The Power of Civic Time with Jenn Richkus and Jon Desenberg


[Cameron Boozarjomehri (Left), Jon Desenberg (Center), Jenn Richkus (Right)]
Photo by: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Interviewer: Cameron Boozarjomehri

Welcome to the latest installment of the Knowledge-Driven Podcast. Explore how MITRE staff make knowledge sharing and collaboration an integral part of their practice. 

Many companies pride themselves on empowering employees to volunteer and give back to communities in ways that staff usually can’t in a typical workplace. But MITRE wants to take it a step further with paid civic time for employees eager to make a change to help people across the street, or across the globe. Join us as Jenn and Jon share how they are using their civic time to help the Endangered Wildlife Trust improve life for people and animals across the African continent. Work that usually isn’t possible in most corporate settings.

This episode is dedicated to the Memory of Marilyn Kupetz, forever in our hearts.

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Podcast Transcript
Cameron: 00:00 This episode is dedicated to the memory of Marilyn Kupetz. Hello everyone, and welcome to MITRE’s Knowledge-Driven Podcast. A show where we interview brilliant minds across MITRE. Today, I, your host, Cameron Boozarjomehri, will be joined by Jenn Richkus and Jon Desenburg. And they’re going to share with us how MITRE employees are using their civic time to help the Endangered Wildlife Trust. Jenn, Jon, would you like to give us a quick introduction about who you are and what you’re doing at MITRE?
Jenn: 00:41 Sure. I’m Jenn Richkus, I’m a strategist here at MITRE. I started about a year ago after a long career as an environmental scientist and policy analyst, which is where I met Endangered Wildlife Trust, or people rather from Endangered Wildlife Trust. Jon.
Jon: 01:02 Yeah. Hi everyone. I still think of myself as a former federal employee. I was the director of strategic planning at a federal agency. I came to MITRE about five years ago after they contacted me and asked me to start working with MITRE employees on improving strategy and performance management. And that’s a little bit about my background.
Cameron 01:22 Very cool. And so MITRE has this thing called civic time, right? Well, I’m sure you guys are going to give me a better explanation of it than I am, but you guys give us a few details on civic time and how you guys use it.
Jenn 01:34 Sure. So when I started at MITRE, I have been working a lot on a lot of different projects and part of them have been health and other things, but I hadn’t quite gotten into environmental. We are building an environmental and climate work now, but I missed a little bit of that. I used to work sort of at environmental and strategy crossroads. So I was talking with my group lead, Troy Perry, one day about civic time and how it would be great if we could find a way to sort of use our strategic skills to compliment another area that we’re interested in. And I had thought about EWT and the work that they were doing and wondered if they were looking for any strategic support. Troy said, “Why not ask them? Let’s do it.” So that’s a bit of how we got into working with EWT.
Jenn 02:40 The good news about civic time, you can apply for civic time, it’s up to 40 hours per year, that you can spend improving your community or other communities. EWT is actually based in South Africa. We went ahead, contacted them to ask if this particular nonprofit would need help and they did, and MITRE approved it and we’re on our way. Jon, do you want to add anything to that? I feel like I forgot something.
Jon 03:08 No, no. I just want to point out that when you hear the term civic time, I think many of us think, well, that’s something you do in your community or your backyard. And previously I’ve used civic time to assist my local town on some strategic planning work. But I think Jenn really raised this up a notch and said, we can go worldwide with this. This isn’t just about doing something in your backyard. You can use your civic time anywhere for some amazing causes. And I really give you credit for pointing that out to me and bringing me along.
Cameron 03:40 Yeah, that’s really cool to hear. I know that civic time is something that I’d usually use for helping with afterschool programs or just local volunteering. But it’s really cool to hear that you’re literally getting paid to help the Endangered Wildlife Trust on the completely opposite side of the planet. You said they were based in South Africa?
Jenn 04:00 Yes. I met them while working in East Africa on a project. I was the environmental advisor for a large energy project. One of the things that they were looking at was how can you incentivize bird friendly and wildlife friendly infrastructure for the energy grid? And they did a lot of research and a lot of work, and a lot of working with electric utilities to understand the reliability issues, the costs that came in when they had outages due to cranes on these large energy infrastructures. Or even some incredible awful things with giraffes running into low wires.
Jenn 04:50 They started to realize that the electric utilities could save millions of dollars by implementing more wildlife friendly infrastructure, and at the same time conserve wildlife. Anyway, I’ve gotten off track the topics a little bit, sorry guys. But yeah, I met them over there and just never forgot that they were working with businesses and finding ways to make a good thing for both the electric utilities and for the environment, and wanted to find some way to work with them again.
Cameron 05:27 Yeah. As I understand it, there’s kind of three big pillars of impact they focus on, which I don’t think are in any particular order, they’re saving species, saving habitats and then benefiting people.
Jon 05:37 Correct.
Jenn 05:37 Yes.
Cameron 05:38 Yeah. And it sounds like a lot of that. I can’t imagine having to deal with some of the problems you’re discussing, just because they’re so unique to the wildlife of Africa. Like you wouldn’t think about having to worry about giraffes walking into power lines in the middle of downtown DC or probably any other major metropolitan area in the United States. But it seems like the African continent introduces its own unique challenges in terms of how wildlife are going to interact with infrastructure that we all take for granted here in the United States. And so, I mean, that’s really cool to hear. I guess, how do you break down a problem like that? Obviously we don’t want animals running into stuff, but are there other metrics or components you had to focus on to help get that done?
Jon 06:19 I just was gonna say, Cameron, one thing that’s very interesting about working with the environmental sector is the work they’ve already done across the entire sector, not just EWT, but the entire environmental community has started to recognize the power of metrics. There’s an international group of KPIs, key indicators that they use and that EWT uses. So that was very interesting to come in and notice in some ways they’re head of our federal sponsors in recognizing and using standard well-defined metrics.
Cameron 06:55 Yeah. I think something that you guys have been kind of hinting at, not just that they have these well-defined metrics, but also it sounds like because you guys are coming from the backgrounds you had and have at MITRE, you had very valuable skill sets that maybe you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to share if it wasn’t for something like civic time. And so what kind of skills did you guys bring that helped, I guess, align and bring synergy with their mission? All the other fun corporate words.
Jon 07:23 Just a big picture on this, Cameron, what I’ve noticed in my career in general, and also with this engagement with EWT, people around the world are fascinated and very, very attentive and interested in what the federal government, the United States government is doing as far as management. We think of ourselves as sometimes dysfunctional in this country, or not as effective and efficient as we could be, but when you go other places, particularly overseas, and I’ve done this throughout my career, we are in some ways still the leaders in public management in this country.
Jon 07:59 So when you go to someplace like UWT, they pay a lot of attention to the laws that we’ve passed in this country around government performance. Most of the world does not have this. So it’s very refreshing, I think, and I would encourage all of us at MITRE to go out and interface with other parts of the world because it refreshes your work and allows you to understand that, you know what? Things aren’t that bad. That we are moving forward in improved government performance and management. And when you go overseas and talk to people who are not American, who are struggling with these issues, you see in their eyes and their tone, that they really are paying attention to what we’re doing in this country and following our lead. And I think that’s very important for all of us as Americans to understand.
Jenn 08:45 When Jon started to ask very detailed questions and find out more about EWT, so I kind of knew them already, and because of that I had that forest from the tree, or even better, I was in the trees, right? And so Jon came in and asked the larger questions, and it became obvious to us that some strategic foresight looking at scenarios that could possibly happen in the future might be a good way to explore how their strategic plan could change, especially in the face of everything that’s happened in the last year or 18 months, and look forward to the next strategic plan that they would develop.
Jenn 09:30 EWT is also coming up on their 50-year anniversary, which was another good reason to first look back and then look forward. Okay, well, if these types of scenarios happen, how is EWT prepared for it? How will they move forward? And those were, I think, some of the questions and some of the skills that Jon in particular brought to EWT, and that we used during a webinar with the entire EWT team.
Cameron 10:07 Yeah. So it sounds like you guys were working a lot to, I guess, just help them get a more concrete idea of what they actually wanted to do. Is that more or less what you’re trying to get at?
Jon 10:19 That’s right. That’s right. EWT for those who don’t know, it’s not just wildlife. They understand that you have to give people a way to make a living sustainable development. You can’t ignore the people are part of the equation, and that’s very interesting. So one of the things that we did with this effort with strategic planning is, how do these things connect? How do they build on each other? And I think it’s the people aspect, sustainable development, economic growth, that is maybe the most challenging piece for EWT. How do you do that and preserve the natural environment?
Jon 11:00 So that I think was maybe their biggest strategic challenge and something that we brought particular focus to. And it’s certainly something they wanted extra attention. How do they do both of those things? And this is something we see with a lot of our federal sponsors as well, which is, how do you pull the pieces of your organization together into a cohesive whole? People are in stovepipes and silos, and don’t always see how they connect. So that was a big part of our work.
Cameron 11:29 Yeah. I actually think it’s funny that you make that comparison, that lessons that people at MITRE learn, and I mean, just people on our side of the world are learning, can easily be applied to big problems and projects all around the world and finding opportunities and time to be able to do that can be a huge boon for those communities. And I’m actually curious if you have some maybe specific examples of what you’re doing or how you’re doing them.
Jon 11:53 Yeah. Well, one thing that we really lean on with our federal sponsors is for this strategic foresight piece that, I think you’ve mentioned already, but the reason we do that, and this is something that most organizations around the world haven’t caught up to, which is your plan is not meant to reflect today, it’s meant to reflect how you’re going to operate in the future and with the speed of change in our environment and the conditions around the world. This is becoming difficult for people. Things that were very effective last year are not going to work next year. So we help them understand that planning needs to be connected to foresight, which is not predicting the future, but it’s kind of talking about possibilities. What might the future possibilities be? What might the world look like? We’re not predicting, but we’re talking about potential different futures.
Jon 12:49 And just one last piece here, Cameron, we’re not out to predict new gadgets or a new technology, what we’re really driving at with foresight is how are attitudes and behaviors changing? And the pandemic is such a perfect example of that. And something we worked on with EWT, how is the pandemic changing the way that their donors behave? The way that tourists behave, the way that the citizens of Africa behave. And so foresight is becoming increasingly useful following the pandemic as people understand the world is not the same as it used to be.
Cameron 13:25 That’s huge. And I recall the Endangered Wildlife Trust is coming up on, I think, its 50th anniversary. And so it sounds like they have a lot of history to look back on, but that probably contextualizes a lot of how they look forward. So I was curious, how did those conversations go in terms of helping, not just them, but how they fit into the bigger picture of what they’re going to want to do in the future. And maybe even how they help the African continent and the African economy.
Jenn 13:50 I thought it was a really fun conversation. The strategic foresight exercise that we did with EWT was, I think, about two or two and a half hours in total. And we worked with, I feel like there were 40 to 45 team members from EWT participating in this. Which we can get into the logistics of a cross-continental Zoom call with breakout sessions outdoors at another time. But anyway, it was the first thing that they did in this all hands team meeting that was due to last a week. And I thought it was fun. I feel I saw some looks at the very beginning where they’re like, what aging populations? Why are we talking about South Africa’s aging population? What does this have to do with conservation? And whatnot. So there were those looks, you could tell in the beginning.
Jenn 14:50 And then we started to go and talk a little bit further about, okay, well, what would the implications of this particular scenario be? And you could see that it just sort of expanded their creativity. Okay, well, if that happened, then we would expect these donors to change. And after this event went on, when we met with Harriet Davies-Mostert, the head of conservation for EWT, the week after, they had this big EWT all team event, she said that the initial exercise, at the beginning it was baffling, right? But it really helped them to expand the horizon of what they were thinking about, how they were thinking about their plan moving forward, and that it contributed to a more productive second session.
Jon 15:41 Let me just jump in real quick on this, which is that they made a commitment to bring every employee to the table for this, which is unusual. Everyone from maintenance to catering to janitorial, everyone was a part of this. And I think as is natural, that a lot of folks are uncomfortable with this, that this is not part of their daily work. They don’t understand why they’re sometimes even in the room, but you’ve got to applaud the commitment to bringing every employee and all of their ideas together, which I really thought was great.
Cameron 16:15 Yeah. It’s really nice to hear an organization taking that inclusive holistic approach to how it’s doing things. Not just in terms of making sure it has all the context of the area it’s trying to impact, but that it has all the context of its own organization, the experiences, and just knowledge that every staff member at every level could bring to any conversation. And from what I’m hearing, it sounds like this is only the beginning of the conversations and ways you guys are helping the EWT in their mission.
Jenn 16:42 We certainly hope so. We have plans to continue to talk with EWT, work with them as they build up to this 50th anniversary celebration and what that means. For me, it’s been really lovely because when I met these folks, I met them in Pretoria, South Africa, and then again when we started working in East Africa, I knew that I wanted to keep up. So the ability to do that, get paid to do that, exercise some strategic skills, work with my fellow strategists to learn how they attack and approach these problems and challenges, I would be really distraught if we couldn’t keep going with this, because I think we’re all having a great time. EWT and the strategists.
Jon 17:27 Well, and let’s not forget, I really believe that this could be future business and impact for our company, which is this international environmental space. Yes, this was civic time, but I also look at this as developing our brand, leading to more international recognition for what we’re doing, and Jenn and I are both looking at this as a long-term situation.
Cameron 17:54 You can certainly say that even with the altruism, there’s a certain amount of synergy. MITRE’s entire mission is solving problems for a safer world. This is clearly one of those problems and you guys are helping the ideal organization solve it. So yeah, I can see how it’s not just good in terms of PR, it’s just a great opportunity to help people who need it or could really benefit from the knowledge and skills people at MITRE have. Actually, I think that’s a great segue into a larger conversation I was hoping to have just around civic time and the kind of opportunities it opens up.
Jon 18:22 What I urge everyone listening to think about is, it’s not just who you’re helping, it’s what it does for you. It’s refreshing. It allows you to have a new perspective. I know many of us have been working in the federal government for years, and being able to do something differently and the appreciation that these people have and the fact that they don’t hear a lot about these concepts and don’t get a lot of assistance, it’s refreshing and you really get recharged when you go back to your regular work.
Jenn 18:56 I can’t wait to go back to South Africa and work with these folks in person, if there’s ever an opportunity to do that. And I am really hoping civic time allows for that as we at MITRE build our climate and environmental capabilities and work. One thing that I have found is the ability to apply our strategic skills and learn about the work that they’re doing working with different electric utilities, transportation utilities, they’re also working on road infrastructure. There’re bits of that that I get to take back into my own world. Not only just working at MITRE, but at home as well. I start looking at the power lines, or I start looking at the roads, okay, you know what? I could start working with my community to make that more wildlife friendly. We have a lot of these problems here as well, but I would encourage anyone to expand their thinking about civic time.
Jenn 19:55 If there is something, a cause that they’re interested in and is not in their own backyard, look into it. Ask around at MITRE. Ask around wherever you are. See if there are ways to help. For me, it was just a phone call to say, “Hey, do you guys need any, or would you be interested in a little bit of strategic support? I don’t know if you have that already.” And I got to reconnect with folks that I hadn’t seen for at least a year and a half, and I hope to see again soon.
Cameron 20:25 I mean, that’s just amazing to hear, and I’m glad that you guys got to engage with them in that way.
Jon 20:30 Just to wrap up, Cameron, I do think the environmental movement and all of the issues we’re facing around wildlife and the planet can be disturbing. I think for me personally, it’s easy to get negative. And so being able to actually help and lend support to people who are working on the front lines is incredibly gratifying. And I’d encourage everyone to take a look at these kinds of opportunities and specifically take a look at EWT’s website, the environmental wildlife trust, to see how you could get involved.
Cameron 21:05 And we’ll make sure to have a link to that. Jenn, did you want to add anything else?
Jen 21:08 I would just add that I would encourage anyone to go look at their organization or their business to find out if they have opportunities to utilize something like civic time. I found this to be an incredibly energizing opportunity because not only did I meet some folks that are incredible and amazing that thumbed me up, but it was a way to use the skills that I use every day at work in a different way. And that just gave me a little bit of an extra spring in my step when I got back to work. I mean, I know that that’s a very inward-looking way of this, and outward-looking, it’s great to work in your community, to work in other communities, but I would encourage everyone to look into this, and EWT.
Cameron 21:53 Before we go, I’d like to give a final thank you to MITRE, the Knowledge-Driven Enterprise, and a real unsung hero, Marilyn Kupetz. The KDE has always been a space where MITRE’s staff could share their contributions with the world. And none of those stories would have been possible without Marilyn’s hard work, diligence and support. And we hope we always live up to the example you set for us. Thank you for everything. And in fact, if I recall, Jenn, Jon, you guys got to work with Marilyn, or at least knew a lot about how she was a huge evangelist of civic time and making sure to just help the planet in any way. Again, very similar to how you guys use your civic time for EWT.
Jon 22:30 Yeah. Cameron, I’d like to just say a couple of words. I didn’t know her really well at all, but I am very much interested in the environment and earth day and sitting in her earth day sessions that she had every year for the last few years. You were really struck by this person as a fighter for the environment and someone who was a gardener and literally got her hands dirty, but was so committed to this cause. So I think it’s especially appropriate to be paying tribute to her today.
Jenn 23:04 I’m going to miss Marilyn so much. She was so mission-driven. The environmental and climate and efforts that promoted environment and climate were one of her passions. I met her first because she offered up dogwoods and plants, various plants, from her yard. She says, “Come on over. I’ve got some volunteers in my yard. I want them to have a new home.” And that’s how I met her. And then we continued to work together and I will miss her. And everyone that will miss her, I encourage them to go out and use their civic time to do some work, some behavioral nudges or some environmental work and think of Marilyn.
Cameron 23:51 Yeah. Thank you, Jenn and Jon, so much for your kind words and for coming on and sharing, not just stories about Marilyn, but the stories about the Endangered Wildlife Trust and how one always seems to lead into the other. I really appreciate your time and I can’t wait to share all this cool stuff with the world.
Jenn 24:05 Thank you.
Jon 24:05 Thanks


Cameron Boozarjomehri is a Software Engineer and a member of MITRE’s Privacy Capability. His passion is exploring the applications and implications of emerging technologies and finding new ways to make those technologies accessible to the public.

© 2021 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release.  Distribution unlimited. Case number 21-1972

MITRE’s mission-driven team is dedicated to solving problems for a safer world. Learn more about MITRE.

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