Talk NERRdy to Me: Kristen Goodrich

May 18, 2020 | Prepared Communities, Reserves, Talk NERRdy to Me, Tijuana River, California, What We Work For

Talk NERRdy to Me follows leaders and luminaries from across our 29 reserves. This month, NERRA’s correspondent-at-large Nik Charov chatted with Dr. Kristen Goodrich, coastal training coordinator, boundary spanner, long-time brewer with more time on her hands, newly-minted PhD, and a true adaptive mind from California’s Tijuana River Reserve.

Nik: This month I’m talking briefly with Dr. Kristen Goodrich of the Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve, where she’s the Coastal Training Program coordinator [CTP]. Of course, it doesn’t have to be brief, because who’s going anywhere right now? 

Kristen: We have all the time in the world!

Nik: You’re CTP, you’ve been dealing with change on our coasts, but over the past month, what’s changed fastest in our world is this pandemic. How are you holding up?

Kristen: I’m just feeling grateful to have my job and the work and a comfortable home. The company of my weiner dog has been very helpful. 

Nik: You recently became a doctor—are you worried about being called up to the front lines in the hospitals?

Kristen: I’m not, I have no training or skills in that department!

Nik: There’s a different front line you’ve been on. What’s your new PhD in, and how’s it going to help?

Kristen: My PhD is in social ecology and is based, in part, on issues faced by communities that we interface with at the Tijuana River Reserve—mostly in canyons adjacent to the estuary in Tijuana, Mexico. My research looked at issues around flood resilience and adaptive management, but what became very clear to me through that work was the enormous pressure on environmental professionals and resulting mental health impacts. Ever since, I’ve been looking to build support for environmental professionals who are working on the front lines of climate change.

Dr. Goodrich and Salchicha the weiner dog participate in an online training to help professionals plan and facilitate engaging virtual meetings. 

Nik: When you say “adaptive management,” is it the management of the resources, or the people managing the resources? I understand adaptive is “changing over the course of change” but what’s the management part?

Kristen: It’s both. For example, I started by thinking that in order for natural resource managers to be able to adaptively manage for resource protection in their work, they need to be adaptive individuals, and psychological resilience plays a role in that. 

Nik: What grade would you give yourself for your adaptation to this current Covid situation?

Kristen: I’d say I’m doing fairly well. How about an A-?

Nik: Wow, nice. I’m a D+.

Kristen: I’m coming off a pretty intense six-year period for my PhD. I filed all my paperwork over the holidays, jumped back into work full-time, and then… coronavirus. So this is actually a moment of slowing down in ways I haven’t seen in many years. If I can compartmentalize and not look at the incredible tragedy of it all, it has been lovely to be home and be slowing down.

Nik: You’re welcome. Your latest project involves a number of Reserves and coping with stress, doesn’t it?

Kristen: The Adaptive Mind project brings together thinking around mental health and resilience for groups including the Research Reserve system. The idea is that we’re experiencing constant change and uncertainty, and more frequent and traumatic disruptions, including natural disasters. All of that requires people to engage in what we’re thinking about as transformative change. That’s hard in itself, but it’s going to get a lot harder. Folks working on environmental protection and resource management are on the front lines; there are also serving (and often in) front line communities, and there are health impacts associated with that.

I focus on the environmental professionals like those within the Reserves: we have our educators, our researchers, our coastal training community as boundary-spanners. We are people engaging with climate change and its impacts in many different ways, and in some cases, experiencing burnout because of the demands of the work.

Nik: You graded yourself on your pandemic response, but stepping back pre-coronavirus, how were environmental professionals and communities feeling?

Kristen: We conducted a survey of professionals working on climate change and adaptation, like NERRs and groups like Sea Grant, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and the American Society for Adaptation Professionals. The results were somewhat troubling: we saw really high levels of burnout and lots of issues around dealing with the urgency of climate change. Individuals felt like they were not doing enough fast enough. The barriers of bureaucracy and inflexibility create a work environment that makes it really difficult to respond to the existential threat and urgency of climate change in a way that feels meaningful and timely. 

We also looked at what we called “frequency of feelings.” They reported monthly or weekly emotional exhaustion from the topics that they addressed. But they also reported that they were determined to succeed, because of what they know about climate change and its impacts. It’s the perfect recipe for burnout. So the Adaptive Mind project looks for ways to support environmental professionals and other groups on the frontline of climate change.

Nik: Do you think those findings would scan over to healthcare professionals right now? 

Kristen: Absolutely. Our thinking was informed by what was being done, pre-coronavirus, on the impacts of stress, anxiety, grief, and mental health within the health and emergency response fields. I would imagine right now it’s even more relevant. There are a number of parallels between what’s happening with coronavirus now and the compounding anxiety related to persistent threats to our planet’s health.

Nik: You called the CTP community “boundary-spanners.” Is that something that comes specifically from your experience on the border? 

Kristen: Yes, I’ve learned a lot about boundary spanning—and barriers to it—from work on the border. My CTP family is the inspiration for a paper that colleagues and I just wrote about who they are and how to support them. To address sustainability challenges, boundary-spanners help link science to decision-making. Which is exactly why the coastal training program is in place—to work across disciplines and span different boundaries to help knowledge become more actionable. This couldn’t be more important now that we’re thinking about coronavirus. How do we take the science and knowledge we’re rapidly gaining and apply it to issues?

Nik: I think we should just put it all on Facebook and let the world decide. What makes a good boundary spanner?

Kristen: They’re considered communications stars, they have empathy, they have cross-cultural competencies, emotional intelligence, oftentimes a lot of social capital and knowledge and that helps, and may amplify, cross-boundary organizing and relationship-building. They play that unique role in the space between science and policy. And I think they will become increasingly important as we move into these uncertain futures.

Nik: What’s your advice for boundary-spanners, whether they work on environmental challenges or the pandemic response? Faced with the monumental indifference of nature, which seems lately like it wants to wipe out our civilization, how do we stay sane? How do we stay productive?

Kristen: There are parallels between the existential dread of climate change and of coronavirus. This is a moment to be sensitive to compounding anxiety: how are we thinking about coronavirus on top of the already heightened anxiety about climate change? In both situations, there’s a feeling of being out of control. We’re being forced to develop new coping skills, and that can be really stressful because the tools we used in the past may not be the  best ones anymore.

Of course, another layer is the disproportionate effects on disadvantaged communities. I see a lot of parallels in how folks on the front line are impacted by coronavirus and climate change. That calls into question: what can we do about both, maybe at the same time? There maybe are some ways to better cope with both crises. 

Nik: Such as?

Kristen: Learning to take care of ourselves better, for one. If we take better care of ourselves and others, maybe those tools will help us address climate change once the virus is contained and as we get into a new version of normal. I think the issue of self-care is going to be crucial for folks to weather this storm and then weather the longer climate change projections.

Nik: I’m eating and drinking as if each day were my last. The 19 in Covid-19 is actually pounds.

Kristen: I’ve been cooking a lot and experimenting with new beer brewing recipes.

Nik: You’re an essential service! What’s your favorite part of your job?

Kristen: Prior to coronavirus, the ability to work in Mexico and look at the social-ecological system. The border region is infinitely fascinating to me. It creates such complex, and often frustrating, circumstances that impede progress. But it offers this unique opportunity to think about collaboration and coordination. I love my job. 

Nik: You grew up on Long Island, you were a waitress on Fire Island. You went to the University of Miami and did work in the Gulf of Mexico. Now you’re on the Pacific. What’s your favorite body of water? Salty or fresh?

Kristen: I’ve definitely been enjoying the Pacific. The kelp forest is just amazing. It’s a lot colder than the Caribbean where I did a lot of my coral reef research, but the Pacific is spectacular. So are the bright orange garibaldis. Salty! 

Nik: Favorite animal?

Kristen: My weiner dog, Salchicha (spanish for sausage or hot dog). She’s a rescue from Tijuana and she’s been a terrific comfort to me through this pandemic and my dissertation.

Nik: Lucky dog. Thank you, Dr. Kristen Goodrich.

Kristen: Be well, everyone. Remember: we can flatten the curve. There’s a lot to be taken from that in how to be hopeful—while understanding ongoing losses, we can have an impact. That’s where I see the most parallels to climate change. 

Nik: Gotta find the hope.

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