Karen’s Blog

Thoughts on a changing profession and life

Posts Tagged ‘education

Making America Great Again

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In Jordan at the Azarq temporary school for Syrian refugees, a student rushes up to the blackboard to solve a complex Algebra problem as part of a classroom competition.

In Jordan at the Azarq temporary school for Syrian refugees, a student rushes up to the blackboard to solve a complex Algebra problem as part of a classroom competition.

Last month I was sent to two Syrian refugee camps to photograph school girls.

I didn’t know what to expect.

I knew what school girls in the United States like to do. They play sports, laugh, gossip, create alliances and join clubs. But these girls are refugees. In my mind, I see images of highly traumatized people, crying, pleading and fleeing—people risking their lives and those of their children on frail rubber rafts.

School girls at the Malala Yousafzai All Girls' School in Bar Elias gather around a computer where one team of girls uploaded a powerpoint they created on Cleopatra.

School girls at the Malala Yousafzai All Girls’ School in Bar Elias
gather around a computer where one team of girls uploaded a powerpoint they created on Cleopatra.

Last week Time magazine ran a beautiful series of black and white photographs showing refugees in Greece. Yet they were abstract depictions, reducing individual’s humanity to artful forms. No wonder Americans are fearful of these refugees. They are judged and dismissed as anonymous groups an ocean away. Some of our presidential hopefuls portray them as dangerous to our way of life…whatever that may be.

Still, as an American, I understand that fear. One of the refugees handed me a broken plastic film camera, made in America years ago. He wanted me to have it as a reminder that Syrians love America. I’ll admit my first response was not to accept it, but my guide told to take it. I’m ashamed to say my next thoughts were “What’s in it? Will it blow up when my plane climbs into the sky?” I actually took the camera apart when I got to my hotel room to make sure it held nothing other than good intensions of Syrian hospitality. It now sits in my office as a reminder of my own suspicious nature when handed a gift of friendship.

The reality is these are normal people caught in extraordinary circumstances. They face hardship and devastation. A few years ago they would have been siting in their court yards sharing food with friends and family, taking pride in their children’s accomplishments, living life just like people anywhere.

I wasn’t in the camps to report the tragedy. I was looking a program that helps young women—the lucky ones, whose parents managed to get to a refugee camp. While the camps are not without issues, they are, for the moment, relatively safe. These girls are able to continue their education because of efforts made by non-profits including the Malala Fund and their partners: Kayany Foundation and UNICEF.

Other than the fact that every girl wore a hijab, their classrooms could have been anywhere in the US.

They were normal teenage girls. They laughed and teased each other. They were enthused about learning, inspired by their teachers and shared a contagious excitement.

This I wasn’t expecting.

 Math teacher, Shadi, helps a student solve an algebra problem.


Math teacher, Shadi, helps a student solve an algebra problem.

The teachers astonished me. Shadi, a young math teacher in the Jordan camp of Azarq, holds physics and math degrees, and kept his classroom of girls excited about solving algebra equations. Jamalat wears a floor length brown coat and hijab while working with the refugee children, keeping them competitive and excited. Jamalat had 40 students between the ages of 8- 13. She never sat down as she moved between lessons in English and Arabic, keeping the students engaged the entire day. Both teachers are Syrian refugees themselves. And, they volunteer at the school.

 Jamalat, herself a refugee,  was a teacher in Syria.  She teaches the younger students with warmth and ethusiasm


Jamalat, herself a refugee, was a teacher in Syria. She teaches the younger students with warmth and ethusiasm

 Jamalat brings her students outside when the weather is warm to play games and keep them energized.


Jamalat brings her students outside when the weather is warm to play games and keep them energized.

In the US, I would only expect to see such enthusiasm kindled only by the best teachers in the best schools of the best districts. I felt jealous that I didn’t have a teacher like Jamalat when I was in 3rd grade

When I left the US to begin this work, the leading Republican candidates were trying to one up each with their bigotry. They painted the refugees as villains or worse—terrorists determined to hurt us. Yes, there are extremists planning to do just that. But the majority, perhaps 99.9% of them, just want a safer life for their children, an education and a living.

High school students walk back to their temporary homes in the Azraq Refugee Camp

High school students walk back to their temporary homes in the Azraq Refugee Camp

We are a nation built of immigrants. Every one of us arrived from some other place. My ancestors came in waves from eastern Europe and Asia. My husband’s ancestors came from England, Ireland and France. They might not have been welcomed with open arms but they were allowed to come and make new lives over here. America is a better place because of millions of similar stories.

The people I visited in the refugee camps inspired me; parents who risk all for their children, girls who love math and science and teachers who strive to keep the love of learning burning inside their students. These are exactly the people we need to make America to great again.

 

People of Honduras’ Mesoamerican Reef

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Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

Fisherman Rigo Soliz checks his nets for holes. Fishing has been slow so he spends his days, checking his fishing gear.

This year I’ve worked in Mexico and Myanmar. I’m currently on assignment in Ghana and Nigeria. However one of my favorite trips this year has been to the Bay Islands of Honduras. I journeyed there this spring for the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP)—for whom I am a senior fellow—and their partner, Centro de Estudios Marinos Honduras (CEM). The region is part of the Mesoamerican Reef, a key marine region extending along the coast of Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.

Population pressure, overfishing, pollution and global warming all affect the Reef. Their consequences stress fishing communities all along the coast of these Central American countries. Fishermen must stay out longer and travel farther to match the number of fish caught in previous years.

Many conservation organizations focus on the Reef system but a few groups like ILCP and CEMS also support projects that investigate connections between the health of the seas and the health of the coastal communities.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

A fisherman’s daily catch, caught by line and hook. Barra is a line and hook fishing community but it is surrounded by communities that illegally drag nets.

This project involved two underwater and two dry land shooters. I was one of the latter. I focused on the social impact of diminishing sea life around the reefs. This is one of my skills, as I specialize in photographing global health concerns, especially those linked to the degradation of the environment and social structures.   I was thrilled to have a story about which I was passionate.

However…I had not worked in this area before had never worked around reefs and didn’t speak Spanish.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

A nurse gives a student a tetanus vaccine. They hold a clinic in Salada Barra, usually outside, once a month. Children can get vaccines and treatment for other health issues.

There was another way that this seemed like an odd assignment for me.

I can barely swim.

I learned when my uncle threw me into Spring Lake, Michigan and said, “swim.” I managed like a dog, paddling with my front paws and kicking with my back ones. I never really improved on that technique. Needless to say, underwater photography isn’t one of my skills.

Yet despite my poor swimming skills, I’m very comfortable around water. I come from a fishing family. My younger years were spent in Norfolk, Virginia, a city located where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean. We ate fish and crab we caught ourselves. We used chicken necks to catch a bushel or two of crabs right from shore.

My father was a career sailor who served in WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He met my mother in Japan during the occupation. If he wasn’t in a war zone he was on a ship at sea. He could see first hand the thin line between life and death—men lost overboard and rogue waves nearly capsizing ships.

Fishing was important to the survival of both sides of my family. My father’s father drowned while fishing for supper in rural Michigan. My grandmother was never the same afterwards. My father’s family was poor. Catching their own food was vital to their survival. My mother was born in a small Japanese fishing village called Sajima, south of Yokohama. At the time it was so insignificant, the Americans forces flew over it on the way to bombing Yokohama and Tokyo without even giving the village a second thought. My mother’s uncles all fished for a living. They survived the war eating fish and other foods from the sea and didn’t starve like so many of their countryman living in bombed out urban areas.

Like the Mesoamerican Reef, the Chesapeake Bay faces similar overpopulation, overfishing and industrial development issues. In 2008 the Chesapeake Bay crab fishing industry was declared a federal disaster. The crab population has yet to recover.

But there is a big difference between my life on the Bay and the life of those living along the Mesoamerican Reef. My entire livelihood does not depend on the sea. I have options. Yet for many in the communities our team visited, fishing is the only way to make a living.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

Dunia Hernan, 17, 2nd student from the right, kids her friends during class. She is part of the first ever high school program held in this village. Her father is a fisherman.

I looked at the efforts to help communities and diversify their livelihood. One of the first communities I visited with the CEM team was Salada Barra, a small fishing community inside the Parque Nacional Cuero y Salado Marine Reserve, through which the Rio San Juan flows. The reserve is west of the coastal city of La Ceba. Our mission was to show the diversity of marine life among the mangroves and the interdependency of the marine area and the community of Salada Barra. I hoped to photograph life in the village. Not all went as planned. Fishing was problematic as many fish were too far from shore for the men to easily harvest.

There were plenty of environmental organizations present in this community. In this case, they seem to help the overall health of this particular community. Conservational projects including preserving the reefs, replenishing the mangroves, and protecting the manatees found in these waters employ locals to implement these plans. These efforts paved the way for other groups to provide social improvements. A high school class was added for the first time. Older students didn’t have to go away from home if they wanted to continue their education after elementary school. Visiting doctors and nurses came once a month to provide maternal and childcare, vaccinate school kids and look at other health concerns. We ran into a team of veterinarian technicians looking for dogs and cats to vaccinate for rabies. This especially impressed me since rabid dogs are fairly common in underdeveloped areas. These services are remarkable considering how remote this village is.

There is no easy way to access Salada Barra. The only way to get in and out of the village is aboard an old produce train that used to carry coconuts, pineapples and bananas out of the area to market. The ride is 35 minutes each way. Although this was once a large plantation region, agricultural is in decline and few coconuts are shipped out these days. They are developing a small tourist industry with a visitor center built by USAID. The hope is to bring people in via the train to tour the marine reserve, see manatees and eat fried fish cooked in local homes.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

A group of fishermen illegally drag nets in an area too close to shore to catch undersized fish and conches.

Fishing is still central to this community. But they feel pressures from illegal drag fishing that catch all sizes of fish and other sea life. Although good laws are in place, enforcing them remains a continual challenge.

Salada Barra was one of many communities along the Bay Island region we visited. Some are more developed than others but all face the same pressures coming from a declining fishery industry and a threatened reef system. Though I didn’t know Spanish, I did know these people’s concerns, because those of us raised by the sea speak the same language.

You can read more on this at National Geographic.

 

Teamwork

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Fuergo and Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala.

Fuergo and Atitlan volcanoes in Guatemala.

For most of my career I’ve been a free-lance editorial shooter. I photographed for National Geographic magazine for 20 years, 12 of those as a contract photographer. During my time there I did many of the large picture stories that used to be the signature of the magazine. For most of those assignments I worked alone. I’ve never covered breaking news, press conferences or the kinds of social events where I’d likely encounter other photographers and my schedule rarely matched that of the stories’ writers.

 Most of the stories I cover concern the consequences of events or conditions. I photograph people carrying on with their daily lives in the face of tragedy; fathers living with AIDS, mothers hauling water during a drought, children seeking education under the burden of extreme poverty.

Many of my stories take big themes—migration, aging, radiation— and narrow them down to make them accessible and understandable. Often the people I meet on these stories are poor and live in remote areas. It’s hard to contact them ahead of time and as a result I often find my stories as I travel through them.  I began my career as a newspaper photographer and I’m grateful for the lessons I learned from that job; act like a journalist as well as an image maker, seek out stories, think on your feet, work quickly.

A woman at noon prayer in a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

A woman at noon prayer in a Catholic church in Santiago Atitlan Guatemala

An earlier assignment tested my journalistic skills and challenged my solitary working style. A former student of mine who I’d taught at the Maine Media Workshops made me an offer I couldn’t refuse; she asked me to be the chief photographer on a project that would take me to Guatemala and Nicaragua to cover the impact of certain environmental conditions on peoples’ health and culture.  With three of my major interests in play—environment, health and culture—I accepted the assignment. Then my former student asked me to find a videographer.  Slowly I began to realize that the project was actually centered on making a video. My former student would be the producer and my role was to shoot still pictures for promotion and an accompanying exhibit.

I had to check my ego at the door.  For the first time in my freelance career I was going to work as part of a time, which represented a pretty big adjustment for me.  When I’m working, even if I’m present for only a day, even just an hour, I try to photograph the people I encounter with an in the moment intimacy. I find the best pictures come from intense, focused interactions.  Now I would have to share those interactions and those relationships with a producer and a videographer.  I had mixed feelings about that. I had heard from other photographers who had worked with videographers that tensions between the needs of still and video seemed to be a given.  So I needed to find someone who would complement my reportage style of shooting and—this was critical—have a sense of humor.

This farmer's child works in the shadow of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.

This farmer’s child works in the shadow of the Masaya volcano in Nicaragua.

I turned to a friend, the only person I knew who shot video in a style that I was certain the producer would like, a style best described as journalism mixed with lush dreamy landscapes. We had both worked for National Geographic. He knew my shooting style and I was confident he could contribute to the fast paced reporting we were going to have to do.

The shoot was three-weeks of frenzied travel.  The videographer and I quickly developed a way of working that we called “Navy Seal” journalism.” It was brutally simple: We arrived without warning and with few preliminaries began shooting stills and video; we got the job done quickly and moved on to the next location.

Despite our pace, we kept looking for stories.  When we found them, both the videographer and I presented a united front to the producer, convincing her to change her logistical schedule. Months later, when I saw the finished video and the exhibit, I was gratified to see that our insistence was not just egos on overdrive.  Most of the more evocative pictures came from situations we found on the run and for which we’d lobbied for more shooting time. I found that working with a team was more fun than I could have anticipated. Being able to review the day’s work and then talk about the next day’s plans and hopes helped me sort out what I was doing and helped me determine that my pictures were going in a direction that was appropriate to the storytelling mission of the project.

Horse drawn carriages are a popular means of transport in the town of Antiqua Guatemala.

Horse drawn carriages are a popular means of transport in the town of Antiqua Guatemala.

I found that the key to working successfully as part of a team is to set up ground rules before anyone gets onto the plane.  Time in the field needs to be parceled out and a hierarchy of need has to be determined. When I’m alone, I’m in charge; everything is according to my agenda.  As part of a team I have to consider the needs of others—and still get the story.

Ultimately this assignment reinforced how much the landscape is changing for photojournalists. Now it’s a web and mobile driven world, a world of images in motion with accompanying soundtracks, and our success as journalists lies in learning to work in that world.

Staying Flexible

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My parents, Steve and Emiko, in their 50th year of marriage.

My parents, Steve and Emiko, in their 50th year of marriage.

Some years back, my husband and I interviewed all of my family members for a video on my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary. I remember asking my father the secret of a successful marriage.  He smiled and said, “Be flexible.”

When we decided to have a child, our lives were transformed.  It was our turn to be flexible, adapting to the needs of our son and a few years later our daughter. Nurturing two small children was a wild ride, especially since I traveled so much for National Geographic and my husband was a full time editor.

Katie, 7, and Will, 9, posing for their annual Cherry tree portrait.

Katie, 7, and Will, 9, posing for their annual Cherry tree portrait.

But all good things must eventually end. Our kids grew up. The familiar chaos of responding to our children—whether hustling them out the door in the morning, or racing home at night to get them before day care closed, or following their college sports and performances—drew to a close.

Or so we thought.

With both kids in college my husband and I became empty nesters—except of course for our children’s monthly trips home to do laundry, raid the food supplies and meet old high school buddies.

Since they were out of the house—sort of—I decided to return to academia. I always wanted to get a masters degree for teaching or managing a visual department. That became possible when I was awarded a Knight Fellowship at Ohio University. I was apprehensive about the decision. While I’ve had a strong freelance career, I feared that disappearing for a year might not be a wise business move. But I approached it with a flexible attitude and my fellowship year turned into one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.

At the end of that year I graduated from Ohio and my son Will graduated from William & Mary within weeks of each other. Pictures of both of us in our caps and gowns are on the Facebook sites of our friends and family.

Katie, me, and Will at my Ohio University graduation in 2012.

Katie, me, and Will at my Ohio University graduation in 2012.

In the fall Will applied to the Peace Corps and was assigned to Uganda. He left this spring. At the same time Katie decided she wanted to come home to finish college. Our daughter, a smart gorgeous girl, turned out to be a homebody!! Go figure, but my husband and I were secretly pleased to have her back. We count ourselves lucky to have a daughter who wants to be near us. We love having children at home. The weekends are lively with their friends dropping by. Will leaving for two years left us deflated, but having Katie move back home pumped us back up again. We couldn’t be happier.

I guess full-fledged empty nesting will have to wait for a while. But we’re flexible.

Being flexible is one of the more important qualities for a successful career in photojournalism. I used to say if something could go wrong it will. I just need to deal with it since there are no second chances in the profession.  If I didn’t return with the pictures on an assignment, I wasn’t getting hired again.

Among other things, being flexible means changing direction if a job doesn’t materialize or a contract can’t be finalized. In the ever-changing profession of photojournalism, flexibility is a mantra. This week another newspaper, the Chicago Sun Times, dumped their staff of 28 hard working and talented photographers.  Hearing about such outrages saddens me and I pray that my fellow photographers who lost their jobs will be flexible and smart about finding something that can keep them in the business, or find something else that makes them productive and happy.

After all the years I’ve spent working as a photographer, I guess I once thought that at a certain point in the profession I wouldn’t need to constantly stay flexible. But I now see that isn’t true. I went back to school for a masters in visual communications to keep my skills competitive. I loved immersing myself in modern multimedia techniques and seeing the energy and creativity of the next generation of journalists.  Seeking out flexibility expanded my horizons.

Will and a few of his buddies at his Peace Corps going away party.

Will and a few of his buddies at his Peace Corps going away party.

I hope that I have passed that trait onto my son. He will need it.  Like a dutiful mother, I gave my son advice as I dropped him off in Philadelphia this spring to join his fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Of course I cried uncontrollably. I’m a crybaby. I admit it. Through my tears, I struggled to give my kind and handsome son a few pearls of wisdom for whatever they were worth. I’m sure he wasn’t listening. He was probably focused on the fear and excitement of embarking on an amazing adventure. But it made me feel useful.

My advice to him echoed what my father said to me years earlier:  Be safe, be kind and be patient. Most of all be flexible.

 

Written by kasmauski

June 4, 2013 at 4:30 am

Partnerships

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A shorter version of this post appeared in Nikon World Magazine this summer

SOCM members Sharon Criswell and her husband have a small subsistance farm in western Tennessee where they try to grow their food and raise their animals as organically as possible.

As journalism markets have diminished, there has been a lot of attention on NGO and non-profit work.  Its been called a new kind of journalism.  Last year, I had the opportunity to work in the non-profit world.  I wouldn’t call it journalism—a dispassionate look at a situation.  Covering a non-profit turns out to be more like a partnership, with its own frustrations but also with its own rewards.

My journey began when a friend sent me a link to a program developed by Getty called Grants for Good.  “It’s right up your alley,” she wrote.   I checked it out.  Two photographers would be awarded grants to help a non-profit develop photography that would be used to improve their profile and help raise public awareness of their mission.

I’ve always liked nonprofit groups.  After college, filled with idealism, I headed to East Tennessee where I spent four years working for a variety of nonprofits, including an environmental group called Save Our Cumberland Mountains or SOCM.

These days, along with my photographic career, I’m still involved with non-profits.  One works with poverty relief in Vietnam and Burma.  Another works with education projects in the Congo.  But SOCM seemed like a natural choice for my Getty grant project, which required that I partner with a non-profit group.   SOCM’s main mission is to empower people and train them in techniques to change what they see as injustice.

I had practical reasons for my choice.  The other non-profits I’m involved with operate on the far side of the world.  If I worked in Asia or Africa, the grant would not provide enough time for me to develop a substantial project.  But Tennessee-based SOCM was nearby and not too expensive.  Working there, I’d have the time I needed to develop an extensive photographic project, as well as to collect audio and video for multimedia components.

SOCM’s work wasn’t as visual as that of the other groups, but I believed in what they were doing. I was also excited by the opportunity to help a group that dealt with average Americans living in non-exotic locations.  One of my pet complaints is about photographers going after predictable visual situations of pain, heartache and tragedy.  Here was an opportunity to deliver on what I have espoused during my professional life—to show how change is actually effected at the community level.

A spill of toxic coal ash at the Kingston Tennessee power plant in late 2008 left the area devastated. Two years after the event, cleanup efforts continue.

So, I approached SOCM’s leadership about the idea of working with me on the grant project.  They were more cautious than I’d expected—being seasoned, they knew that nothing is free. But in the end SOCM agreed to work with me, if the grant came through.  They were redesigning their website and the pictures I could provide from the grant would be a huge help in presenting their image to the public.

To my surprise, I was awarded one of the grants.  Then the real challenge began.  How would I make interesting photographs of a group whose main tools for empowering people consisted of meetings, emails, letters and phone calls?  Adding to this challenge, SOCM was also in the middle of an organizational shift, as the woman who had directed the organization for 30 years was stepping down.   They had not yet found a replacement.  At the time I had no idea how much this leadership transition would affect my coverage.

When I began working with SOCM after college, they were focused on coal, minerals rights and taxation issues in eastern Tennessee.  Over time, the group became statewide, taking on social issues like green jobs, immigration, health care and racial equality.

But when I arrived in Tennessee to start my project, most of the new social issue programs had not been implemented, and were still being researched.   Well, I always wondered how you can photograph research of this kind.  I was about to figure it out.

Along with showing how the organization was shifting directions, I faced two major challenges.

First, how could I photograph an organization whose strength lies in empowering people and developing community leaders?  SOCM members meet and talk.  Then, they meet and talk more.  They write emails and follow up with more talking and meetings.   Few attend rallies or shout epithets.   This would be tough, since a few meeting photos go a very long way.

Second was logistics.  I had a limited budget and limited time.  How could I efficiently and equally cover the membership of a group that stretched across Tennessee?

The solution for both challenges was planning…followed by more planning.  I had to coordinate people’s schedules, activities and events.  On top of that, I had to weave in coverage of new programs that I learned about as I traveled around the state.

I found that the key was to be a good listener.  People in Tennessee love to talk.  Home visits always involve long hours of wonderful storytelling and listening.

Lenora Clark adjusts one of the solar panels powering  her Tennessee home. She and her husband Bobby live off the grid, supplying their own electricity, water and most of their food.

So I began my work in the homes of members, talking to them about their goals for the organization.  I continually asked what would they want to see if they were going to put together a set of pictures about SOCM.

Their comments became my shoot list.  I found green jobs and training situations.  I interviewed people struggling to obtain health care.  I photographed land affected by mineral extraction or aerial spraying.   I developed stories on members who lived off the grid, or grew organic food.   Since SOCM was focused on renewable energy I found stories on people developing wind, solar and biofuels.

One hurdle was that I lacked “proper” media credentials for the project.  As a result access to many government and corporate facilities was difficult.   For decades, SOCM had an antagonistic relationship with the Tennessee Valley Authority or TVA, which handles almost all the energy production in the area of SOCM’s membership.  Many of the alternative energy projects as well the traditional coal, TVA managed oil and gas production.  They were not overly excited about cooperating with this project.   Without a clear media outlet for the photographs, corporations involved in “green” industries like solar panel manufacture were reluctant to open their doors to me.

Mikel Crews is combating a variety of physical disabilities that appeared after helicopters repeatedly sprayed his central Tennessee home with herbicides.

I worked around this as best I could, sometimes photographing operations from public property, other times finding alternative organizations to represent themes I felt needed to be included in the project.

I finally realized that the key to portraying SOCM was to show its members, both in activities and as people.   Meetings were central to the activities, so I worked very hard to deliver a few really great pictures of those situations.  I started making environmental portraits of people who were, in a variety of ways, struggling for a better life.  Those became as important to the finished project as the aerials of strip-mined mountains and overdeveloped farmland.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment for me was internal.   I had to come to an understanding with myself: I was doing a project in service of a non-profit organization.  The grant wasn’t just about my vision—I had to serve the needs of the group as well.   Doing so forged a new kind of partnership.