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Woman at Work: Brenna Kelly, Southeast Conservation Corps Director

Brenna Kelly on a fallen log wearing the Dovetail Workwear pinstripe overalls for women, multi-purpose gloves and a tee shirt. Brenna is the director of the Southeast Conservation Corps, part of Conservation Legacy

How did you begin working in trail conservation?
In all honesty, I wanted to get out of my hometown. I loved traveling, meeting new people, and community service. I stumbled upon the opportunity to apply to be a member of an AmeriCorps trail crew late one night, and decided to throw my hat in the ring. After my first season in 2002, I returned home and felt completely out of place, and sad to be so far from open skies, camping, crew camaraderie, trail work, etc. I knew then that the conservation corps bug had bit me, and I wanted more. I adopted my first pup, applied for jobs for the following season, and soon thereafter accepted a position in Alaska. With parting tears in my eyes to friends and family, I loaded up my worldly possessions and spotted pup into my tiny car, and never looked back.

How have you trained or learned your trade?
I have completed numerous trainings in the past 18 years, ranging from high-line rigging and chainsaw certifications, to grant writing and leadership training. There have been so many opportunities for professional and personal growth within this field.

Some of my ‘training’ has resulted in an actual piece of paper acknowledging a newly acquired or enhanced skill, but so much of it has been interpersonal as well. I believe that has helped shape me into a more mindful and present individual who is a better neighbor, citizen, mother, and friend than I was before I chose this path.

What does a day as a conservation corps director look like?
Well it has certainly adjusted since 2002, when I picked up my first trail tools as an AmeriCorps member on a backcountry trail crew with the California Conservation Corps. Today, my days mostly consist of project management, partnership development, budgets, staff support, etc. for the Southeast Conservation Corps (SECC). 

When I began the program eight years ago I was constantly in the field trying to obtain partners and manage the finer details of projects and crew support, but now with a fantastic staff helping steer the SECC ship, my field days mostly consist of scouting future crew projects, dropping in on crews to say hello with some snickers bars, or assisting with training.

SECC Director Brenna Kelly next to a tree she cut down, Dovetail Woman at Work blog

If you could give your 20-year-old-self advice, what would it be?
Don't change a decision you make along the way. Even the ‘bad’ ones. 

Trust me, some of your choices are going to put you in places of isolation, from friends and family, but are going to pay off big time. The tears, lack of a 401K, absence of health insurance, absence of a ‘permanent’ house are all just temporary hurdles that will put you on a path that is authentic to who you are. 

What do you want people to know about being a woman in your field?
That we are just as capable as men. 

That we belong at the proverbial table with regards to natural resource management and conservation service work. That it can be lonely to not see your gender or identity reflected in the professional company you keep, but sticking it out through the tough and lonely times is worth it. Without more women being encouraged and supported to do this work, the needle of equity and inclusivity will never move forward.

How do you encourage other women to start doing what you do?
I try my hardest to recruit them into SECC, or wherever I have worked within the field of land stewardship, and show that they belong in this field. 

So many times over the years, I have heard young women say that this work seems so interesting, but they wonder if they are "strong enough" to do the physical work and "tough enough" to endure the lifestyle. On the flip side, I have not once heard a young man utter these words of self doubt. So, I do my best to be encouraging and supportive to this type of opportunity for all of us who are underrepresented in the field of conservation and recreation. 

What does workwear designed for women mean to you?

It means I do not have to choose workwear that was made to a completely different gender and body type. It means that when I drop my hard-earned cash on pants they will fit and not sag, chafe, drag on the floor, etc. That the purchase is actually worth the little bit of money I have to spend on work pants. Also, with Dovetail, I am supporting female entrepreneurs. 

Do you have any special projects or cool things you want people to check out?

In 2019, SECC piloted it's first all-female, teen trail crews, and inaugural American Sign Language Inclusion (ASLi) crews. It was impactful, and moving, to say the least. In 2021, we are picking up some programmatic pieces that COVID-19 dismantled and operating an inaugural 6-month adult female crew and two ASLi crews! We also just received a grant to help us build a crew model to specifically engage folks from BIPOC communities. 

Follow Southeast Conservation Corps here. Brenna’s pronouns are she + her.