My Proud and Passionate Answers to “What Do You Do?”

By Roberta Vogel-Leutung

When asked what I do at the EPA, I’m likely to say, “How much time do you have?” My job description isn’t so long, but it doesn’t fit nicely into a casual, brief elevator speech. “I lead a federal partnership for the Blue River in Kansas City,” I say and am often met by a blank stare or a conversation-ending “Oh.”

But for the braver ones who see my spark of passion and encourage me to share more, here’s what I say about my work leading the Middle Blue River Urban Waters Federal Partnership in Kansas City, Mo.:

“I love what I do.”

Kim, Roberta, Jill, Lauren at NPS Strategy meeting Jan, 2015

Vogel-Leutung (second from left), feeling the joy after a full day of strategic planning for community engagement on the Blue River, with (from left) Jill Erickson and Lauren Garrott of the Heartland Conservation Alliance, and Kim Shafer of the National Park Service – River and Trails Conservation Assistance Program.

I convene a steering committee of a dozen people from federal, state, and local agencies and non-profit organizations. Together, we dream really big about what a vibrant, resilient river corridor would look like. We see a jewel in a world class city; a protected upper watershed; a river that boasts healthy and forested riparian corridors, affords connectivity for people and wildlife, bubbles with clean water, and provides hiking and biking access for everyone. We see the river as a centerpiece of revitalized neighborhoods and brownfields. Our partner, the Heartland Conservation Alliance, likes to call this “Fishable, Swimmable, Loveable”.

That is our big dream and together, we grapple with how we can get there from where we are today. What regional planning is needed? What kinds of forest management and restoration, and which conservation practices and green infrastructure are needed? Where do we need sustainable redevelopment? How much and what kinds of community education, engagement and stewardship will get us there? How do we combine and leverage our collective time, energy, organizational niches, and resources for optimal effect in the Blue River corridor? We know we are asking big questions, and we are finding the answers to be equally complex. The solutions have not been easily captured in a single work plan. How we will succeed is represented better by our shared vision and aligned strategies across all of our partner organizations. This is called Collective Impact.

When asked what I do, I also say, “And sometimes it’s hard.”

It’s a lot to keep track of and I don’t always know what to do. The whole process is “very un-federal,” as I heard it described by some of my Urban Waters colleagues. Organizing for Collective Impact follows a framework, but it’s also cutting edge and untested for Kansas City and the overall Urban Waters Federal Partnership effort. So I dive in headfirst, and I find I am learning and doing at the same time and wearing many hats.

What do I do? I lead, inspire, catalyze, support, convene, facilitate, coach, plan, network, research, advocate, market, and educate. I even pick up trash. Sometimes I am uncertain and even afraid, but I do it anyway. Mostly things work out, but sometimes I fail or disappoint. And for those efforts that don’t go as planned, there is the team and the really big dream that keeps all of us focused.

And when asked what I do, I say, “Exactly what I want to be doing.”

I am called to this visionary, complex, and very human work. It’s our Agency at its best, and it’s inspiring to belong to a group of people committed to the cause and willing to work together beyond their personal or organizational perspectives for a greater Blue River and community. I am joyful watching our work catalyze new energy and connections for this river – its people – a jewel in a world class city. I’m always learning and am blessed to be free to lead with passion and love. After all, I’m holding a sacred trust.

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