HomeIonE AffiliatePeople of IonE: Meet Cathy Jordan

People of IonE: Meet Cathy Jordan

How can time spent outdoors help children? That’s the question Cathy Jordan has asked herself from the time she watched her own children romp around outside, and it’s the question that led her to IonE’s doorstep early this year.

Cathy Jordan, IonE’s Associate Director for Leadership & Education.

Now, she’s Associate Director of Leadership and Education, where she deals with a slightly older age group college students cultivating the soft skills and sustainability awareness necessary to become savvy environmental change agents. We caught up with Cathy to hear what has surprised her about IonE, opportunities she sees for collaboration with international organizations, and the importance of theories of change.


I’m curious to hear – what drew you to IonE?

I think that starts with a little bit of career trajectory information. I started my career as a pediatric neuropsychologist specializing in environmental health. I was asking, ‘how can the environment hurt kids?’, essentially. I had the chance to participate in a wonderful 10-year-long community-based participatory research endeavor about lead poisoning in a wonderfully diverse neighborhood, and I came away with a sense of the power of community/academic partnership and engagement, and how much capacity we needed to build at the University in order for similar projects to go well. I decided then that I was at a career crossroads. I was back on campus after having been in the community for years, and I asked myself, ‘am I going to go back to being a clinician? Am I going to be a researcher? How is this community engagement stuff going to fit in?’ And right about that time, a job as the director of the Children, Youth, and Family Consortium became available, and I thought, well, maybe that’s where I could marry my interest in community engagement with my interest in kids and families. 

So I served in that role for ten years, but realized at about year eight that I had very much become a generalist. I didn’t really think of myself as being a pediatric neuropsychologist anymore; that framework was a lens for me, but I wasn’t going to go back and do that kind of work. I needed to do a bit of soul-searching, which I did through the Shannon Leadership Institute at the Wilder Foundation, and it eventually produced clarity that what I was looking for was a way to integrate personal passions and interests into my professional life. Something that I was personally passionate about had to do with my own children’s developmental leaps and transformations as a result of environmental education and wilderness adventure. I really believed there was something to that human and nature connection, and I wanted to concentrate on that in my professional world. 

In a sense, that’s a flip of what I used to do! I used to think about the environment as being toxic to kids. I wondered, ‘how can I think about the environment in what we call a ‘salutary’ way, as something that is good for kids?’ That filled me with much more hope and positivity. About the time that I made that decision, I met the new executive director of the Children & Nature Network. Long story short, I became the consulting research director for C&NN. That allowed me to quickly deepen my knowledge of this new area of focus, work with people who shared my interest and passion around this work, get a better sense of career direction, and have a taste of working in a mission-oriented place.  

Now we’re getting to IonE! I was, at the time, kind of spread amongst a lot of things that were feeling pretty disparate and I wanted to be in a place that allowed me to pull it all together and where I would be with people who cared about the things that I cared about. I also wanted a place that was mission-oriented and where I could contribute to that work as well as deepen my career focus on children and nature. I launched an intensive job search and conducted 130 informational interviews with people who were on career paths I thought I might want to follow. I became a Fellow at IonE during this time, and during the week that Jessica’s Almanac focused on the job announcements, I happened to be on the website. I think if I hadn’t been online that day, I might not even have known that this job was available, so it was just a total timing coincidence. But I thought, ‘oh my gosh.’ That career path – which I called ‘help lead an institute focused on the environment’ – was literally one of my identified career trajectory plans.

How did you come to realize that your ‘children in nature’ angle would be such a good fit for IonE?

 What spoke to me in the job announcement was the chance to help lead an institute focused on something that I was really invested in. I was also recognizing that while my angle on the environment is about nature connection, I immediately felt an alignment with the work here in a way that I think of as a theory of change. If we want people to care about safe drinking water, sustainable land use, and carbon neutrality, we need people who care about the earth. And the best way and the best time to get people to care about the earth is by providing meaningful nature connection for young people. When I would daydream about ‘what kind of impact do I want to have in the world?’, I tended to dream about environmental justice, climate activism, things like that. At first, I didn’t really think about these issues as part of my professional purview, but it made perfect sense to me after reading the job description that I fit into that picture. And I could make a case easily to myself and to others that this was all part of a theory of change. 

How do you think the Leadership & Education group might serve the state of Minnesota and its communities? 

 I think about our audiences being learners at various stages of development, from undergraduates to graduate students, early career faculty and leaders in the community. The aim of the Leadership & Education team is to activate sustainability-savvy leaders. We do this through a combination of sustainability education and various forms of leadership development, often through connections with community partners. I think there’s an opportunity to engage in community in perhaps a more grassroots-y way, where we can utilize our sustainability knowledge and our leadership development expertise to work more directly with communities on change related to our goals. That may be down the road a little bit, but lots of our Affiliates already do engage in local communities, and we can provide support to help them be successful in those endeavors and in community-engaged careers. I feel like that’s a ripe opportunity. 

You touched on goals and the strategic plan. Could you speak specifically to ways that you see Leadership & Education interacting with each of our three goals? 

I think there are opportunities to utilize the Impact Goals to refine content, refine audience, and expand partnerships. We can refocus course content, case studies, and practical opportunities around clean drinking water, carbon neutrality or sustainable land use. Programs like Acara and the Acara Challenge can become, at least in part, a mechanism for soliciting students’ transformational ideas on these topics. We can direct our leadership development efforts towards those who want to make a difference in these areas through their studies or their careers. And we can expand our connections in communities, particularly for student co-curricular opportunities, to organizations working effectively in the water, energy and sustainable land use sectors.

We can also use these goals to put a spotlight on things that we think are the important levers in the bigger picture of sustainability and climate change. When we shine a light on water quality, carbon sequestration, or sustainable land use, and particularly when we demonstrate how they are connected systemically, we raise awareness broadly about the things that we think should be priorities for action locally and globally. We are setting an example one that we can use as a rallying point for people and organizations in the community to help them make the most impact in the world that they can. We are trying to create a multiplier effect: when we help to focus attention on what matters, enhance knowledge and grow capacity to act, the people and organizations we work with go on to make an even bigger impact in Minnesota and the world. 

How does your role with the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) complement your IonE position?

I think there’s actually going to be some interesting collaborative potential between Children & Nature Network and IonE. We’re starting to talk about how the research work at C&NN could have an institutional or an academic home at IonE that would have benefits for both organizations. I think there’s also potential for collaborative projects. We just need more conversations to explore what those intersections might look like and if there’s capacity in the organizations to collaborate on joint visioning, joint fundraising, and joint implementation. 

Also, on a larger scale, C&NN is a national organization that has decided to do its strategic work in place-based ways, in a way not different than how IonE thinks about ‘in Minnesota for the world.’ C&NN is working with specific cities with the idea of creating models that can be generalized across geography. So there are similar theories of action there. Also, since IonE is focused on in Minnesota, but wanting to leverage that for greater impact, it needs organizations that have national reach or beyond in order to strategically communicate or to put something into action. C&NN gets the place-based piece and has national- and international-level reach. So somehow, there may be some interconnections there that allow both C&NN to think in a place-based way with IonE about Minnesota, but then also for IonE to think about C&NN as a national multiplier of the more local Minnesota work. 

What’s something you didn’t expect about the Institute and know now?

Something that I have come to realize about IonE is that there are folks here who are not necessarily sustainability people in terms of being trained in related disciplines, but who are working effectively here by applying a set of skills, expertise and experiences from past careers or training to this topic. I think that’s just really interesting. It’s that inter-professional, interdisciplinary way of thinking about things. You can come at a topic from multiple viewpoints and totally different perspectives. The people in my group, who have had past careers that are far-flung and not necessarily sustainability-related at all, have come together around this topic and brought their diverse set of skills and experiences to the table. This is potentially something to leverage for even greater impact. I think framing the initiative as sustainability rather than environmentalism supports that; it’s broad definitionally, and can really help people see that they fit and have a contribution to make. 

So, what about outside of work?

A favorite hobby that I take every opportunity to tell people about is shape-note singing, which is a colonial era tradition of, loosely speaking, church music. For me, it’s about collective singing and the power of building community across all sorts of differences through the joy and universal language of music. I’m fascinated by the tightness of this community; sometimes I learn how different somebody is from me, and yet we’ve become close because of the music. I would never have even met that person or certainly felt aligned with them if we hadn’t been sharing this musical experience. And I find it very restorative, life-balancing and creativity-generating; it’s something that I try to preserve time to do, even though my schedule is crazy, because I’m just a more effective person when I get to exercise that musical muscle and be part of that creative community. 

If you were to imagine us sitting here a year from now, what would crazy success look like?

Well, I think about internal work and external work, and the external impact being dependent on our internal work. So, to me, crazy success a year from now means that we have a Leadership & Education team that really functions as a team. Our lenses on our work cross our programs in a way that breeds creativity and innovation. We’re doing work at the intersection of what had been traditionally separate programs with some isolated interconnections. I think innovation is facilitated at the margins of things, where things are coming up and touching each other and getting into each other’s space. And I’d like to create a culture within our team where that’s exciting and becomes more of a norm. I think that that innovation will lead to enriched ways of doing the work we’re already doing and generate creative ideas about partnerships within IonE and out in the community that will move us towards impact on our goals. We’ll get to the essence of what impact we want to have in the world and how we, as a team, uniquely create that impact. And I think that’ll lead to fewer things of greater impact. 

Director of Communications


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