In Climate resilience, Community Events, Education and Learning, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, Public Outreach, River and Water Organizations, River Restoration and Protection, Urgent Issues

5 Takeaways From the 2020 Emerging Leader

When I was first selected as River Network’s 2020 Emerging Leader in March of 2020, I asked, “What version of my story do you want to hear: the activist version or the conservationist version?” The team at River Network resolutely replied, “both!” This last year really fused these two identities—my communications associate role at California Trout and my role as a leader in the Bay Area Sunrise Movement—and taught me that my whole self is more powerful and valuable than any one identity I might hold.

My term as the 2020 Emerging Leader was full of turbulence, with the global pandemic raging on and continuing the fight for racial and climate justice in all spheres, but it has also been incredibly validating and transformational. Reflecting on my award term, which began at River Rally 2020 and ends at River Rally 2021, I am so proud of myself for what I accomplished and I’m thankful for the support from the River Network team. 

Here are some highlights of my award year (so far!):

1. I built confidence in myself and my work.

When I decided to submit a self-nomination for the Emerging Leader award, I wanted to learn about past awardees to get an idea of what River Network was looking for. I quickly learned that this award was very new (established in 2019) and therefore had only one previous awardee for me to compare myself to. Kevin Jeffery, the 2019 Emerging Leader, is an exceptionally driven and impactful human whose work was very different from mine. I submitted a self-nomination anyway and, when I received the award, I was filled with encouragement and validation. I really undervalued my passion and voice because I’ve been silenced so much. Those negative experiences, being told that I should be quiet and being overlooked, are the root causes of self-doubt and imposter syndrome, which I talk about more in my interview. Winning this award, which was made for young people like me who have less experience but show passion and potential, quieted that voice of self-doubt and kickstarted a year that has made me embrace my value and innate power as a leader, conservationist, and activist.

2. I told my story and encouraged others that they, too, can find their voice.

When people first meet me, they often say, “I love your passion!” I have always been proud of my passion, but it was something that I considered a soft skill and not necessarily something to be recognized or celebrated. When I think of people who get awards, I think of people who are celebrated for their innovative ideas. You don’t hear a lot about people who are given awards because of their passion and talent for rallying a group.

Through the Emerging Leader Award, I was able to tell my story on many different platforms. I sat for an interview at the beginning of my award term, filmed “Finding My Voice” and participated in group calls where I was encouraged to share my story. As I told my story to more people and different audiences across the nationwide network, I saw that it was resonating with and empowering others who hadn’t heard a story like mine before. The crux of my story is that all it takes is the drive to turn your passion into action, you just need to figure out where to get plugged in. I am still seeing how empowering that message is. This level of storytelling and resonance, first through Sunrise and then River Network, is really the first time I felt seen. I am the type of person who shares openly with others, and I strongly believe that vulnerability is a gift to be shared. I was not only able to share my story openly, but I am grateful that it was also received so wholeheartedly. Telling our stories is one way that we can build a stronger community together.

3. I learned the power of community during quarantine.

One of my first virtual experiences in 2020 was River Rally. Facilitating the Young Professionals Happy Hour with Kevin Jeffery was a fun way to get connected to other young people in the network. And then, during River Rally, the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery sparked conversations and deep reflections about the immediate need for racial justice, and the Leaders of Color space was created. At the time, I was one of 3 people of color on the CalTrout staff and working toward internal DEI efforts. Through these communities, including the continuing “Advancing Racial Justice” conversation series, I was able to talk to other water professionals who had been addressing racial injustice longer than me. It was like group therapy. We shared frustrations and advice, about both dismantling systems of oppression and addressing the inequities we personally experience. Through these spaces, I was able to share my experiences while also learning from others living and working in different parts of the country. Because the Leaders of Color Network has been so beneficial to participants, we hope that it will continue to grow. If you are a person of color working in the conservation space, contact River Network team member Sheyda Esnaashari to join the conversation.

4. I shared my own knowledge in the area of storytelling and resonance for greater impact.

The workshop “Storytelling and Resonance: Creating a Culture of Empathy and Support” is a huge part of the Sunrise Movement and how we reach people’s hearts for change. Our messaging approach is based on storytelling, rather than hitting people hard with facts and statistics. We appeal to human emotion. I think it is easier for the younger generation to share more vulnerability in the context of their work. When I brought this workshop to River Network in the form of a webinar, I noticed that many found the concept challenging. We are taught that you have to be “professional” and check your emotions at the door, but we are living in a time when it has never been more important to listen to and empathize with others’ stories and experiences. I envision a future where work is meaningful and celebrated, and people don’t have to compartmentalize their identities. Being an activist has made me a better conservationist and vice versa. I have learned technical skills at CalTrout that I bring to organizing; and I can bring new perspectives and stories to my work at CalTrout through my work at Sunrise. There is so much power in accepting our whole selves. 

5. I connected with other change agents in the River Network community.

I loved hearing the stories of leaders in the River Network community, especially during the awardee panel at River Rally 2020. The other awardees, the River Heroes and Compton awardee, were so welcoming and encouraging. I am involved in a movement of young people, but in moments of self-doubt I wonder if we are being listened to. This experience was particularly encouraging because being wholeheartedly included in that space made me feel like I had a right to be in that space, too. I realized in that panel that I could hold my own. Imposter syndrome was still there—as the Emerging Leader and the youngest person in the virtual room—but they made me realize that I had meaningful insights to share alongside them. The youth perspective is so valuable.

It is an exceptionally hard year to make any predictions about the future, but what I can do is reflect on the past and how far I’ve come. I know that this last year has been transformational and I’ve grown so much. Through the Emerging Leader Award, I have built more confidence in myself and feel more empowered to share my story. I will continue to be a part of the Leaders of Color Network…hopefully forever! Regardless of my ability to predict the future, I’m grateful for the support and confidence this community has given me to carry me forward.

If you are considering self-nominating for the Emerging Leader Award, know that you are worthy of recognition! I am a firm believer in creating opportunities for yourself (Kevin is, too!) and that is the beauty of this award. Whatever you want to build or create, there is space and support from River Network to make it happen. We need more young people stepping up and sharing their stories. Just as a single drop of water can have a large ripple effect, a single story can reach many hearts. I hope that the community of emerging leaders can continue to grow and empower each other.

If you have questions for the 2020 Emerging Leader, contact Megan Nguyen. If you have questions about the self-nomination process, contact Carly Schmidt.

Thinking of Self-Nominating for the Emerging Leader Award?

Megan Nguyen was chosen as River Network’s 2020 Emerging Leader for her relentless activism through the Sunrise movement and her commitment to helping other young people find their voice and turn their passion into action.

“Our Network includes leaders that have been protecting their local waterways, sometimes for decades! As someone who is quickly becoming an old-timer myself, I am inspired by young leaders who bring their full selves to this work. Megan exemplifies this emergent leadership style. Megan weaves together technical expertise with a keen understanding of the human element of this work – the importance of storytelling, of deep listening, and of working at the intersection of water protection and social and racial justice. Her inspiring leadership has already taught us a great deal about how we need to approach this work going forward.”

— Diana, Leadership Development Director

“Megan brings passion and compassion to all of the spaces she occupies. She’s a force for a good and I know we are only witnessing the start of all that’s to come.”

— Sheyda, Drinking Water Program Manager

“Megan’s work as a leader in the Bay Area Sunrise Movement made her stand out as someone who goes above and beyond in her efforts to inspire action and change. I am continuously inspired by Megan’s passion and energy, and I can’t wait to see how she continues to use her voice in the years to come.”

— Carly, Membership Associate

The Emerging Leader Award recognizes the exceptional work of a young professional working at the intersection of water and justice. The previous award winner, 2019 Emerging Leader Kevin Jeffery, was celebrated for the self-directed creation and implementation of “Blue Index,” a city-wide research study to expand public participation in the protection and management of waterways in Austin, Texas by demonstrating the connection between the health of our waterways and well-being. Read Kevin’s take on young professionalism and being a self-starter.

How to Self-Nominate

Check out the award criteria, download the nomination questions, and submit them through the River Rally registration form. Nominees who are not selected as the 2021 Emerging Leader will be considered for scholarship support. Contact the River Rally team with any questions about the nomination process.

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