Among the trees, Kelly Conroy cultivates a career and community in communications

Kelly Conroy is the Executive Director of Tree Davis. Photo Credit: Ben Young Landis.
Kelly Conroy is the Executive Director of Tree Davis. Photo Credit: Ben Young Landis.
Kelly Conroy is the Executive Director of Tree Davis. Photo Credit: Ben Young Landis.

[Editor’s Note: As of 2016, Kelly Conroy has transitioned to Timber+Main, a Sacramento design shop she founded, specializing in furniture and accessories crafted from reclaimed timber.]

Name: Kelly Conroy
Title: Executive Director
Affiliation: Tree Davis
Twitter: @politelywild

Kelly Conroy started her tenure this week as the Executive Director of Tree Davisa nonprofit that has been promoting community education and stewardship of urban forests in Davis, California, since 1992.

This is just the latest stop in a Conroy’s excitingly eclectic professional life as an educator and communicator, having most recently worked for the Sacramento Tree Foundation. Active in the local blogging scene through the Girls on the Grid network, Conroy also just helped launch the Cap City Blogger Network (CCBN), a brand-new community for professional and hobbyist bloggers, photographers, and podcasters in the greater Sacramento region.

You can meet Kelly Conroy and CCBN founder Maria Hill at their September 23rd workshop, a free professional development event discussing brand identity, building your audience through Instagram, and more.

I spent this morning chatting with Conroy about her career and vision over coffee and—where else—on a stroll through an urban forest, in McKinley Park in Sacramento.

Like many science communicators and others of a multidisciplinary stripe, Conroy’s vocational path was not immediately clear to her. A Sacramento native, she hopped across the causeway intent on studying biological sciences at UC Davis.

“And every single quarter, I called my mom crying, because I knew that I was going to fail something,” Conroy says. “I thought really seriously about changing my major to English or History or something that came more easily to me. But I just knew that science was where my heart was, and was the right direction to go.”

Luckily, after graduating, Conroy found a start as an outreach biologist with the California Waterfowl Association. “I had no idea that blends were allowed in adult life,” she says. “I thought you pick your major and that defines your career for the rest of your life, and that was really scary. But I was really fortunate to have people early in my career point out that I had specific personality skills that led to a more interpretive scientific field.”

Conroy really hit her stride later on with the Sacramento Tree Foundation, where she held a variety of positions before rising to Education Programs Manager. “I had a great boss at Sacramento Tree Foundation that really coached me into trusting myself and trusting my values and my personality. And that has given me a lot of courage to take on the Executive Director job [at Tree Davis], just knowing that my intuition is correct, and that I have a lot of training in this background to turn it into something wonderful.”

If Conroy sounds introspective and self-aware, her personal blog puts it in writing. Aptly titled “Politely Wild”, the blog broadcasts Conroy’s inner voice and reflections on her professional life and her personal passion for backpacking and adventure travel.

“I think what draws me to nature is the fact that, one, it kind of scares me, and it helps push me out of my comfort zone. And it just helps me grow as a person. And it also is a space of no judgment. Going into a redwood forest, those redwoods have seen thousands of years of human and non-human history,” Conroy exhales. “And the small decisions I make every day don’t register on that tree’s scale. That tree does not care what I’ve done in my past, and it probably doesn’t care what I’m about to do in my future—it just is with me in that space, at that moment. And that gives me some really great perspective—especially entering into an executive director position where I feel like everything is so important and critical. It’s nice to know we’re working on a timescale that is bigger than all of us, just trying to make a small, positive difference on that time scale.”

That time scale has exhibited some dramatic, visible changes during California’s current drought. However, the die-back observed in many trees around the Central Valley—as evidenced by fallen branches and browned leaves—offers Conroy and her outreach colleagues a chance to connect with the public.

“The drought has been huge. People four years into it are starting to understand what it means to our lifestyle in this region, and to the trees in this region,” Conroy explains. “In our area in the summertime, when it’s like 112 degrees, it’s really nice to have a healthy urban forest around. So taking advantage of community awareness around the drought—and really bringing expertise to the people at a time when they’re craving that knowledge—has been super effective.”

I offered that people don’t often think of trees as living organisms. That sparked a heartened response from Conroy, who feels that trees are one of those things that people take for granted—until they’re gone.

“Especially in Sacramento, where these trees were planted many generations ago. A lot of people—even people like me who grew up in Sacramento—just figured, ‘Oh this is a natural state; these trees are just here and I don’t have to do anything about it.’  But when people lose the tree that was planted on their lawn, or the tree that was blocking their house from the street noise—it’s gone, and you realize what a good thing you had.”

“That’s one of my favorite things about urban forestry—that it’s the most accessible, immediate connection to nature in an urban environment. Even a place like McKinley Park or Land Park or any of the 200-plus parks in Sacramento, you can touch the trees and sit under their shade, and you can be in a green space and get all of those benefits of mental rejuvenation and physical relaxation and clean air. The more I learn about trees, the more fun it is for me to go to parks, and sort of inspect to see how much growth they put on this year, and if they’re showing signs of stress or anything like that.”

“I think a lot of times people take urban trees for granted, and think of them more as infrastructure, as this permanent fixture that lives there. And so, getting people to connect with the fact that someone put that tree in the ground there on purpose—and you can be that person. You can volunteer with your local tree organization, and put that tree in the ground for yourself and for the future of Sacramento.”

Community is clearly a recurring theme for Conroy, with her public outreach work, and now with her involvement in the Cap City Blogger Network.

“The mission of Cap City Blogger Network is to educate, inspire, and collaborate. And I think regardless of your field, regardless of professional or personal, you can benefit from all three of those things,” says Conroy, who added an additional pitch to the CapSciComm network. “Even as a science communicator, you have to be inspired to write. Those are the most effective pieces that’s going to resonate the most with the public—is informed, inspired writing.”

Conroy hopes that CCBN will offer a chance for all local bloggers to find inspiration, and build their professional and personal network. It’s an enthusiasm that resonates from her vocation and life path—no longer an unclear one at this point.

“I’m an interpretative outdoor educator at heart, so my favorite thing about my career—it’s sort of the common thread through every job that I’ve had—is watching the moment someone understands they’re part of a living system,” Conroy says, her eyes alive. “The moment someone understands that this tree is alive. The moment someone understands ‘There’s an ecosystem around me.’ In which ever way they connect, just watching that light bulb go off, where they see ‘I’m part of something bigger.’ And then hopefully, watching them become stewards of that something bigger.”

“That’s my favorite part, and that’s my hopes and dreams—is to continue doing that, to continue inspiring people to go outside, and connect with that ecosystem.”

— Ben Young Landis

Kelly Rathburn Conroy, taking charge of our urban forests. Photo Credit: Ben Young Landis.
Kelly Rathburn Conroy, taking charge of our urban forests. Photo Credit: Ben Young Landis.


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