By Jessie Panazzolo
CoalitionWILD Emerging Leader
It is a surreal notion to be writing this story as just over two months ago I was lying on my couch absolutely defeated with no idea about how to proceed with my life through the coming months. To provide some context here, I came into the year with only one resolution and that was to work for an NGO that I had been volunteering for over the previous six months. I was immersed in the office culture, writing sophisticated reports containing a wealth of accessible data that I also analysed myself. These reports were advanced enough that other paid staff were intimidated by them and the data I analysed was thought to impact future funding opportunities within the company. Finding myself in a situation where people respected my work, but not quite enough to pay me was brought to my attention by a friendly intervention.
Defending my decision to work for free was not working out in my favour. It was so evident that this organisation would only want my work if they didn’t have to pay me for it, no matter how high the quality of my work was or my dedication to completing it. Working hard wasn’t showing them that I was employee material, it was just giving them free resources and time. After my friends made their points, I looked down at the table in dismay and let the disappointment carry me through to the lying on the couch scene a day or two later.
My defeat didn’t just arise from six months of volunteering, but rather year after year of the same cycle of experiences. In 2016 I started my first conservation job overseas where I paid to work for the organisation instead of them paying me for my services. When I returned home, I managed to find a paid job, but as the only female working in the company I was met with sexist comments every day like “good girl,” and I found myself working twice as hard to be seen as half as capable.
Amanda Gabryszak, a Lonely Conservationists in a wildlife centre near Yellowstone National Park, USA.
In 2015, I found myself waking up every single day for a month at 5am to walk through a dense Indonesian forest until 5pm where on one occasion, a mother orangutan tried to kill me and my research team. In 2016, I was back in the Indonesian forest completing my research, which was difficult as a white woman in a culture where men assumed sexual behaviours of me, and I came home one day a builder who was supposed to be fixing the house but was lying in my bed. Later that year I decided that maybe I should work in my home country, Australia, and in 2017 I found myself in an isolated country town working as a hotel manager, baby sitter, and chef, barely for the sustainable tourism reasons I took the job, all the while getting paid only $100 a week.
In 2018 after making some progress with my own initiative, Heroic Tourism, I had to move interstate as my partner started a new job. Having no contacts in the industry in this new location I surprisingly got a job with a conservation organisation fairly quickly after my move. After three months, I felt I was being punished for taking initiative and for working independently which started affecting my ability to sleep the nights before work and my mental health. So you can understand that in 2019, a fresh new year, I held hope that an organisation I enjoyed working for and that valued the work I was doing would save me from this vicious cycle.
But I was wrong.
Jessie relishing in Sri Lanka’s abundant conservation areas
Lying on the couch that fateful day, I received a message from my friend who had been waiting in Spain for months trying to get her visa to continue her research in her Malaysian field site.
She was stuck in Spain and I was stuck on the couch, and that’s when I realised that I wasn’t alone in my conservation fatigue.
I thought about how many people I had talked to who have been through similar issues of toxic work places, 12 hour days, cultural limitations, geographic isolation, and issues affecting their personal relationships because of the industry. At that moment I decided to get off of the couch and onto my computer.
I created a website where people could share their stories of how they had struggled to establish themselves in the conservation industry and a supplementary Instagram page so budding conservationists could form a supportive community through overcoming their individual hurdles. I started off by sharing the story of why I created this platform, not really knowing if anyone else would share theirs. Maybe I was just a weak person and maybe nobody else felt the struggles that I was feeling, but I had nothing to lose so I hit publish anyway. Lonely Conservationists was born.
That week I had four people share their stories with me, and the community and the numbers of Instagram followers continued growing larger. People began messaging me thanking me for creating this community because they had just been let off work or were inundated with piles of university data, and I remember tears welling in my eyes as I found out that I wasn’t alone. I read about all the people that went through the exact same struggles that I went through. Others from LGBTQI+ communities and people who faced natural disasters and hurdles that I have never encountered started coming forth. It occurred to me very quickly that conservationists all over the world were struggling to get where they wanted to be and nobody was looking out for them.
Morgane Ristic, a fellow Lonely Conservationist working in her release site in Costa Rica.