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by Kristen Domingue
There’s something inspiring about meeting someone who walks their talk when it comes to making the world a better place for more than just themselves. The insightful way Etta Heisler has chosen to apply her training in social justice in both her work at The Leslie Science and Nature Center and in her personal life is admirable. She takes the phrase “be the change you wish to see in the world” to heart. And her work shows it. Her ongoing negotiation with work and life for authentic balance includes managing the thin line between her best work and burnout. This is how she does it.
The past as a springboard for the future
I grew up going to a socialist summer camp that informed who I am and what I am called to do in a deep way. By the time I was ten, I knew how to lead consensus decision-making, plan events, and coordinate a general strike (we wanted later bedtime and we won!). I was even reading Karl Marx and Paulo Freire. It’s funny to joke about it, but the reality is that I had the opportunity to experience real agency as a young person. We were given power by the adults around us and were expected to use it for the common good.
In school, I always loved science; I enjoyed doing labs, collecting data. But then, in eighth grade, I struggled a bit. When I didn’t get good grades, my teacher encouraged me not to take advanced science in high school because my GPA would suffer, despite the fact that I was one of the most engaged and enthusiastic learners in our class.
I ignored him and signed up for advanced biology anyway. I loved it even though it was hard. But, as the year went on and I moved up in school, I kept receiving encouragement to stick with what I was good at — French, English, the humanities — and not to “waste my time” on a subject where I couldn’t get a good grade. Eventually, I stopped taking science classes altogether and by college, I didn’t take any.
This is a huge problem for many young women expected to “do well” and “be good.” We work with a lot of young women in our teen volunteer program and see this over and over. Many girls get conflicting messages about how to be successful. Some are told not to try so hard, that if it is so hard, they might be better off doing something else. Unfortunately for me this included sexist comments from teachers or classmates, and sometimes the intimidation of being the only female in the room. Others are told to push themselves to the point of breaking to achieve some sort of perfection that is completely unreasonable and unattainable.
On making an impact
After I graduated high school, I took a gap year and lived in a commune in Israel with other young adults from my Youth Movement, Habonim Dror. I worked in a school with teens who were kicked out of school or put on academic probation. It opened my eyes to the deep entrenchment of structural racism not just abroad, but here in the US, and how state-sponsored racism shaped our educational system (and every system in our country).
That is when I decided to learn as much as possible about education inequity, the school-to-prison pipeline, and other social issues looming over our young people. My eyes were opened to these challenges. With my personal experience in high school in mind, I decided to commit my life to creating opportunities for people to take back agency and power in their lives.
When I got to college, I quickly began to understand that while many people had gained a knowledge of inequality in school, I had been given a gift of understanding how to effect change in the broader world.
So when a lot of my friends pursued master’s degrees, I applied for a fellowship in community organizing through the Jewish Organizing Institute and Network. I wanted to continue the education I started at summer camp all those years ago. I felt like the knowledge and skills I lacked weren’t in books, but instead in the hearts and minds of the people fighting big campaigns and winning.
This experience gave me the chance to look at nonprofits from a different perspective. The sector is populated predominantly by women and committed to “helping,” but it’s led by men and doesn’t always distinguish between “help” and “change.” Further, there are many organizations trying to serve “at-risk” or “underserved populations” but failing to change the systems of power and oppression that create the need for these services in the first place. A deep understanding of power and oppression added a whole new layer to how I thought about education, my work in the nonprofit sector, and my purpose.
Paying it forward
All of these experiences shaped my philosophy about what our camps should be for both kids and staff at The Leslie Science and Nature Center (LSNC) and the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum. On the staff side, I’ve noticed we can open our doors to staff with more diverse experiences. We don’t only need to hire people who have master’s degrees in biology or chemistry to teach our programs (although if you want to work for us, please apply!). We need to hire people who care deeply about young people, who are curious, eager learners themselves, and who are committed to taking responsibility for themselves and working cooperatively on a team.
As for the kids, we noticed that we were underserving youth of color, especially black and Latinx kids, in our camp programs. We also noticed that while we have a large number of girls who participate in our early elementary-age camps, we often see a decline in girls’ enrollment around fifth grade. This decline in participation from girls became even starker when we merged with Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum and began offering camps in robotics, aviation, and other applied sciences with our partner, the Yankee Air Museum. Enrollment of older girls in those camps went down to one or two per session. I also realized that we were failing to serve a huge portion of our community who either cannot afford camp or don’t see themselves as “science people” or “nature people.”
We got clear: we were missing the mark on our mission.
This is when I started to focus my work on envisioning what could be instead of checking things off of a task list. I started to dream about the bigger impact our programs could have, and how we could use summer camp and family programming to do more than provide a fun, educational summer experience. I want our programs to be an immersive community with a big impact on the lives of the youth and family we serve.
This summer, we were awarded a grant from the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. Foundation as part of the STEM2035 Out of School Time initiative. Over the next three years, we’ll build middle school camps that provide immersive social learning experiences that will become the hallmark of our camp programs to a wider range of young people. We’ll recruit young women and youth of color through partnerships with agencies like Community Action Network along with kids who have grown up in our camp programs. We’ll be able to connect them face to face with university students and faculty, trade school programs, and local employers in STEM fields.
We want young people to see that STEM is alive. It’s more than their grades, more than worksheets and labs and problems in school. STEM is the study of the world and our interactions with it. It’s dynamic, complicated, and incredible.
Work-life balance (and preventing work-life burnout)
In 2015, my spouse and I uprooted our lives to move from Boston back to Ann Arbor. In many ways, it was a dream: dream camp director job, a dream house in a cottage in the woods, my dream partner, and I was finally back with my family.
But it was hard. I underestimated how difficult it would be to rebuild my life here and start over with new friends, to negotiate my family relationships as an adult, and to work for an organization I love without giving it absolutely everything I had, all the time, every day of every month.
I felt so isolated and alone. It was especially hard for my spouse who was job-searching at the time. I leaned on him a lot and I knew it wasn’t fair. We needed to find balance in our partnership, and just as important, I needed to find balance in my own life. As I just started my new position, it was hard to step away from work and still feel “successful.” Further, I had to learn how to spend more time alone, and go to meetups and other events where I didn’t know anyone. It was the first time I didn’t have a built-in social group.
Eventually, I realized I needed to make commitments that required me to leave the office. About two years ago, I started to feel like the scale was tipping too far into the work side of life, I worked all the time, I felt very isolated and depressed and needed a fresh perspective. I started volunteering once a week for Ele’s Place as an activity room volunteer and it changed my life. I love that I have a place I can go and be exactly who I am, do something I love (playing with kids), and add real value for families and for staff. I also cannot understate the importance of showing up each week, no matter how crappy I’m feeling or how stressed I am, because when I get there, people hug me and thank me for being there.
The imperfect perfection of commitment
We, humans, demand a lot from one another. I was recently asked where I want to be or what I want to be doing in ten years, and I honestly can’t think of a checklist of accomplishments. I want to be working hard, treating people with respect, and providing opportunities for people — especially young people — to have agency and power in their lives, regardless of their age, race, class, gender, or any other characteristic they cannot change. I try not to have regrets — but it’s nearly impossible. I regret the ways I have hurt people in my words and actions and strive to do better.
I did the fellowship in community organizing and then a certificate in nonprofit management and leadership so I could be more intentional about how I can be more just in my work. We cannot confront sexism and racial bias in our workplaces if we don’t have an acute understanding of power, knowledge about how to leverage it, and a commitment to building strong, caring relationships.
While the world isn’t there yet (and neither am I), I’m committed to going forward and toward a better world. STEM teaches us that what we really need are people committed to learning from mistakes to get things right rather than people who never try because they’re afraid to get it wrong.
There’s an element of grit we enjoyed witnessing in Heisler. Her willingness to look at hard truths about the world without feeling diminished toward inaction demonstrates the kind of courage we know lives in the heart of every reader. The Brick Magazine is about this same kind of grit. It’s an honor to showcase women who have the courage to look sexism and racism in the eye and say, “Nevertheless, I will build a business that reflects the kind of world I want to live in.” We’re so grateful for you.