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“So, tell me…” How in-depth conversations propelled my work with communities in graduate school and the Knauss fellowship

By: Maggie Chory,
Knauss Fellow,
Socioeconomic Specialist,
Sea Grant


When thinking about my experience so far as a Knauss Fellow, I am struck by the fact that many of the skills I learned and practiced as a graduate student play into my day-to-day work now. One skill that I was surprised to discover would have so much importance this year is the ability to conduct a productive and meaningful interview. 


In part, I guess this is no surprise. Interviewing is all about people. I have made many of the important decisions in my life based on people – wanting to surround myself with good people and do work that has a community focus – and those values have been reflected in both my graduate work and my work as a Knauss Fellow. I see interviewing, on any topic, as an opportunity to connect with your subject, as well as a critical tool in any community-focused work. The importance of giving voice to the people who are going to be impacted by a policy change cannot be overstated, and it is a responsibility I take seriously. 


As a master’s student, I knew that I wanted to do research that involved, and could benefit, the community in which I was currently living. Commercial and recreational fishing is an enormous part of life in Carteret County, NC, and it was something I knew little about. So with two other classmates, I decided to study subsistence fishing in the region, specifically looking at what role public infrastructure (piers and bridges) played in the subsistence fishing community. This research led us to conduct 80 interviews over the course of the summer and fall, approaching fishermen and women at popular free fishing sites. In addition to characterizing fishing habits and behaviors, we were interested in learning if those “fishing for food” were aware of the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality subsistence fishing license waivers and whether they might qualify for them. This research allowed me to connect with members of the community that I might not have otherwise and gain an appreciation for different perspectives in the region. We hope that our findings, rooted in the experiences of those fishers we talked to, will have an impact on improving the accessibility of fishing licenses for all community members. 


Fast forward to Knauss Placement Week. I chose my Knauss fellowship placement with the National Sea Grant Office (NSGO) for two reasons, which, in retrospect, were both community and people-based: the warm and welcoming Sea Grant staff (including my amazing now-boss and mentor) and Sea Grant’s mission to support coastal and Great Lakes communities through research, extension and education. In my role as the National Sea Grant Office’s Socioeconomic Specialist, I soon found myself conducting a different type of interview, also centered within a community, but this time not based on shared geography or habits. At Sea Grant, my work largely involves increasing the economic valuation capacity within the Sea Grant network of 34 state programs – in part to help with annual economic reporting requirements (programs are mandated with quantifying the economic benefits of their program’s activities). This entails spreading awareness about the existing NSGO economic valuation resources, supporting the programs in their use of them and helping to lead a Community of Practice (CoP) to share knowledge and expertise of economic valuation, as well as raise questions and discuss areas of common concern. As a part of this work, I have interviewed over 20 members of the CoP to get feedback on the NSGO’s existing economic valuation tools and resources and what else we might be able to provide to increase capacity in this area.  My discussions revolve around Sea Grant staff’s experiences with the CoP, their struggles with economic reporting, and their hopes for progress that can be made through collaboration. It is only by consulting with our end-users and understanding their perspectives that we can take the best approach to tackling these issues. 


While conducted in a totally different setting and with a totally different objective, the interviews have been similarly candid, interesting and community-centric as my Carteret County interviews. The goal of my master’s project was to characterize a community (of subsistence fishers) so we could make management recommendations as to how that community could be better served by state fish and wildlife regulations and programs. My Sea Grant interviews mirrored that same structure but for an internal and programmatic purpose. Now, I am into the second part of the NSGO project: using what I have learned from the CoP members to strategize how to better serve the state Sea Grant offices with their economic valuation needs, including through supporting the use of current resources and implementing effective changes in how we approach the topic.


The Knauss Fellowship has opened my eyes to the breadth of work that NOAA does and the huge impact that Sea Grant makes, even as just one program office within the larger agency. But my day-to-day job also helped me focus down to the very granular programmatic aspects (valuing economic benefits) of a single system (annual reporting) that I had never considered before. Yet even on this small scale, I recognize the important community-wide effects that are possible through outreach and engagement. 


From the pier to the office, the biggest lesson I’ve learned thus far is that it all ties back to people, no matter the scale or make-up of the community. It is conversations with people that allow me to gain knowledge and perspective that can lead to incremental system changes, and it is those changes that can ultimately have positive community impacts.

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