I met Chelsea Sloggy in a coffee shop.
That might sound odd to those who know me and my Coke Zero ways, but I’ve been in a lot of coffee shops in the past year or so. That’s where realtors like to meet, and I meet realtors to write freelance stories for a local magazine.
I’d just wrapped up an interview and stopped to sugar up my cup – and 30 minutes later, I had a new friend after an intriguing conversation.
Chelsea is an enthusiastic environmental educator, community organizer, and naturalist. I stole that from her LinkedIn profile because I struggled to categorize her with any semblance of brevity. She cares a lot, she does a lot, and she teaches.
(She also wanted to be a shrimp boat captain. Didn’t we all after watching Forrest Gump?)
Please give Chelsea a warm CD welcome. We decided to meet back at that same coffee shop for more conversation, and I’m all the better for it. Conversationalist like her – especially those who have much to say and listen like a pro – are golden.
Eli: When you were little, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
Chelsea: I actually sent a text to the group message I have with my parents and husband asking them this question in hopes they could better help me answer it (because who knows us better as kids than our parents?). The first thing that popped into my head was veterinarian, which was confirmed by both of my parents. I initially thought, “no way, that was the farthest thing from my mind in terms of career goals by high school.” But I was, indeed, set on being a vet as a child.
I think this was more so rooted in my love for animals than it was wanting to specifically be a veterinarian. I just thought that was the only job that would let you hang out with and help animals all day. I loved all animals, though – not just the cute, furry cats and dogs – but the slimy and feathered and scaly and creepy and crawly, too. I spent every possible second outside, exploring and investigating. If I was with my pets, or outside, or (better) both, I was a happy kid.
My parents really nurtured this is two ways: 1) taking my friends and me boating, fishing, snorkeling/scuba diving off the coast (I grew up in central Florida, which allowed for so many wonderful, wild outdoor experiences), camping, and swimming in the local rivers every weekend and summer and 2) allowing me to bring home every stray and orphaned animal I might find –and quickly fall in love with – on my daily adventures. I was very privileged to have parents who not only allowed me to pursue those interests but also to come from a family that had the resources to provide those experiences, which I understand many children do not.
In the text messages we sent, my mom made a point to say that I “did ALWAYS care about the environment, ALWAYS.” My dad, in his ever-humorous nature, also wanted it to go on record that “you told me once that you wanted to be a shrimp boat captain. Might’ve had something to do with Forrest Gump…” (my favorite movie as a kid).
Eli: Love the parental contributions! Lots of adventure in Forrest Gump. What was it about the film that appealed to you most, besides the shrimp boat captain?
Chelsea: I was so young when I first watched this movie, probably 4 or 5, so it’s difficult to remember what might have really appealed to my young mind. But I think you hit part of spot-on: the adventure. Forrest sees and does so much, and all with an open mind and heart. He’s always up for whatever comes next and embraces it. I love the story piece. If that movie is nothing else, it is a beautifully told story. I love hearing people’s stories. I am fascinated by each person’s different experiences and perspectives and am always excited and honored when someone chooses to share those parts of themselves with me.
I don’t think we just sit and listen to each other enough; or, at least, listen to understand. We all too often listen to respond and not to hear. That movie was all about listening to truly understand others, their stories, and how those pieces of their lives shaped them. Now, that’s FAR deeper than my 5-year-old mind was processing, I guarantee you, but thinking back on it and watching it over and over as a kid (and still sitting down to watch it now and again as an adult), I have to suspect that’s what it was: my love for adventure and stories and getting to know people.
Eli: That shared love for such things led to our conversation, I’m convinced. What are some experiences this trait led you to in your more formative years?
Chelsea: When I was in middle school, I was in the International Baccalaureate program. We had to complete community service/volunteer hours as part of our classes. My mom knew of an older couple in our neighborhood who needed some help doing yard work and household chores, so she asked if I could volunteer with them to get my community service hours. Their names were Jack and Emma. They excitedly agreed and so I began walking down to their house a few afternoons each week and helping out.
Sometimes it was helping them organize their bookshelves, other times it was working in their garden pulling weeds. I was so fond of them, like a second set of grandparents. Mr. Jack always invited me to stay afterward and chat, and those were my most favorite times. Ms. Emma was sick (with cancer I would now guess as an adult), so she often stayed in bed but would always want me to come in and say hi and tell her about what I was working on. Mr. Jack would fix us up a snack and we’d talk about school, my friends, the normal.
But I was far more interested in his stories. Mr. Jack had traveled a ton with the military and had spent much of his time in Panama. We’d always end up walking around their house, where he’d show me artifacts and trinkets that he’d collected in his travels, and every single one had a story behind it. I could (and would) listen for hours! He was also an artist and made this mesmerizing 3-D art out of paper mache. All of his art had a story to go along with it, too. After a few months, our relationship went from my being their helper to them being friends and mentors.
I learned so much from them. I would go down just to have lunch and talk with them. I’d sit at Ms. Emma’s bedside and she’d tell me her stories, too. They were just the neatest, in my eyes! Mr. Jack gave me a few pieces from his Panama collection, and I still have all of them to this day and take very good care of them. We moved away (from Florida to North Carolina) but we kept in touch as much as a teenager can. Then, we just… lost touch, I guess. I know they both have passed away since.
But I think of them often and am so grateful for them sharing their stories with me. I think it played a big role in my interest in history and travel and getting to know people and their stories.
Eli: I love that! What role does that curiosity fostered then play in your work today?
Chelsea: In my work now as an environmental educator, I do a lot of learning about people – their background, interests, fears, socio-economic status, religion; really a lot more and much deeper than you’d expect. But these things come out, both organically and prompted, during nature hikes, EE programs, and casual conversation. I enjoy learning these things about people (and put it as high on my priority list as knowing the species and ecosystems I’m teaching about) because if I don’t truly understand where someone stands in their relationship to nature, conservation, and sustainability, I can’t help them appreciate it and understand their role in it.
I know, this might sound like a stretch, but our relationship with the natural world goes so much deeper than just liking or not liking to be outdoors. There are so many historical, genetic, cultural, spiritual, social, and psychological elements to it. One of my highest priorities is diversity, equity, and inclusion in environmental education. Not only because this is something that matters to me personally, but also because minority groups (whether that be people of color, LBGTQ+, and others) are vastly underrepresented in the outdoors, and when we leave these people out of that conversation, we are missing out on their perspectives, ideas, and knowledge – all priceless contributions to conservation.
Everyone deserves to enjoy the pleasures and benefits of nature and spending time outdoors, and I can only help to foster that relationship when I sincerely understand where someone is coming from. And to do that, I have to know their stories – or at least part of them – which means I have to listen. I can educate and communicate best with folks when I know where to meet them and how to best support them in a new experience. I so deeply value the conversations I get to have in my job and the people I get to meet.
I learn more from people, their stories, their shared knowledge, and experiences than I could ever get from a book.
So, in short, I am both naturally and intentionally curious about each person’s story because it makes me better at my job, and, in my opinion, and ultimately a more productive member of society. Plus, I just love it. I think that the storytellers in my life, like those I’ve mentioned, were a catalyst in that interest and developing those skills.
Eli: What momentum and insight they gave you! Is there anything I haven’t asked about that is important to know?
Chelsea: I’d like for people to be aware of Environmental Education as a tool and profession. It, like many other sciences – and outdoor-related fields is under-recognized, underutilized, and underfunded – but plays a crucial role in the health of our society. Educating our public is the foundation for solving so many of our environmental issues. EE is about giving people the tools and knowledge they need to make informed decisions about our environment, not about forcing an opinion or agenda (education vs. advocacy) – and that is why it is so valuable.
When you meet people where they are instead of trying to drag them to your position, they are so much more likely to listen, to consider, and to apply those new nuggets of information to their lives. Many people “do” EE but just don’t realize it, such as the teacher who takes their students out on a nature trail, the community center employee who started a community garden, or the parents who make pinecone bird feeders with their kids over the summer. Those are all elements and actions of EE, and I want people to know that there is an entire community out there to support them.
We are eager to share our knowledge and passion with others, folks just have to know we’re here!
I’ve linked websites that might offer additional information on EE in North Carolina:
Eli: This is awesome, Chelsea. I’m glad my girls and I have done things like this. In closing, what advice would you give a young woman about career and life choices?
Chelsea: For advice I’d give a young woman about career and life choices, I think mine probably just boils down to “lessons learned about life in general”. I’ll just list them:
– Know your worth – in every facet of your life. Don’t just know it, honor it. Make sure other people honor it, too.
– Find the people who make you feel fully comfortable being yourself – in partners, friends, and workplaces. If you have to tiptoe through conversations, pretend to like things you don’t, buy things you otherwise wouldn’t, bend your morals… those aren’t your people. Find your people. Quality over quantity.
– If something feels wrong/scary/uncomfortable, it probably is not an okay thing. Follow your gut. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Also on that note, make sure someone always knows where you are and who you’re with (I still do this in my late 20s).
– You never, ever know someone’s story or what happens behind closed doors. Don’t judge, don’t jump on someone’s case. Make the choice to always be the better person and set an example. We all have cruddy days. Be kind and considerate.
– Find the people who feed your passions and support you. Seek these people out. Cut out people who do not do this. And understand if someone cuts you out. We’re not all right for each other. Build each other up!
– First impressions aren’t everything and middle/high school stinks for everyone. For real. Everyone is weird and everything is awkward and no one knows what’s best. No one is going to remember that embarrassing thing and no one is going to be the same 10 years from now.
– Explore. Try new things. Learn about different people and places and cultures. Travel is one of the most powerful self-discovery tools there is. Become an active part of a community that matters to you.
– Speak your truth. It’s okay to say you’re hurting. It’s okay if you’re confused. We’re all just trying to figure out the answers and we can’t help or support one another if we don’t understand what’s going on. You are not a burden.
– Someone cares, I promise. You are not alone. It gets better. You have something unique to offer the world and we need you.
– Pay attention to the outcomes of certain degrees/career paths. I cannot stress this enough. Sure, there are “easy” degrees. But you know what isn’t easy? Working four jobs because you can’t find something in your field of study. Simply having a degree is not worth student debt if you can’t do anything with it.
– Education is powerful, but education has so many forms. Certifications, organizations, YouTube videos – learn from as many places and people as you can. Then apply it.
– Financial literacy is so important. Take time to learn about it in your teens. Don’t wait until you’re making money to understand how to spend it.
– Understand politics – in government, in the office, in your communities. Gain a realistic perspective of where you fall in them and how they impact you. Fix what you don’t agree with.
– This is so cliché, but do what you love. Honestly. Find what makes you eager to learn more. If you dread going to do what you have to do each day, that’s not for you. Find what makes you ready to take on the day.
– Learn. My goodness, learn. Get off social media. Watch a documentary. Ask someone older to teach you. Go to a program. It’s never too late to learn something completely new. Every moment has a learning opportunity in it – look for it.
– Challenge yourself and those around you. Try new things. Talk yourself through problems. Push the limits. You got this!
Research, know where you stand, be bold, but always be open-minded. In everything that you feel strongly about, there is someone else who feels just as strongly from the opposite perspective. This is what makes the world work – take time to understand them.
– Life is a series of choices, but also a series of situations you have zero control over. All you can do is every single day is handle yourself and your reactions as those things come up. You’re the only one who has to deal with you at the end of the day, no one else.
– Self-care first! You cannot pour from an empty cup. Find what refuels you and make it a priority – it is much easier to keep a healthy plant healthy than try to bring a neglected plant back to life. The people who care about you will understand.
– Gratitude and reflection are life-changers. Everything you have, whether someone else has it or not, is something to be celebrated.
– You have one body and one mind, take care of them. Exercise, eat well, feed your brain, and your soul. If something makes you feel less than wonderful, stop doing it. If something makes you feel better, practice it.
– The only confines you should live within are the ones you set for yourself. No stereotype, no norm, no expectation should define how you shine. The only person deciding those things is you.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help or advice. From your boss, your parents, your friends, even strangers. Asking for help is one of the bravest, most confident things you can do.
– When you start making excuses, it’s time to step back and ask yourself why. Am I overwhelmed? Am I being lazy? Am I not feeling well? Excuses aren’t the answer, honesty is.
– Always look for opportunities to gain experience and build your resume. Volunteering, internships, shadowing, workshops. Lots of little experiences can (and usually will) set you apart from other job candidates. Pursue opportunities now, not later. On that note, network as much as possible and follow up with those connections – it will pay off later.
Every step forward is something to be acknowledged, no matter how little or big. Success is not one giant stride, it is a series of little accomplishments. It is doing just a little more than before. It is trying.
– Maintain relationships and take care of the people who took care of you. Send that text. Write that letter. Call just to say hi. You never know how much that will brighten someone’s day.
– Learn basic life skills and habits like cooking a few simple dishes, doing laundry, and getting your car serviced regularly. These will always come in handy.
– Be mindful of the things that make you unique and embrace them. Being the only person in the room with that attribute is an asset – use this knowledge to be an advocate and an ally. (I’d like to note that this idea is really a baby idea inspired by a statement made by Elaine Welteroth during an NPR interview I heard a while back.)
– No one owes you anything but a chance to prove yourself and gain their respect. You owe everyone else those things, too. What they choose to do with it is up to them. Be humble.
And this, this is the biggest one: the day I realized other women are on my team is the day my life changed. Until I was in my early 20s, I had this “me vs them” mentality. Other girls were competition, the standard to hold me against. First of all, no. You know who you should be comparing yourself to? You, from yesterday. That’s it, no one else. If you must compare, use the things you admire (or don’t) about others to goal set, not breed envy or self-doubt. Secondly, women have beautiful and powerful shared experiences.
The moment you realize that sharing your knowledge, your strengths, your humor, your experiences, and your personality with other women (and the world!) is adding to the magic of life, you will find a weight has been lifted and a million new doors open up for you. You’re not picking flowers from your own pot for someone else’s bouquet, you’re planting seeds in everyone else’s gardens! Celebrate each other in the littlest and biggest of ways.