Laura Schwebel: Making progress

Author: Laura Schwebel
Fellow Type: California Sea Grant State Fellow
Year(s) of Fellowship: 2018
Host Agency: Port of San Diego

Policy moves slowly.

To many of you, this is an obvious statement. However, knowing this and living this are very different, at least for me. Before my State Fellowship at the Port of San Diego, I had heard about the slow pace of policy and regulatory decision-making, but didn’t fully understand what it would be like to work in that realm where it can take an entire career to see a project to the finish line. The good news is, many of those projects are worth the effort.

I started my fellowship with limited knowledge of California’s complicated environmental policies and regulatory framework, and was underprepared for the shift to working in that environment. I initially struggled to understand the pace of projects. Some seemed painfully slow-moving, and others shot forward with everyone scrambling to meet a deadline or address a sudden complication. It was confusing, and exciting, and overwhelming. I asked lots of questions and spent a lot of time listening.

(left) The Zephyr Debris Removal pilot project, launched by the Port’s Blue Economy Incubator, skims trash out of San Diego Bay; (right) Juvenile Pacific oysters grown in San Diego Bay as part of the Port’s Aquaculture and Blue Technology programs. Photos by Laura Schwebel

My coworkers and former State Fellows were excellent sources of support and great resources for helping me get up to speed. But I found that many of them also struggled with the pace of government and the bureaucracy involved. So how did they stay motivated? How can I stay motivated when it can seem so hard to make progress?

A defining moment in my mindset came when I was talking to our department director. She mentioned that her personal goal was to save the world “one acre of wetland at a time.” It struck me that maybe I was looking at “progress” all wrong.

Maybe I had defined progress as large steps, when in reality it is a series of small steps—that one acre at a time—that add up to one great stride.

One document reviewed…step…
one planning meeting…step…
one permit application…step…

This process will eventually get us across the finish line. And maybe at that finish line is a restored wetland, or a seaweed farm, or a bayside park.

(left) Port staff give a tour of Pond 20, the future site of the Port’s South San Diego Bay Wetlands Mitigation Bank. Photo by Laura Schwebel; (right) State Fellows Stephanie Gad and Laura Schwebel onboard the Zephyr, the Port’s debris removal pilot project, in San Diego Bay. Photo by Heather Kramp

Laura Schwebel outside the Capitol Building during Capitol Hill Oceans Week (CHOW). Photo by Stephanie Gad

I have been fortunate to work on many interesting, progressive projects during my fellowship. Although in my one short year I won’t be able to finish any races, I am honored to have been able to take a few steps—and maybe even one stride—toward the finish line. I have learned and grown so much during my time at the Port of San Diego and will hold tightly to the relationships I’ve built and the skills I’ve gained.

My advice to future fellows is to keep the bigger picture in mind. Don’t get bogged down, stay positive, take those steps forward, and know that the work you’re doing in your fellowship is important, impactful, and necessary for making progress.

Written by Laura Schwebel