Named for Dr. Roger Arliner Young, the first African American woman to earn a doctorate degree in zoology, the RAY Diversity Fellowship, a 2-year professional opportunity, places young leaders of color with environmental nonprofits around the United States. Eager to learn more about advocacy and management, Dillon Hanson-Ahumada had the honor of serving as a fellow from 2019 to 2021 with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). He shares his wildlife conservation journey with WildHub and highly encourages early-career people of color to apply!
Carolyn Rosevelt (CR): How did you hear about WildHub and why did you join?
Dillon Hanson-Ahumada (DHA): I heard about WildTeam, UK and WildHub through RAY. The fellowship offered professional development funds, and I wanted to take advantage of that. I enrolled in the Project Management course hoping to improve and apply these skills during the fellowship. Things that really stuck with me were the template resources in project organization, and I use these resources repeatedly in working with stakeholders and even organizing project documents.
CR: What led you to the RAY Fellowship?
DHA: While finishing up my B.S. at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln I got more interested in wildlife policy and management. Nebraska did not have enough opportunities to grow in the nonprofit conservation arena however, so I found RAY and eagerly applied. My favorite component of the fellowship was getting emotional support and mentoring while transitioning from college to the work world. I feel so fortunate that I was placed with NRDC on their Pacific Oceans team, which pushed me beyond my Midwest (United States) comfort zone.
Lessons Learned: Seek out opportunities to grow your skills even if that means expanding your search area.
CR: Had you heard of the NRDC before your fellowship? How did you prepare?
DHA: I was not familiar with NRDC before starting and especially coming from the landlocked Midwest. While applying, I began looking into NRDC and what they do - their policy and advocacy projects, and the kinds of wildlife and endangered species they try to protect. It turns out they had projects focusing on whales and sharks, and I started to get excited. I also spent some time familiarizing myself with the staff and their roles too. It was a jolt getting up to speed when I first started with the Pacific Oceans team; I had to quickly learn everything about their projects, new acronyms, and new people.
Lessons learned: Keep an open mind. Your first gig may lead you to unexpected places and new roles.
Image 1. Dillon at the San Francisco Climate March in 2019. Photo credit: Dillon Hanson-Ahumada
CR: What challenges did you face during your first few months and over time?
DHA: Not having studied the ocean before was a hindrance at first so I had to study up on the issues. Big organizations like NRDC can be intimidating to join, and sometimes I felt inadequate and that I did not know enough - common traits of imposter syndrome. As time went on, I grew more comfortable with staff and the work being done.
CR: How did you maintain professional connections during the pandemic?
DHA: Thankfully, I spent the first six months of my fellowship with NRDC in person and in the office before the pandemic caused those in our program to work remotely. This meant adjusting to weekly e-check-ins with my supervisors and teammates. We also used Microsoft Teams to host meetings and enjoyed virtual happy hours and holiday parties. The RAY fellowship was very supportive with hosting monthly calls and game nights helping me feel connected to my cohort. As it became safer to social distance, I would grab a coffee with co-workers at a park to have walking meetings or check-ins.
CR: How has the Fellowship prepared you for your current role?
DHA: There were always new skills I worked on with my fellowship supervisors, especially writing and group facilitation with stakeholders or congress members. I learned how to have conversations with people who think differently than me. The fellowship helped me grow my professional writing skills to produce blogs, formal comment letters to state and federal agencies, social media, and fact sheets. In my new role with the Endangered Species Coalition and as an organizer in the Colorado (United States) region, I use skills in group facilitation and writing daily. I am often asked to communicate with and get members of the public engaged in working together, and I would have been less successful at this if I had not had the opportunity during my fellowship to learn how to write and speak to diverse audiences.
Lessons learned: Let go of doubt and believe in yourself. Know that you can do the work needed to help people make change.
CR: Is there anything we haven’t covered that you want to add?
DHA: I would love to see more people supporting the RAY Fellowship, which helps to build up and support young leaders of color. Robust support is key, and I have nothing but thankfulness for the fellowship. So don’t be afraid to apply to these types of fellowships. Follow your dreams and passions. Believe in yourself - because life has a funny way of working out.
CR: Lastly, I want to sincerely thank you Dillon for agreeing to be interviewed. It has been a great joy speaking with you and learning about your professional journey. The WildHub audience will greatly benefit from your advice and experiences. You can check out Dillon’s final presentation to his peers on his accomplishments as a RAY Fellow at the NRDC here.