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A Tale of Two Offices

By: Brittney Parker,
Knauss Fellow,
Coastal States Organization and FEMA Hazard Mitigation Assistance


“It’s like drinking water out of a fire hose…” This is a phrase that you will often hear when starting almost any new position that has a steep learning curve but in this case refers to starting a Knauss Fellowship. This phrase both intimidated and excited me in coming to D.C. I knew the Knauss Fellowship was the perfect way to take on a new challenge while pushing myself out of my comfort zone of scientific research. Little did I know prior to placement week that through my Knauss Fellowship I wouldn’t just be learning the ins-and-outs of a single executive branch office; I also would be working at a national non-profit.


I am one of two 2020 Knauss Fellows that have the unique opportunity to work in a dual placement position. I am working with the  Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Hazard Mitigation Assistance Division and Coastal States Organization (CSO) and Shelby Butz is in a dual placement position with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and CSO. CSO’s mission is to help states and territories maintain their leadership role in the development and implementation of national coastal and ocean policy. By hosting fellows in dual placement positions with federal partners, CSO builds a direct connection from federal agencies through CSO to state coastal program managers. The opportunity to have a dual placement position like mine and serve as the connection point for this effort through the Knauss Fellowship is incredibly rewarding.


Coming into the Knauss Fellowship I honestly did not know what to expect. I was placed at FEMA and CSO, charged with working in hazard mitigation and coastal adaptation planning, which was a field in which I felt I had no experience or training. I had a vested personal interest in coastal resilience, however, my background was in ecology, and toxicology, researching microplastics in fish. Although taking this position was a big departure from my background, I have grown more in the past six months in both my technical knowledge and personal growth than I could have imagined!


I spoke with Shelby Butz, the other Knauss fellow in a dual placement. She is placed in the EPA Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, and I spoke with her about her expectations in starting her Knauss Fellowship.

“Coming into this fellowship I anticipated wearing a suit every day, attending meetings with the most knowledgeable and passionate people coastal science has to offer, traveling to new and diverse coastal communities, all while learning everything I could about science, marine policy and the federal government. I wanted to use this fellowship to learn how to match my background and experiences in coastal ecosystems and human health with an office where I could use my skills to help shape policy that is in sync with science, community and stakeholders. I wanted to connect. I wanted to make a difference. In hindsight, I can say I wanted to be what my mentor calls “the gel”. I can wholeheartedly say I have gained more than what I expected from this fellowship, minus wearing a suit every day (thankfully) and traveling (which is pretty hard to do in a global pandemic). So, I will take my losses with the wins. In retrospect, it makes perfect sense that with having a dual discipline I would end up in a dual fellowship placement. I have become ‘the gel’.”


Functioning in a dual role definitely comes with a few challenges that I, myself, was not expecting coming into this fellowship position. First, I want to explain the functional reality of working in two offices. In “the before times”, also known as pre-COVID-19, we would physically spend 2 days a week at one office and 3 days a week at another office. This meant frequently carrying two laptops back and forth and carting around an extremely heavy backpack. Currently, as we are dealing with COVID-19, the workdays are more efficient as we can “physically” work in both offices at the same time. Initially, this seemed like a great solution to the dual office scenario, as we could be further involved in more activities within each office. But it soon became apparent that this also meant frequent overscheduling, which I know everyone is dealing with these days. 


Additionally, there are tricky logistics that are extremely important to figure out how to navigate early in the fellowship year. Things like knowing which hat to wear and when, and what information you are allowed to share from the agency to CSO and in reverse from CSO’s partners to the agencies. There is always a learning curve to figuring out the logistics of a new office, who and how to ask questions. Now imagine this multiplied by two. Having multiple people to report to in each office was a challenge, but it was fixed simply by asking. A dual role also taught me, personally, a great deal about my work style, time management, and personal organization. Balancing two roles, where no one is involved in all aspects of your work except yourself, requires a high level of personal accountability and organization.


Shelby added, “Another challenge was becoming comfortable with now knowing what I do not know. That sounds odd but coming from graduate school you are expected to know a lot and to be the expert of your subject matter. If your expertise is not marine policy, and even if it is, this fellowship is a yearlong crash course in all things marine policy, coastal management, professional development and work/life balance.” 


On the other hand, this dual role provides a valuable perspective, offering the experience of operating in close conjunction and partnership with both state and federal agencies, while, as a member of a non-profit, operating without the limitations of a federal agency. Shelby and I are lucky to experience the best of both worlds. We get to see the coastal management process, from the local level to Capitol Hill, essentially from start to finish.


On the federal side, I am able to see how policy is created (what effort goes into a task force, creating a new grant program, or running an external stakeholder working group) and how federal employees work as civil servants for the betterment of the population. In the non-profit space, I advocate for states and form personal connections with the people who are providing the science, implementing the rules and regulations, and ultimately benefiting, or not, from federal work. I then report back to my federal agency and have insightful, sometimes critical but constructive and relevant input on what is working and what could be improved.


There is still so much to learn in terms of these dual positions.  New tasks and issues are presented on a daily basis, but the opportunity to be involved in such a variety of projects is worth the somewhat organized chaos we manage on a daily basis. While the figurative firehose is still on, after six months I can say it has definitely been turned down a few notches. 


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