Kate FritzCEO of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay

Kate Fritz

Anapolis, Maryland

This interview was conducted by Carly Schmidt on November 28, 2023. Press play to listen and find the full audio transcript below the audio player.

00:00:02 Kate Fritz

You know, one of the things that I always think of as my number one job as a leader is to create other leaders within an organization, within a movement, and I really would encourage anybody who’s holding any kind of manager or director title, who supervises other people or has the ability to influence others, to really take and embrace that.

00:00:26 Carly Schmidt

Hello and welcome to River Network’s Meet Your Network series, where you get to hear from river, justice, and water advocates in their own voices. River Network envisions a powerful and inclusive movement that ensures abundant, clean water for all people and nature to thrive. My name is Carly Schmidt. I am the Membership and Communications Manager at River Network. I use she/her pronouns in live and work in Denver, Colorado, on traditional Ute, Cheyenne, and Arapaho land. I encourage you to learn more about the native lands you live and work on at native-lands.ca.

Today, I have the privilege of speaking with Kate Fritz, an inspiring leader whose journey has woven through various environmental landscapes in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. In this conversation, Kate and I talk about her experiences and evolution as a leader, as well as the development of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay’s new strategic plan. Please enjoy this conversation with Kate Fritz.

00:01:21 Carly Schmidt

Thank you so much for joining me today, Kate. Really excited to dig in and learn more about your leadership style and the impact you’ve made in the Chesapeake Bay. But first, I’m always interested in how people are coming into this work and what drives them. So, could you please share kind of the Cliffs Notes version of your story, how you became an advocate for the Chesapeake Bay, and what inspires you to stick around.

00:01:47 Kate Fritz

Thank you, Carly. I really appreciate the invite to join you today, and I admire the work of the River Network. So, I’m excited to participate with with you all today as well.

I grew up moving around as a kid every 2 or 3 years. My dad’s job sent us around to international places so I always thought of myself without a a home, really, until I went to St. Mary’s College, in Maryland, down in Southern Maryland, which is on the beautiful St. Mary’s River, tributary to the Chesapeake Bay, when I realized that I could call the Chesapeake home. I was running through the forest Pennsylvania, or the wetlands of West Virginia, or the mountains of Virginia. Those were all the Chesapeake Watershed, those were all the the the waterways that feed the Chesapeake Bay. So once I realized that my career had brought me home into a place where I’ve always enjoyed, that that truly was just like a a very important understanding for myself, that I did have a home, and the Chesapeake was my home, and I’ve dedicated my career to the Chesapeake and work in restoring the Chesapeake Bay and doing it with a people focused lens.

When I think about my career trajectory and how I got to be the CEO of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, I think back to my biology classes at St. Mary’s and that curiosity it gave me to start to ask questions.  And then I cut my teeth on water quality monitoring in the St. Mary’s River for 3 years, and I was paid through a National Science Foundation grant. So I had a paycheck that was paying me to stay curious about this work. When I graduated from St. Mary’s, I spent the first part of my career in a field job, collecting data, forest and delineations, wetland delineations, stream restoration data, water quality monitoring, and the bottom floor of what science was and how data is being used. I leveraged that experience into working with local government in Prince George’s County, in the planning department, for 7 years. So land use, and where and how all of our counties and jurisdictions grow, gave me an incredible foundation to understand. Then I got the opportunity in 2014 to serve as the Executive Director of the South River Federation, which is now the Arundel Rivers Federation. So I got my first opportunity to lead in an executive space.

So when I think about what I was interested in as a young adult and maturing in my career. It was really 2 things. One was nature, outdoors, the connectedness of ecosystems, the connectedness of people to that like that really fascinated and really it. It made me understand some some things that I struggled with. And then the second piece was that I was always interested in leadership. I was that kid that was the volleyball captain, serving in those leadership roles through high school and college, and so to be in a space where I can utilize both my passion for outdoors and connecting people to those experiences and clean waterways. With the ability to lead an incredible team at the Alliance. It feels incredibly meaningful and impactful to me.

00:05:18 Carly Schmidt

Thank you very much for that. So, you’ve been the CEO of the Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay for several years now, and I’m sure you’ve witnessed key pieces of the organization’s evolution. How have you seen the Alliance change under your leadership?

00:05:35 Kate Fritz

We’ve been doing our work [at the Alliance] for 52 years, and so there’s a lot of history behind us. There’s a lot of future ahead of us, too. When I got the opportunity to serve in this role as the Executive Director, now the CEO of the organization, 6 years ago, I really understood the Board was installing me as a change agent. It was a a nod to my skills and abilities to take an organization and help get us ready for the future. When I think about key factors of what was going on in the Alliance’s lifetime at the the time when I met the Alliance in 2017 and I think about the success we have had as an organization, I think about quite a few things that we’re lining up. One was, what I just said that the Board was anointing me as this change agent wanted to see us continue to grow and expand. Another key factor to our success as an organization has been to really stick to our values.

We were formed in 1971 as a place for everybody who had an agenda that involved clean water to come to the table. So if you were a corporate partner, if you were a local government, a State government, Federal government, a community member, whatever that looks like, and so our values have always been inclusion and working in partnership. So I think we’ve continued to stick to our values and I think that’s incredibly important to how how we’ve benefited as an organization as we continue to grow and grow our impact across the watershed.

The other thing that I think really contributed to our success to date is that we did a really hard look at our mission and our programs we were delivering when I came in, and 2018 into 2019, when we did the first strategic plan. And that meant we had to take a deep look. We had to say, what do we want to continue? What do we need to stop doing how do we get clarity around our work? There was a big sentiment that we were trying to do too many things for too many people. And we really needed to focus our mission and our program areas. And and we’ve done that very successfully.

So, I’ve always thought of my job in this space as really to help build a vision for the organization, not by myself, but to help co-create a vision for where we want to go. Where do we want to be as an organization? We were the first generation of Chesapeake restoration work, and we are going to be the second generation. So what does that look like? What does that you know as an organization? What does our work look like? What does the external world look like? Then I let the staff loose. I have a policy to hire really great staff members who are gonna just do really great work at their positions. And so once we were able to come together around a vision, I just empowered and made sure to delegate to our incredible team members, and they’re the ones who are living and breathing that vision every day as we march towards it. So there’s quite a quite a few things that go into making organizations successful and certainly the team of folks showing up every day is is a critical piece of that.

00:08:59 Carly Schmidt

I would love to follow up on something you said earlier about your lifelong interest and aptitude for leadership. You seem to have so much clarity in your role as a leader. In previous conversations, you’ve mentioned the significance of journaling and self awareness. Could you elaborate on how these practices influence your approach and decision making as a leader? And I’m also curious how you keep such a high, level view of the Alliance’s mission and values without just sinking into the weeds.

00:09:36 Kate Fritz

Well, that’s not to say that I don’t, and I certainly have to on many occasions. And  that’s where I came from, right: programming. And the nuts and bolts of things. Sometimes it feels good to get out in the dirt and remember why I got involved in this work to start with. But, to address your first question about journaling and self-reflection: this is just always something that’s come very naturally to me. I consider myself to be somebody who can see the dots and then be able to connect those dots into patterns and shapes. I have this ability to take a lot of disparate information and kind of start to put it together in ways that build patterns or build goals or something that can be more cohesive than just all the 100 different voices it becomes. Here are the 100 voices condensed into this concise thing? Can this be the thing we want to work towards? Journaling has just been an outlet for me. Whether it’s doodling or whether it’s drawing, whether it’s writing song lyrics. In high school, it was a lot of angsty emotions and feelings. It was part of the way I processed things. It’s been a really helpful practice for me. One important quality of any good leader is self awareness. So journaling and the reflection process that I undertake gives me the ability to really become more self aware. Where am I strong? Where am I challenged? And I go back to my journals. I’m like, Oh, I’ve done this before. Why am I thinking this is a new experience? It gives me space to admit my mistakes without judgment. And I can choose to do without what I want sometimes that’s rip it out of the book and throw it in the bonfire. Sometimes it’s leave it in the journal and go back to it later to learn from it again. So, like I said, it gives me the space to become more self aware, which I think is really critical to all leaders and all good leaders in this space.

And your second question was how do I kind of stay up on that balcony? That metaphor of watching the dance floor. Certainly my journaling helps with that. I take a lot of notes. I do a lot of that doodling. What are the connections? Those are the ways that I try to stay up at that higher level to understand that bigger picture of what’s going on and how things are happening on the ground. 

00:12:28 Carly Schmidt

Yeah, sounds like a great creative practice, too. I mean, you’re talking about putting together the kind of visual and creative process of making connections. It seems like a really great restorative practice, too, when things in the water world are very hectic, and burnout is so prevalent as well.

00:12:45 Kate Fritz

Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. I think that’s a good point. I don’t think about it often, but it is a healing opportunity. It’s a way for me to really maintain some self care and perspective, because you get so bogged down by things sometimes.

00:13:04 Carly Schmidt

Yes, absolutely. I’d love to talk about how this visioning showed up in developing your recent strategic plan. You mentioned earlier that the team came together to address the issue that you were doing too many things for too many people. Not to cast a spotlight on the negative, but I imagine it’s much easier to say yes to projects and programs than it is to say no. So I’m curious how you went about deciding what to stop doing at the alliance. How did you reign in the organization’s focus?

00:13:31 Kate Fritz

That’s such a good question. It was a lot of conversations with a lot of different groups of folks. At the time I was still fairly new in the organization. So it was [conversations] with former board members, with current Board members, with staff to understand the challenges and the challenges around the financials related to programming the challenges around partnership interest in the type of programming. II tried to collect as many data points as I could about those challenges. And then, I was able to kind of lay that out and be like, did I get this right? And I was able to shop it back around through our committee in our process, and we were able to say, “yes, that feels good,” or, “Oh, gosh! I really didn’t want that to show up on the list to be cut.” But, let’s talk about it, and so we were able to take all of that information and put it into a visual for people to understand how it was all being grouped. And then deciding what we needed to maybe let go of.

It was a really great process, and a lot of folks were able to step up and say that we have been running that program for a really long time, and it’s really important to us a slim group of people, but we are saying that our mission is to really accelerate scale up work. 

Again, it was creating that vision of where we wanted to go as an organization and the way we wanted to get there. I feel really great about where we landed, which is ultimately how we landed in our 4 program areas. It was a great success story. I think it’s a true testament as to how we were able to double our growth, triple our growth, as an organization because we were able to narrow our world down. We got that consensus from our board and our staff members to do that. We are just laser focused on that, which I think really helps us with raising the funds that we need to be more impactful to help succeed in our mission.

00:16:18 Carly Schmidt

And operating across this huge watershed, I’m sure, demands some robust partnerships as well. How do the Alliance’s values show up in those partnerships?

00:16:31 Kate Fritz

We’ve got so many partnership examples. One of our values is really inclusion as an organization, and that is very much lived out by the partnerships that we form as an organization. The first partnerships that come to mind are our corporate partnerships. We’ve always had corporate partnerships, but we’re now working in a space of supply chain greening in the agriculture sector. So we’re helping green how milk and poultry is being produced and grown in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. We’re partnering with some really large brands like Hershey and Turkey Hill Dairy and Land-o-Lakes and Purdue to help bring resources to bear to their supply chains. We’re helping farmers on the ground deploy resources to do best practices and that partnership to me is so exciting because we’re working at a farm level, but we’re impacting at a systems level. We’re impacting that supply chain and how agricultural products are being produced, but we’re able to bring resources to bear to the farmers on the ground.

Another partnership that I’m incredibly excited about is our partnership with Bowie State University, a Historically Black College here in Maryland. We’ve been partnered with them for the last 5 years. One of the reasons we sought out a partnership with Bowie State was through some of the data from the Green 2.0 report regarding the green ceiling. I may have my numbers a little off but I think generally the report says that people of color represent about 39% of the US population but only about 22% of science and engineering jobs. And then in environmental agencies, organizations, or foundations, people of color only represent about 16% of the workforce. That data has really been driving us to think about systemic barriers of getting people of color into the field, into the natural resource management or environmental science field. And so our Bowie State partnership is so critical as we’re trying to help provide resources to undo a system that has been preventing people of color from entering into the environmental field. We help provide paid internships for students. We did a lot of virtual programming where students were putting the programming together, and we were helping provide stipends to them to help coordinate things. And we’ve got some grant funding now to really, really do some on the ground restoration work with those students in the Science department, with the professors that are interested in doing research, and so that that partnership is really meaningful to the alliance as well. 

And and what I think of as the future of not just the environmental movement, but  the demographics of the country, and better representing the people, the future population of the United States. So I’m really excited about that. 

00:20:27 Carly Schmidt

That’s really great. What have you learned that are the pieces that make partnerships successful?

00:20:29.970 Kate Fritz

There’s a couple key things, and they’re all very interrelated things. The first one, I would say that what makes a good partnership is that we have to move at the speed of trust, and trust is really just an equation of consistency plus time. Sometimes these partnerships take a long time to build that trust, I think, especially if you’re working with a new community that potentially is being driven by a different mission or a different outcome than we are per se. Another key attribute to making good partnerships is understanding the What’s in it for me?, or WIIFM, for the partner. A ward we’re working with in DC to install green infrastructure practices is so different from a State agency. So we really have to understand what drives each of our partners and how we can help them get to where they want to be while also helping achieve our mission and our goals along the way.

I think another key factor in successful partnerships is creating expectations and getting those really clear upfront and doing that together. So whether that’s a memorandum of understanding, whether that’s some kind of agreement that can go as far as rules of the road, it can look like actual contracts for how money will flow or how work will flow. But I think getting that real clarity of which partner is doing what and how we’re gonna operate as a team. I think those are really important things to establish upfront. And then my final kind of thought is to meet partners where they are. This kind of goes back to moving at the speed of trust. But, we have to be willing to meet our partners wherever they are in their journey of understanding. Sometimes that means slowing down a lot and really understanding where our partners are. 

00:23:03 Carly Schmidt

Thank you for that. It’s wonderful to see how reciprocity is showing up in a lot of these partnerships. I’d love to go back to strategic planning for a second. How did the Alliance engage external partners, but also local communities in the development of the mission and values? How did you center the well-being and resilience of the people in the region in this process?

00:23:27.080 Kate Fritz

It’s a great question. Our team members are so focused on their constituents and their communities. They feel that they can help be good representatives of their communities. The organization as a whole is really learning how to do community first outreach and undo some of the traditional outreach where the group comes in, IDs a problem, and then IDs the solution and then kind of forces it on the community. We’re very cognizant that that’s not how to continue to operate moving forward. That being said, our current funding structures don’t always support that type of work either. So that’s something we think about often. How can we raise funds so that we can go and meet our communities and do that trust building work, sometimes years before projects come to fruition?

We’re learning how to do community first outreach work. One of the things that I was talking about earlier is our systems level work, how it connects with our ground level work. And I think that’s been a really important piece of our success as well as understanding the bigger picture connections, and how the the parts really sum up to the whole. That can look like convening NGOs in a certain geographic area to talk about capacity needs. We span and we span different scales a lot. We bounce between the very granular at the community ground level, and then, really, challenge ourselves to think about the system in which we’re working as well. In this space, we’re really advocating for clean water for all, so really helping them connect and see themselves in that space as well.

00:26:17 Carly Schmidt

Yeah, thank you very much for that. Switching gears a little bit here: You’ve had a really interesting experience recently that I’d love for you to share if you’re comfortable. I hear you’ve recently become the first female member of a hunting and fishing club, and I’m curious what you’ve learned about entering into this kind of male-dominated space, and whether this experience has ignited anything for you and your work.

00:26:44.950 Kate Fritz

Sure. So I have been going up to the Beaver Run hunting and fishing club since I was 9 months old. So my entire life. It’s located up in the Pocono Mountains. It’s now a thousand conserved acres. The club bought the property in in 1895, when it was logged property line to property line, and you can go back through the minutes of the club’s history, and you can see how many trees, what types of trees, and how much all those trees cost, because that was the mission of the club was to restore the property so they could hunt and fish on it. Flash forward 128 years later, I am honored to serve as the first female member of the club. I became a member 4 years ago. I’m the third generation of my family up there. My grandfather was a member. My dad was a member. This is where I grew up fishing. This is where I grew up hiking. This is where I grew up as my own special slice of the world. And II told you all that. I moved around a lot earlier in this conversation, and Beaver Run was always the same. The trees were there. The lake was there. The club was there. I knew I could always go back, and it would be the same. And so it became this really special place to me as this grounding place.

What I didn’t realize until I got into my profession is that it really influenced me in terms of my career path. I was visiting this space that had intentionally been saved and restored so that people could enjoy it for future decades to come. What I’ve learned in that space is that that’s very unusual. That’s a very privileged thing to have as a kid, which is why I think it also leads me to be passionate about how we bring people into this conversation about conservation in general. I grew up with all of these guys. I grew up understanding the perspectives of hunters, and I grew up understanding the perspective of anglers. You know, these kind of traditionally male dominated spaces. And I learned a lot. They didn’t vote me in as a member because I was going to be the first female, they voted me in as a member because I was going to be a contributing member. I brought skills and experience to the table in terms of my background. I think the last thing I want to say about being a member at a hunting and fishing club, being the first female member at a hunting and fishing club, is that showing up in that space and being accepted and being sought after for my advice, and counsel, and my experience gives me courage to continue to show up as someone who does not always look like the common denominator. It gives me a lot of bravery to be something different in a space that generally looks all the same. It’s  challenging sometimes, but being up there and looking back on that experience, it made me realize that there are other conservation stories to tell. Just because I was at a club where that was the dominant narrative, it wasn’t the only narrative. It’s made me curious about what other conservation stories are out there of people who aren’t white, aren’t male identifying, or that classic stereotype of outdoors people. It’s really exciting to see that those conservation stories are coming to light. I think Instagram, social media, has been an incredible way for those folks to show up.

I picked up a fly rod 2 years ago during COVID, and that’s been a mental health practice for me. Fish will haunt me in my dreams, and it just keeps driving me to get out there. It’s very fun. But, what I’m also learning is how different those communities are that also fly fish. It’s not all that classic, Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It. There’s groups of people of color that get together and are into fly angling and trying to get folks to join them. There’s groups like the United Women on the Fly who are trying to bring more women into this space, and that gives me hope for the future. When I think about how conservationists, professional conservationists, need to better reflect the communities that we serve. I am so excited to see the recreational space anglers and hunters alike trying to recruit because that’s where we’re truly going to continue to make those stewards of our lands and waters going forward.

00:32:32 Carly Schmidt

Thank you so much for all of this, Kate. I really appreciate your time today, just giving the network a chance to hear from and learn from you to wrap us up. What advice would you give to someone who’s currently either in the leadership trenches or maybe navigating this space leading an organization for the first time?

00:32:53.050 Kate Fritz

I guess the first thing that comes to mind is just thinking about the future of the work of the environmental movement and clean water work, especially at the intersection of our communities. I really want to reinforce the point that we need to do our work to benefit our human communities as much as they benefit our animal and plant communities. And I truly believe that at this moment, in time those things are inextricably linked, and we have ignored those linkages for way too long. And that  the statement about those human populations is relative to all human populations, and especially those areas that have been underserved, neglected, literally hung out to dry. That it is really contingent on us as a movement to make sure that clean water is available for all and, as leaders, it’s incumbent on us that we build organizations that are able to deliver in that vein that are able to set safe spaces and save tables for our community members to show up and participate and share in a way that’s impactful to them.

My final random thought is: one of the things that I always think of as my number one job as a leader is to create other leaders: within an organization, within a movement. And I really would encourage anybody who’s holding any kind of manager or director title, who supervises other people or has the ability to influence others, to really take and embrace that that you have a responsibility to grow others that they can then take on leadership from whatever corner of the world that they are going to stand in. So that is maybe my last bit of leadership thought I’d like to share there.

00:34:56.510 Carly Schmidt

Thank you again to Kate, CEO of the alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, for talking with me today. If you enjoyed this interview and want to hear more from network leaders, please keep an eye out for more interviews in River Voices and on the river network website. Thank you very much for listening.

Max Suwaki wearing a yellow It Is Overdue vest, smiling with his dog.