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Meet Debbi Edelstein of New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham

Today we’d like to introduce you to Debbi Edelstein.

Debbi, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I’m living proof that you can change careers at 40. After two decades as a writer and editor, I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life saving the planet. I deemed it too late to become a serious scientist of any stripe—botanist, epidemiologist, ornithologist—but firmly believed that you can’t save the planet if you don’t know how it works. So I took some environmental science classes to demonstrate my commitment, crossed my fingers, and hoped my nerdy student heart and clear enthusiasm would land me a place in the master in city planning program at MIT. In my first week, I boldly shunned the recommendations of the faculty adviser assigned to me and sketched out a degree that combined the traditional environmental policy and planning track at MIT with courses at Harvard in hydrology, landscape and forest ecology, and the management of ecological systems.

My goal was to learn enough to find a good job with a conservation nonprofit. Luckily, it all worked out (but not without some twists and turns). Today, I’m delighted to be the Executive Director of the nation’s oldest plant conservation organization, New England Wild Flower Society. I came to the Society in 2009, after experience in just about every area of conservation: water, land, critters, and air pollution. I got my first break as the barely paid, part-time director of a watershed association (I still had to earn my keep through writing and editing projects), and then was grateful to lead the Southeastern Massachusetts Bioreserve project for The Trustees of Reservations, serve as the Executive Director of Audubon’s statewide program in Washington, and run a program to reduce diesel emissions that was a partnership between US EPA and the air quality agencies of the eight northeastern states.

I’ve managed to have some success as a generalist in areas filled with specialists. How? Two reasons, I think: 1) I was lucky to encounter people willing to look at my skills and not just hire someone who had done the exact same job before; and 2) a decade of self-employment helped me develop enough business and project management skills to be a credible candidate for the good jobs I wanted.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
I don’t think the road is ever smooth. My first challenge was just getting people to look past the problem experienced by every person changing careers at mid-life: I had a new degree, no experience in the field, but was a grown up with serious accomplishments. I couldn’t be hired as an entry-level employee and couldn’t be hired as a more senior specialist. Fortunately, enlightened managers saw potential and gave me a chance.

The second struggle was also not unique to me. For some reason, every major job change coincided with a big economic downturn, so the challenges in my new position were magnified by the difficult fundraising climate. I learned to focus on things over which I have control, which does not include either the economy or the weather (which matters a lot to the revenue of New England Wild Flower Society’s botanic garden).

So, as you know, we’re impressed with New England Wild Flower Society – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
New England Wild Flower Society is a 117-year-old nonprofit organization whose mission is to conserve and promote the region’s native plants to ensure healthy, biologically diverse landscapes. We’re a national leader in native plant conservation, horticulture, and education. We often pioneer programs that others adopt, and we publish books and tools, such as our Go Botany website, that are used by both the public and professionals. Our 22 staff, 500 volunteers, and paid instructors work throughout New England to monitor and protect rare and endangered plants, collect and preserve seeds to ensure biological diversity, detect and control invasive species, conduct research, and offer more than 200 educational programs. The Society also operates a native plant nursery at Nasami Farm in the Pioneer Valley and has six sanctuaries in Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont that are open to the public.

We’re based at Garden in the Woods, a unique botanic garden in Framingham that showcases an unrivaled collection of both rare and common native plants. The 45-acre wooded property—with its glacier-made ridges, steep-sided valleys, and a pond, bog, and meandering stream–is a dramatic canvas for a series of gardens celebrating the color and texture of native plants throughout the seasons. We’re open to the public mid-April through October 15; members may walk on the grounds (and snowshoe) all winter.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?
We have a new five-year strategic plan that lays out an ambitious agenda and aims for significant growth in staff, programs, and therefore funding. Perhaps most interesting for your readers is our initial steps to implement a new plan for Garden in the Woods. We’ve just revived the historic Curtis Woodland Garden and overhauled the meadow, as part of a first pass to up the “wow” factor and offer more three-season interest. The full plan will take a capital campaign and a decade of work involving ecological restoration, new gardens, and new amenities for visitors. It will be exciting for us and for visitors to watch the changes unfold.

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
My proudest moments are the result of teamwork that achieves its goals, and I’m always proud of the incredible work my staff does on a shoestring budget. For example, it was thrilling to fly over the 13,600-acre Southeastern Massachusetts Bioreserve and realize that the partnership ensured that the forest surrounding the drinking water supply of Fall River and New Bedford is protected forever. I was proud that my team at Audubon Washington issued the nation’s first “State of the Birds” report and that a decade of research by the staff here at the Wild Flower Society made it possible for us to build the Go Botany website, publish a field guide to the plants of New England, and publish the first “State of the Plants” report. If we secure all the funding, we’re on track to meet a goal of the UN’s Global Strategy for Plant Conservation—banking the seeds of all of New England’s rare and endangered plants by 2020. }

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Image Credit:
Daniel Jaffe, Lisa Mattei, Steve Ziglar

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