When I first set out to write this blog, my intention was to highlight the fact that March is “women’s history month” and that there are currently movements being conducted locally, nationally, and worldwide, to raise awareness about the inequalities women face, and to support a change in the way society sees and values women. I wanted to focus on women in our industry who have broken barriers, exceeded expectations, and influenced the way wildlife response is conducted. As such, I reached out to six women who have been in the wildlife response industry almost as long, if not longer, than I’ve been alive. I asked them if they would be willing to share their stories with me about what it was like for them in the early days of their careers, what challenges they faced, and what some of their career highlights and favorite memories were. Yet in doing this, I soon realized how inspiring these women’s stories are, and decided that one single blog could not capture the importance of all these women’s stories. Over the next three weeks I will be sharing their stories in multiple posts. I hope you enjoy reading their stories as much as I have!
To start off, I’d like to recognize Yvonne Addassi who has been involved with wildlife response since the early 1990’s. Yvonne is currently the Chief of Preparedness for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Office of Spill Prevention and Response. The story of how she got to this point in her career is powerful and inspirational.
I asked her to tell me about how she got involved in the wildlife response industry and why she has stayed. “I am not sure I can say I “decided” to spend my career in this field. I am a biologist by training, had originally thought of medical school and I don’t think I knew anything about emergency response as a career or a field. In all honesty, I just followed my “nose,” so to speak. I followed what had meaning for me. I started in State service implementing a 1988 household toxic products initiative with the Department of Toxic Substances Control. I have always been interested in the nexus between science and policy with the desire to leave the playfield better than I found it. I got a call one day from a woman involved in a working group I facilitated, encouraging me to apply, as an Environmental Scientist with the regulations unit of a new agency call the Office of Oil Spill Prevention and Response. It is difficult to explain what a watershed moment the Exxon Valdez oil spill was and I was excited to be a part of an organization to prevent this from ever happening again, and definitely not in California. I had no idea at the time that I would thrive in and be good at, emergency response and would find a home in OSPR. I have stayed at OSPR for 30 years now and although the work is important, it is the people that have kept me here. I can honestly say, I could not imagine working with a group of folks more professional, more dedicated, more committed and more fun to spend long long hours with. It has been both an honor and privilege to be in their company.”
When I asked about career highlights, I realized Yvonne has had a very decorated career. In her own words she has “had a wonderful career at OSPR and the opportunity to work with so many professional and talented people, so it is difficult to single out specific highlights. From a work standpoint, there was the implementation of California’s first Chemical Dispersant and In-Situ Burning use policies in the late 1990s. I was very proud of my first scientific paper accepted in 1997 and my presentation at the Artic Marine and Oil Spill Program Symposium at Vancouver. Working as Wildlife Branch Director for the Cosco Busan oil spill was amazing, especially with Mike Ziccardi as my Deputy. I have presented papers at several International Oil Spill Conferences and Effects of Oil on Wildlife Conferences. I had the opportunity to work every major oil spill in California since OSPR’s inception as well as the Deepwater Horizon Spill. I knew I had “kinda’” arrived when I recognized so many people in the Houma, Louisiana Command Post. And in 2015, I was appointed by Governor Brown as Deputy Administrator of OSPR or more commonly introduced by Tom Cullen as “This is Yvonne. She is my Number 2,” and that was great. Perhaps one of the things I am most proud of personally was receiving a Leadership Award, voted on by my colleagues in 2001, before going into management. As a team and a leader, I am most proud of the work I have been doing these past 5 years as the Chief of Preparedness. We have expanded our program to meet our statewide expansion, hired some amazing people that will take OSPR to the next level after I retire, and we now field the best trained Liaison Corp since OSPR started. I can honestly say the 30 years have gone by quickly.”
In reflecting on the memories she has made over the years, she states that “There are so many memories. And all of them are about the people and the relationships forged.
1) A group of women at OSPR who started a group called the GNO (Girls Night Out), back in the late 1990s. We take in movies (well, we stopped that since our picks were so bad), weekend trips, dinners and at one point, mahjong. We are still meeting, although I am the only person left at OSPR and in a couple of weeks, the only woman not retired.
2) I remember a dinner one night, after one of my first in-situ burning workshops, perhaps 1994. I was 32 years young. Ann-Hayward Walker was the consultant hired by MPA to help me, Kathleen Shimmin a high-level manager from USEPA Region 9 and Bela James (Shell scientist and the only male that night). I picked everyone’s brain about their careers as women (not Bela of course), and Kathleen shared an amazing story of her time as an engineering TA at Berkley, and not being allowed into the tunnels being built for BART, although her male students were, because she was a woman! It was considered “bad luck” to have a woman in the tunnel! It was one of those amazing nights of story telling that changes your life. Bela often told me it was one of the highlights of his career because for one evening, he was just “one of the women” (he probably said girls) and he said he learned more that night than he had in 20 years working in the field.
3) Being a part of the first California Environmental Sensitivity Coastal Mapping efforts probably 1993. I first met Drs. Jacqui Michel and Miles Hayes, titans in the field of geomorphology and worked with and got to know the field environmental scientists, as I was still working in regulations. I remember coming to a spot along the lost coast, and Miles said we had to head down the cliff to finish the transect, put in the marker, etc. And as I looked down, all I saw was thick poison oak, taller than me! When I said, no…, Miles looked at me indignantly and said in his slow southern drawl, “What kinda’ biologist are you?” “A smart one,” was my quick retort. Randy Imai, always the boy scout, cleared a path and Miles and Melissa followed him as I waited on the cliff top along with several other local folks. Well, poor Melissa wound up in the hospital and Miles had to make a trip to the emergency room. After that, Miles often asked my opinion about things, shaking his head and laughing, “a smart one indeed.”
So many memories, of laughter – slap happy after a long day of working with volunteers or waiting all night in an international airport; of triumph – of being declared a “wildlife rehabber” by Mike Ziccardi after a loon defecated on my and a grebe tried to poke out my eye, as we worked into the night, in a trailer, at Pt. Reyes, responding to oil birds in 1997 before we knew it was the Luckenbach; of honor, hosting the Chumash Nation Elders during the Refugio oil spill; of shared sorrow when a helicopter went down in 1992 taking two of our own, Greg Cook and Sonya Hamilton; of pride in watching how far we have come and in my staff thriving, creating new and innovative ways of protecting our coastal resources, and of humility at being in the company of such mighty people. I couldn’t have imagined or asked for more. So I suppose it was good, all those years ago, that I followed my nose and what had meaning. It is has never lead me astray. The same can not be said for my ego!”
Finally, I asked her what advice she has for other women, both in wildlife response and those interested in getting involved and making this part of their career as well. “The field has changed significantly in the 30 years I have been in it. There are more women now, and more women in positions of leadership and management, then when I started, at least in State Service. At OSPR, we have a female Deputy Administrator and two Branch Chiefs, all with scientific backgrounds. I think you need to know what you want and not be afraid to ask for it…in assignments, with special projects, make yourself available to sit on committees, find opportunities to get your work out there, in presentations, in workshops, in papers, in posters, in panel discussions, at lunch time talks. There are probably a lot more opportunities now with the virtual platforms to collaborate with professionals all around the world and don’t be afraid to ask someone if he or she is willing to be a mentor. I mentor a number of men and women, both formally and informally and it is invaluable on both sides. I think it is important to find a cohort of women with whom you can have honest and frank conversations with and help each other in your careers and if possible, in your personal lives. Women have challenges, including greater responsibilities in the home, care for children, elderly relatives, working more for less, etc. It is important that you have a tribe of women with whom you can touch base with and gain perspective. I think it is also very important to develop good working relationships with everyone around you and seek areas of common interests, consensus and create a supportive, team environment in your workplace. Learn the skill of facilitation. It will prove invaluable in your career, in ways you don’t even know about. You may be the only trained facilitator to help guide an important meeting or workshop outcome and people in positions of power will see you in a different light. I think mentoring is key. Find a mentor or two who can help you navigate decisions, provide perspective, given constructive feedback and who is always in your corner. Finally, be a leader and lead by example. I have found in my career that sometimes to lead, you must learn to serve. People do not only follow titles, they follow leadership and I have found that to have been key to being successful. Learn how to be a better leader, find your leadership strengths and learn to build collaboration and win-win situations no matter what level you are currently in your organization. And finally remember, we do nothing alone. I can claim things I am proud of, but all of my personal success has come on the shoulders of those who came before me, some whose names I know and have shared, but more often, there are names of folks I will never know, men and woman who paved the way for me, so that I might have more freedom, more options and more possibilities than they had. This is what I try and do for those who will follow me. In that way, be the change you wish to see in the world. Finally, find what motivates you, what lights you up and cultivate that in yourself, in your choices and in your work environment. And yes, follow your nose.”
All photos were provided by Yvonne Addassi and Mike Ziccardi.