Faces of CELI: An Interview with Becca Ward, Director of DC Programs
Tell me about your career path, and how you reached where you are today.
I am a Legislative Assistant for U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR). I have been in his office for about five and a half years, so I’ve spent a lot of my professional career in the Senate. I first moved to DC a few months after I graduated from Duke University, and moved here in hopes of helping bridge the divide between climate science and policy.
When I first moved to DC, I worked for a lobbying firm called Cassidy & Associates in the climate and energy wing, and that inspired me to spend some time on the Hill. I’m from Oregon, and I interned for senator Merkley between my sophomore and junior year of college. I ended up getting a job as a staff assistant in 2013, and I have been working my way up ever since.
What inspired you to pursue clean energy in the first place?
For me, clean energy was the epicenter of a lot of things I care about: sustainable development, public health, education, and having an affordable and clean source of energy, which is essential for addressing gender equality in many parts of the world. That really came into focus for me before I went to college. I was a competitive fencer and did a few tournaments over the course of a couple years in China leading up to the Beijing Olympics. Each time I was there, I had a terrible headache from the pollution, and I saw how they were planning the Olympics and deciding where venues would be built. In Beijing for the Olympics, they stopped manufacturing, limited the amount of cars that could be on the road, and starting shooting silver iodine into the air to bring down the pollution. I had this moment where I got caught in the rain wearing a white zip up, and it got stained because the water was so dirty. It really struck me that this is not a sustainable way to build our cities, our communities, and our world. After that, I went to Duke for my undergrad, where I chose to study public policy and energy, technology, and environmental impact, and I never looked back.
At what point did you first become involved in CELI after you moved to DC?
I was a fellow in fall of 2014. At that point I had been in DC for about 2 years, and I became the legislative correspondent in Senator Merkley’s office working on the energy, transportation, agriculture and climate portfolio. I had been doing that for around 6 months. There was another CELI fellow who was a legislative correspondent from Senator’s McCaskill’s office who recommended the program to me. One of the things about working on the Hill, especially at that level, is you work on such a wide range of portfolios, so it’s hard to dive into the issues. Knowing that I wanted to work on climate and clean energy, this was the perfect opportunity to be around people who wanted to talk about these issues and to get exposed to more perspectives than those on the Hill. I loved being a fellow and I’m still very involved in CELI 4 years later.
How do you think CELI has supported your career progression over those 4 years?
I think there’s a couple factors that go into that. First, CELI has been helpful in getting a better sense of the energy ecosystem, and understanding how the different parts move. That 14 week semester really opened my eyes to things that don’t fall under the purview of national policy, such as, for example, the inner workings of FERC and project finance. I learned a ton about topics that I don’t deal with on a day to day basis, but are important to be aware of to make good policy.
The second piece is that it’s just a really inspiring group of good people. Especially in the last few years, there has not been a lot of movement in Congress on climate action, and it’s really easy to get discouraged. But every time I go to a CELI event, I’m reminded of all the amazing people working on solutions in this space, and I always leave feeling inspired.
Third, it’s also a really great space to ask questions and get impartial answers. I’m able to ask friends for an opinion on something, versus asking someone who’s trying to sell my boss something, which is often the case on the Hill.
So, the community to ask questions and learn from my peers, the moral boosting that everything will be okay because these people are working on it, and the content knowledge have all really helped me in my everyday job.
“We see leadership as non-positional. You don’t one day get promoted and say “I am a leader now.” CELI is trying to plant the seed that our fellows have leadership potential and we can be leaders now. It doesn’t need to come with a C-suite office.”
If you were talking to another one of your peers on the Hill, what would you say to encourage them to apply? Why is CELI especially valuable for those working in government?
I would say that CELI is an excellent return on investment for your time. Hill staffers are always really busy trying to find the best and most accurate information for our bosses. CELI gives you dedicated time to learn the issues, get a little bit more of a technical background, and also have a repository of people who you trust, who can give you unbiased information quickly. CELI also gives you an outside community still driving towards clean energy.
You mentioned that things can move slowly in government, but what are some of the things on your radar that you’re excited about?
If you decouple climate and clean energy, clean energy is really continuing to take off, and there are breakthroughs every day. We’re starting to see a broader coalition due to the economic benefits of clean energy; for example, think about the amount of wind produced in Texas or Iowa, or the benefit to rural economies that distributed resources can generate. We’re starting to really see the benefit of clean energy beyond the climate impact, and that creates new opportunities and new relationships.
It’s also important to remember that the government is fundamentally comprised of people, and it’s not homogenous at all. Although bureaucracy can be a black box, there a lot of really dedicated public servants working in government trying to advance solutions, even if it’s slow.
Although there are those examples of hope, it is still highly discouraging as this moment. So, tying this back to CELI, being able to talk about advancements in the clean energy space without necessarily talking about climate is really important.
How are you involved in CELI today and what your role encompasses?
Currently, I serve as the DC Director for CELI. I stepped into this role when CELI expanded to San Francisco and Jackie Weidman moved out there, so I started overseeing the DC program to help ensure that CELI stayed aligned across the two coasts. I also help oversee the Fellowship Training Program (FTP) by making sure our FTP coordinators have everything they need. I also launched and run the Clean Energy 101 Bootcamps.
So, in my role I oversee the leadership training program, the FTP orientations, and our DC community events, and then I also help the boat steer in one direction by ensuring that the dedicated members of our leadership team are in the know on all things CELI.
Digging in a little bit into the bootcamps and leadership development, I know that’s been a big focus for you. Why do you think it’s important for CELI to focus on leadership development?
If you take a step back to the mission of CELI, we are trying to put the people who will be in charge in 5, 10, 15 years in the best possible place they can be to enact meaningful solutions.
To me, leadership development can be a very fuzzy term, and it can range wildly from one organization to the next. Aside from the educational content, which is how we give all of our fellows an equal foundation, we want to make sure that as our fellows move forward on policy, business, and tech solutions, they have the tools to communicate, inspire, and organize folks around those ideas.
And so to me, that means developing very tangible skills, like public speaking, presentations, and conflict resolution. But we also see leadership as non-positional. You don’t one day get promoted and say “I am a leader now.” CELI is trying to plant the seed that our fellows have leadership potential and we can be leaders now. It doesn’t need to come with a C-suite title. There are things we can do in our communities, offices, and organizations to show, practice, demonstrate, and promote leadership.
Those are the main goals of CELI’s leadership development program -- both these harder skills that I mentioned, but also just really getting the point across that there’s no more time to wait, you need to step up and be a leader now. Our fellows have always been leaders, but we’re just fine tuning those skills so that they can hit the ground running.
“We know there are so many people out there who are passionate and want to advance this cause, so we need to think about our pipelines. Clean energy needs to be accessible and appealing to a wide range of people. That’s what I’m really excited about CELI becoming.”
Digging in a little more into the DC director side of your role, DC is where CELI began and our largest alumni community is here. What are you most excited about for the next 5 years of CELI and also beyond?
We have so much potential, and we’re at a very interesting point in our organization’s history. We’re hitting 5 years and we have the potential to expand to more cities. Part of what makes CELI so special is that it’s a close community that really trusts each other, and we communicate, bounce ideas, and grow. Now we have almost 300 fellows that have gone through the program. I’m really excited about using that brain trust to figure out how we grow next.
There are only so many folks that can go through the fellowship program every year, so I’m really excited to look a little bit broader, showcase the wide range of clean energy is, and bring more people under the tent. For better or worse, people often see clean energy as these main figures, like Elon Musk. For people not in the industry, Elon Musk is the most common association of a clean energy leader. That’s a very narrow view, because in clean energy, you have business, communications, advocacy, industry, engineering – so many things make up the ecosystem. I don’t think people understand that you can be passionate about this and have a fulfilling career in it.
Our fellows often say they wished they had known more about this space in college, or they wish they had career advisors that said, this is a great career, this is going to take off. To my knowledge, that doesn’t exist. We know there are so many people out there who are passionate and want to advance this cause, so we need to think about our pipelines. Clean energy needs to be accessible and appealing to a wide range of people. That’s what I’m really excited about CELI becoming.
Looking back over your 5 years of CELI, what are some of your fondest memories that have contributed to why you’ve dedicated so much time and passion to this community?
At orientation, which I’ve been to every semester since mine, we often do this exercise where we talk about that moment when you knew that the environment or clean energy was what you wanted to do. Every time, I’m really inspired by what drives people. Whether it’s a special place that’s no longer there, or a trip abroad where they saw the impacts of traditional energy sources, or they had an illness in the family that was most likely caused by an environmental contaminant, it’s so inspiring to see what drives people. As cheesy as it sounds, CELI fellows want to make the world a better place, and there’s such a concentrated amount of that in the organization. It always leaves me inspired and feeling like I should be doing more, which is really what you want from your peers and communities.
Lastly, if you go to any CELI event, there’s never a moment of silence. Long-time friends and complete strangers dive into these really nerdy conversations about energy, and it’s beautiful. It’s a unique place and I’m very thankful for the level of energy, commitment and passion within the CELI community.
Applications for CELI’s 2019 Fellowship close on January 13, 2019. Join us this Friday, January 11th in downtown Washington, DC to meet CELI Alumni and learn more about our Fellowship.