Cooperation, Compromise, and Community an Interview with Tessa Balboni, Secretary of the Board of Directors of CSSC

By. Kyle Ritland

What next? It’s a question many face after college, as they prepare to apply the skills and experiences they’ve cultivated, in the fields about which they’re passionate. But are you truly prepared? How much will your experience as a citizen differ from your experience as a student?

These were the same questions that Tessa Balboni— now the Secretary of the Board of Directors of CSSC— faced when she left behind UCSB three years ago. I spoke with Tessa over the phone about the learning experiences she encountered in her transition from student to professional, in hopes of providing a preparatory roadmap for those who follow similar paths. In our interview, Tessa and I discuss the convergence of idealism and realism, student and professional objectives, and the importance of learning to reach across the aisle to work together toward a sustainable future.

Tessa got her start with CSSC in her undergrad study at UCSB, where she served as the co-chair for the Environmental Affairs Board and worked to ban single use plastics. After graduating, she poured herself whole-heartedly into a wide-array of field biology jobs, before taking a position as a staff biologist at an environmental consulting firm. Currently, much of Tessa’s work revolves around working on licenses and regulations for hydro-electric dams. Her clients are large, municipal utility districts.

“It’s really interesting,” Tessa says of her current work, “because in college I was an environmental activist promoting DamNation[1], and how we have way too many dams in the US, and we need to take them down.” Tessa explains that many of these old dams were built incorrectly, or are in disrepair. From her work with the endangered Southern California steelhead, she has seen the problems these dams can cause— creating barriers for fish, disturbing eagle populations, and otherwise impacting wildlife— and stresses that these problems will never completely go away.

“There are challenges with even the best renewable energy forms,” she says. “The obvious example is wind-power— the only place you’d put wind-power is where there are amazing thermals, but this is also where wildlife wants to use the thermals[2]. Suddenly, you’re endangering birds.”

“There’s a give and take,” Tessa explains. And if these systems do truly help us as humans to be more sustainable in our energy practices, then maybe it’s worth it. “Humans all want the best resources,” Tessa says. “And this puts us in natural conflict with all the other life on this earth.” She pauses, considering the reality of all she’s seen. “And there’s just so many humans that we’re going to win.” Is there a way to make this victory not singularly our own? “Sure,” she says. “By changing the rules. We have to learn to mitigate our impact.”

And the way we do that, Tessa has learned, is through understanding and cooperation.

“When big companies set up big projects, we need to make sure they do their research, and make sure that they are following the regulations— doing things sustainably.”

Tessa lays out the difference between big and small dams. The small dams get built quickly, by those misunderstanding or afraid of environmental regulations. They’re often illegal, and do serious damage to the ecosystems they disrupt. These dams are often built by groups or corporations stigmatized by environmental or sustainability movements, and who see regulation as their enemy.

“But these big dams are more regulated,” Tessa explains. “Because they have to be. And the more regulated they are, the better. They have fish ladders for populations to get past them. They’re built with wildlife in mind.”

I would have imagined these regulations as cursory at best— guidelines that are often dismissed by the big corporations. And yes, Tessa confirms, the spirit of the regulations is often derided, and the actual requirements occasionally dismissed. But she does not view this as a fault in the system— merely a fault in its execution.

“What I’ve seen is that it’s really about working together with the folks who are actually involved in these projects,” Tessa says. “Like line-men— construction guys— I work with them a lot.”

She describes her early experience working on these projects, and lays out what she sees as a disconnect between lofty ideas and their practical application. “Years ago, when they really started implementing these environmental regulations at the level of a construction worker getting a talk about the frogs that are in the area in which he’s working—  they would yell at you, laugh at you, tell you to leave.”

This was not a new experience, of course; she had faced plenty of pushback in her work as a student sustainability leader, and knew that it was part of the game. “If you’re a biologist who goes onto a construction site,” she says, “or you’re trying to put environmentalism somewhere it traditionally isn’t, you get a lot of pushback.”

But now it was something she needed to understand, and overcome, in order to do her job. She looked deeper, trying to understand how to connect with the average line-man, working his 9-to-5.  “They don’t care about the frogs,” Tessa says. “So instead of saying to them saying, ‘You’re being bad, you’re doing wrong’— you’re saying, ‘Let’s work together.’”

She explains how we actually have it easy in California, with our stringent environmental regulations which put us ahead of the rest of the country. Rather than seeing these regulations as more rules she has to enforce, Tessa looks at them as a tool for relationship-building. “We have to come in like, ‘Okay, there are these new regulations, you have to follow them, but I’m here to help.’” To Tessa, it’s all about how we interact with these groups we’re hoping to regulate. “Instead of being the bad guy in their eyes, accusing them of killing animals and being evil, we have to help them fix it.”

She tells me a story— an example of her own experience with these contrasting approaches.

“I was on a project recently and the water turbidity— which is how much sediment is kicked up in the water— if the turbidity levels were too high for three hours in a row, I— me, Tessa Biologist— had the right to stop the project for the day.”

The construction workers at first viewed her as a threat— a force capable of throwing them off schedule and jeopardizing their jobs for what they surely considered insignificant details.

“So they would come to me like, ‘Oh, you’re not gonna stop us, right?’, wanting me to cheat, basically.” She would explain to them that she wouldn’t help them circumvent the regulations, but she would help them conform to them— she laid out how she would give warnings when they were nearing bad levels, and work with the crews directly to ensure they followed safe and responsible procedures. When she did this, the crews suddenly began to see her not as an enemy, but an ally.

She says there are some projects she’s been on where the crews will hide from you if they’ve done something wrong. If there’s a spill, and it’s racing downstream, who will the crew be more likely to approach? The environmentalist who shouts at them about frogs? Or Tessa Biologist, who wants to help them do their job?

“In the projects I’ve been on,” Tessa says, “whenever the best conservation was done, it was because the biologists befriended the crews. They helped them. They met in the middle. My goal is to get these two worlds that currently feel like they’re against each other to work together.”

I ask Tessa how this understanding corresponds to her work with CSSC, and how her view has changed as she’s grown from a student to a professional. She tells me that, like most students, she was a very passionate and idealistic activist. Addressing how her approach may have changed, she tells me, “I can’t work with line-men the way I did in college. There’s undeniable value in being open and idealistic, but if that language deters people from talking to you and coming to your side, how is that helpful?”

She relates her experience with the CSSC retreat a few weeks ago, listening to the students talking passionately about radical environmental ideas. “I didn’t want to stop them,” she says. “It was so great how strongly they felt about it, with how much authority they talked about it.”

She does feel, however, a stigma in her current work, especially from the younger generation. “I think there’s the idea that if you work for a big corporation, you’re a sellout. But I do good science. I don’t break my morals.” Still, she sees value in even this discrepancy between the student and professional perspective. “It’s my job to understand that, but maybe it’s not the job of the student. It’s the student’s job to ask for really far-reaching things. The student’s role is to push the ideas— the crazy ideas— so that there can be a compromise later.”

She pauses, considering what she’s seen of the next generation of conservationists, biologists, and sustainability activists.

“I think students are the best for that. They’re so excited— the enthusiasm is amazing. CSSC is great in that it promotes young people to get involved and really throw themselves into this work through their passion.”

And Tessa maintains this passion. She simply pairs it with understanding.

It’s this sort of understanding, Tessa tells me— this cooperation, this compromise— that we need to open ourselves up to, in order to form the wider, more powerful community of sustainability to accomplish true and lasting change.


[1] DamNation (documented in the 2014 film of the same name) is a movement fighting for the destruction of thousands of obsolete damns which pocket the country, disrupt natural ecosystems, and endanger wildlife.

[2] Rising currents of warm air are called thermals, and are a favorite of soaring birds. Unfortunately, areas with strong air currents are also ideal locations for wind farms, whose spinning turbines threaten endangered birds. Even the construction of clean, renewable energy has its costs.

Posted in _Featured, Board of Directors, California Student Sustainability Coalition Magazine.