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Nelson Burand-Hicks: On sustainability through community empowerment

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We recently had the chance to sit down for a chat with Nelson Burand-Hicks, a passionate and engaging sustainability driver with a mission to connect his community with nature. 

Nelson currently serves as a Sustainability Officer at Muswellbrook Shire Council, where he is passionate about engaging with the community and helping them connect and fall in love with the environment they live in. 

GS: Thanks for coming in Nelson. Let's start with why you decided to pursue a career in environmental management? 

Most people go to uni with an idea of what they want to do. I went in knowing I loved the environment and I loved science. I had an idea of where I could see myself working, I first thought I wanted to do research, but then I realised it wasn't for me. So I thought I would go into consultancy, because that was the only other career option I was aware of at the time. I did end up consulting for a while, but due to the economic downturn I lost my job. In hindsight, I am glad that happened, because it drove me to do my postgraduate degree.

It wasn't until I embarked on the Master of Environmental Management and Sustainability that the management aspect really got instilled in me. My eyes were opened to all of the innovative and exciting ways to approach problems or issues and I began to understand what a huge impact one can have when approaching these issues with a positive mindset.

The masters program was a really good opportunity for me to for me develop my skills beyond my bachelors degree and I don't think I would be where I am today without it. I now work at Muswellbrook Shire Council where my focus is on sustainability. A big part of my job is to engage with the local community and listen to their ideas, so we are developing community programs that invite them to participate in the decision-making process. I am really excited to be working in a supportive environment where I have the freedom to develop these programs and collaborate with the community.  

GS: What were some major differences between your undergrad and postgrad degree?

NBH: I had an amazing undergraduate experience, but it was a time of lots of different thoughts. It was during my postgrad experience, that my idea of what I wanted to do shifted.

My postgraduate degree essentially added another layer or dimension to my undergraduate study. It made it more contemporary and I had a lot of scope and opportunity to tackle some complex problems and issues. The format enables you to really grasp an issue and run as far as you want with it, which is really cool because you're at the point in your career where you can apply your study to your practice. You also have a good idea of where you want to be in the future. And for me, I began to realise that my passion lied with linking community and the environment.

GS: What was your favourite course in the program?

NBH: My favourite course was Implementing Environmental Resilience and Addressing Complexity taught by Dr Bonnie McBain. 

Teachers do make or break a course, and for me, Dr Bonnie McBain, even in an online course, was extremely supportive and inspiring. She changed my mindset and gave my an excited and refreshed approach to working. She taught me the impact that we, as individuals, can have. The coursework was novel, exciting and progressive and I can definitely see the positive influence my studies are having in my career. I started thinking about science in a less traditional sense and seeing the contemporary imapct science has made in our society. In doing so, I've learned the importance of involving the community in science and the correlations that has to environmental resilience and social resilience.

GS: Tell us a bit about your personal project, Snorkelling Lake & Sea.

NBH: I think that anything you do as a job, you've got to like. Personally, I am really passionate about the idea of valuing the environment in which you live and having a pride of place. I was living near Lake Macquarie and I was thinking that when most people think of Australian sea life they immediately think of the Great Barrier Reef. And don't get my wrong, the Great Barrier Reef is an amazing place but I also thought about how I could instill a pride of place in my community and, as a result, I created Snorkelling Lake & Sea

I have underwater cameras and I often snorkel there to show people what amazing aquatic animals are within arms reach of our homes. I hope that by providing a snapshot of aquatic wildlife on NSW's east coast, through a variety of educational mediums, I will encourage a wider appreciation of aquatic life in the community.

GS: Any advice for other pursuing a career in environmental management? 

NBH: Each person will know in their mind what they love doing. If you love the environment, take time to have a chat with a lecturer or someone who works in the field and tell them what you hope to get out of a degree and your career. They can give you advice and guidance that will help get you to where you want to go. But essentially, if you enjoy it and can see yourself making a difference, than I would advise you to just go for it! 

GS: What environmental changes would you like to see be made in Australia?

NBH: Empowering the community is absolutely paramount to me. Even as environmental professionals, we have our own knowledge and skills, but it's not effective without having buy-in from the community or society at large.

I would also like to see the mindset of nature being outside of cities and outside of communities change. It's important to have green space in cities and engage people in urban wildlife. These initatives have a positive impact on both nature and the happiness of the people in the community.

For example, I just recently had a story in the Muswellbrook Chronicle about Magpie season and why they swoop. They are amazing and absolutely beautiful creatures, but we often hate or fear them for a few weeks each year. When you look at the numbers, only 12% swoop, and of that 12%, only half swoop pedestrians and cyclists, so it's only a minority. And that minority is only trying to look after their kids when they feel threatened. Magpies live for up to 20 years and they can recognise faces, so if you leave them in peace and establish a good relationship with a Magpie, they'll remember you and leave you alone. Plus, Magpies are a great natural pest control, they'll take care of you lawn grubs!

It's education initatives like this that can change people's mindset. I will continue to educate the community and collaborate with them to instill a sense of pride and appreciation for our local environment.

Nelson left us with an inspiring quote from a textbook he used in the program:
The story is told of a young emperor in ancient China who was exploring the labyrinthine interior of his palace. In his wanderings he came upon a room in which the palace butcher was carving carcasses. He watched the butcher at work for some time and was surprised to find that he didn’t stop to sharpen his carving knife. The emperor inquired: ‘My good man. I am surprised to see that you do not sharpen your knife. Surely with such work, it must frequently become blunt?’ The butcher replied : ‘Your Highness is correct in perceiving that for this work the sharpest of knives is necessary. However, I seldom need to sharpen my knife as I cut where there is least resistance.’ As change agents, we too need to learn how to work with the grain rather than against it, to act with skill and sure timing to ensure that our limited energy has maximum impact in bringing about movement towards the fully sustainable organisation.
  - From ‘Organizational Change for Corporate Sustainability’ by Benn, Dunphy &Griffiths

If you think you've got what it taked to be a change agent and you're interested in the Master of Environmental Management in Sustainability or the 4-course Graduate Certificate in Environmental Management in Sustainability, visit the program pages or contact us to learn more! 

This article relates to the following programs

12323 Master of Environmental Management and Sustainability

The Master of Environmental Management and Sustainability equips professionals with the capability to constructively engage with the complete environmental concerns that confront contemporary…

12327 Graduate Certificate in Environmental Management and Sustainability

The Graduate Certificate in Environmental Management and Sustainability will empower you with the knowledge to play a professional role in solving environmental problems that confront…

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