable workshop I attended was called “Climate Change Impacts All Cities & Communities: Together We Can and Must Make a Difference”. The panelists were from Nigeria, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They each told stories of how climate change is affecting the cities in their countries. They provided testimonials linking climate change to conflict and migration. Most touching was the speaker from Nigeria.  He shared his experience and perspectives which have led him to conclude that the rise of Boko Haram in north east Nigeria was related to climate change. He described how climate change affected Lake Chad and the millions of people who rely on the lake for fishing and irrigation. When conflict started in the region so many people had lost their Lake Chad livelihoods they became easy targets for recruitment as Boko Haram fighters. This further escalated the conflict causing over two million refugees to seek asylum in UNHCR-run camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) in Nigeria. We hear more about international migration, but internal migration and the rise of IDP camps throughout Africa are an important part of the Climate Migration story.

Where to from here: Brendle Group’s Climate Resiliency Practice

Flowers from the Brendle Group team welcoming back to work part-time in August.

I return to work full-time on October 1st. The part-time transition has helped me to begin synthesizing my experience into professional practice. Building on the Climate Migration workshop at the UN conference, I’m working on a training module for the Brendle Group team that could be expanded to others. I’m also working to document my literature review and interviews into a white paper. My goal is to provide a synopsis of the U.S. role and response to date on climate migration and offer a conceptual blueprint for U.S. cities to respond. Finally, there are a number of new colleagues interested in continued collaborations that could fold nicely into Brendle Group’s climate resilience practice.

While I may use my personal site Field Notes for occasional updates, I’ll be shifting the majority of my communications on this topic back to Brendle Group. If you’re interested in updates us as we put climate migration into action, you can join our newsletter at our company website or follow us on social media.

Thank you again dear family, friends and colleagues for supporting me in a million ways throughout my sabbatical. Let’s keep this conversation going!

 

Judy Dorsey
Judy is founding principal engineer at Brendle Group, offering 23 years of leadership in sustainability innovation. Her specialties include community-scale planning in climate resilience and clean energy. She has led the completion of more than 350 sustainability projects across 35 U.S. states. She is currently on sabbatical studying climate migration and sustainable resettlement. 

2 Comments

  1. Avatar
    dan September 19, 2019 at 4:25 pm - Reply

    nicely done!
    a smidge of a tear in my eye as you re-enter; proud, glad you’re back, sad because I’ve watched you thrive and find joy (and sorrow), intrigued at what next

    • Judy Dorsey
      Judy Dorsey September 24, 2019 at 2:35 pm - Reply

      Thanks Dan for coaching me over my fears and being my biggest supporter. Onward!

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