Conversation Shifter Jessie Sitnick

For years there’s been a real division between Canadians around projects such as the oil sands, and it has been pitched as you’re either for the economy, or for the environment.

Parent with purpose Jessie Sitnick says that while working in the nonprofit sector — with a group trying to fight a pipeline project slated for British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest — it became crystal clear to Sitnick that Canadians don’t want to have to choose between the economy and the environment. “But if they have to, with a gun to their head, they’ll choose the economy,” she says “And it’s hard to fault people for that. It comes down to feeding their kids tomorrow or protecting something kind of vague in the long term that they can’t really understand.”

These days, Sitnick dedicates her work life to trying to change this idea that we can only save the environment at the cost of the Canadian economy by shifting focus to the fiscal benefits of environmental responsibility. No longer in the nonprofit sector, Sitnick is rewriting the script through her work at a public relations agency where she handles a portfolio of projects that focus on environmental issues that have a strong economic impact.

We talked to Sitnick about why we need to flip the conversation in order to create meaningful change, and to find out more about how she balances work and parenting a pair of active boys, aged 8 and 10.

Why did you start doing what you do?

Years ago I came to Toronto to study museum studies, because I had undergraduate degrees in English literature and anthropology and I thought the practical thing would be to go work in a museum. I’m American and didn’t intend on staying here in Canada, but I ended up meeting the person who I married and becoming a Canadian. There are not very many museum jobs in Toronto, so I ended up just going into the nonprofit sector and got a job at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

I started off as a proposal writer writing grants, and that kind of work led me to work very closely with the conservation scientists that were designing the programs I was helping get funding for. They helped me understand why this work was so critical — it was like a crash course in understanding the realities of the world I was living in, and the challenges. It was scary but also hopeful because there were things that could be done. In six years there I went from basically writing grants to leading strategic communications for the organization.

One of the big issues that we were dealing with towards the end of my time there was the Great Bear region and the plan for a pipeline to be built there, and tanker ships coming into the sea. We worked with an indigenous organization on a campaign trying to raise awareness outside of BC, telling the rest of Canada about this issue and why they should care.

We were really not getting anywhere to be frank.

Part of the problem that became so clear during that time — the Federal Government had done a really bang up job of framing the conversation as a choice between the environment and jobs. And y’know there’s not much credibility with NGOs, as great and as trusted as they are. People trust them on environmental issues, but they don’t really trust them on economic issues.

It felt like we were fighting this battle that we couldn’t win. But, we had started to work with economic departments at universities putting out economic data around value of the ecosystem versus the value of the pipeline. We were trying to prove that actually a healthy ecosystem is better for the economy than a pipeline. It was good research, but we weren’t the right messengers.

So what was the problem with the messaging?

You know that saying, “You can be lonely and right?” That’s where the NGO community was, lonely and right. I think the worst enemy to any cause is self-righteousness and a failure to be able to see nuances in the world.

I don’t think that anybody wakes up in the morning thinking, “I’m going to kill the climate and pollute the water.” Nobody is that evil genius — well maybe the Koch Brothers. People in the oil and gas industry are not bad people and treating them like the enemy, and treating their arguments like they are shallow or greedy is really not useful. Telling people they have to sacrifice monetarily in order to save the environment was the absolute wrong conversation. We needed to change that conversation in order to weaken the opposition to doing the right thing, because at the end of the day what matters is that we do the right thing, not why.

Like, I don’t care why you buy an electric car. I don’t care if that’s because it’s cool and all your friends are buying it or it’s because you care about the environment. I don’t care why, we just need to figure out what are the levers we need to pull to make that attractive to you. I think that for a long time the environmental narrative was one around sacrifice and martyrdom, right? And what you ended up with was the same very small group of deep-green people all trying to out-green each other — “Look my dress is made from organic hemp, etc.” That obviously isn’t helping to change other people’s minds.

How did you help shift the message?

Around that time I had the opportunity to interview with these two guys, one was an economist from McGill University, and the other an environmental lawyer from the University of Ottawa. They were starting an initiative that would bring together some of the best economists in Canada to work together to put forward policy recommendations that demonstrate that doing the right thing for the environment is doing the right thing for the economy.

What they wanted to start with was carbon pricing, and at the time, before the election where Justin Trudeau took power, carbon pricing was still a very dirty word in Canada. Back then you could barely mention it in polite company, you know what I mean? It occurred to me that if progress was ever going to be made on this file then we had to start working outside of our bubble. We had to bring people into the conversation in a way that was credible and authentic. We needed people who could validly say, “Yes, I care about the economy first and I still think this is the right idea.” That was just a message that we hadn’t had in Canada before and I saw the potential for this group of economists to fill that gap, which is what they were there to do.

There were some very brilliant people behind that work who saw the same thing I did and I guess when I recognized what it was, I said count me in. They hired me as a communications person who would give form and shape to the language and brand this thing. It became Canada’s Ecofiscal Commission.

The second initiative we worked with has come to be called Smart Prosperity. Instead of being a body of economists, they are a body of business leaders, like well-known CEOs and credible business people from across sectors. You’ve got people from traditional sectors, oil & gas, forestry, cement, people representing unions, people representing cleantech. All of these people are messengers for a shift to a clean economy. And so just building on that narrative, let’s put the economy first, but let’s put the economy first by doing what’s right for the environment because that’s the necessity. I stayed with those projects for over two years, launching and shaping them.

And then you moved to PR?

Yes, for the first time in my life I actually don’t work in the nonprofit sector. Within this company, Argyle Public Relationships, I work on the social impact portfolio. I still work with Smart Prosperity as PR clients. I’m working with one group on a big energy efficiency campaign, and with another group, on how we build a narrative around sustainable finance in Canada. But I also work with corporate clients, banks for example, on the role they are playing in the clean economy shift.

What does this work bring to your life?

It is important for me to do this work. I don’t feel like I’m “winning” every day but, I’m not sure anyone does. My career has been a continuous search for where I can be most useful, and for me that means going where new audiences are. I don’t think the environmental non-profits of the world need me, they’re going to keep doing their thing, and they already have their audience. I want to figure out how we talk about this stuff with people who aren’t necessarily at the table yet.

Has parenthood changed how you view your work?

It was having babies that made me want to make a change in my career. When you have a child your time horizon suddenly gets much longer I guess and there’s the question of I brought this person into the world, what kind of world will they grow up in? What’s my responsibility to that world? I had my first kid in 2007 and I think that was when a lot of us were really starting to wake up particularly to the realities of climate change.

What do your kids think about what you do?

They were so sad when I left WWF, because it is really accessible to kids. I’d bring home the panda stuffies and they’d go to the events, they loved that. But they’ve gotten older and I talk really honestly about everything and don’t try to simplify it into good guys and bad guys, although I do explain it in a way that makes sense to them. What’s blown me away is their capacity to really understand that complexity, and they talk about climate change in a smart or nuanced way, and they ask tough questions.

I think a lot of us are concerned about scaring our kids when it comes to discussing climate change etc, and frankly have no idea what to say.

Right. I think it is important that we do talk to our kids about these issues though. I’m that parent who pauses the movie and is like, “Okay let me explain masturbation to you.” My husband’s like, “Oh my god, really?” As a result I have a kid who at the dinner table says, “Mom, what’s the difference between transgender and gender fluidity. And he’s 10. And I’m like that’s the best question ever — I’m not sure I know the answer to it but let’s talk about it.”

So I actually think that the burden that we all feel both as parents, but also as adults, period, is feeling like we have to know what the answers are in order to have the conversation. It’s like if you can’t answer the question why is the sky blue, then you don’t want to talk about it because you feel incompetent. I think that there is value, first of all, in your kids knowing that you’re human, and you don’t know all of the answers. If you can teach your kids how to think, and ask good questions, that’s what it takes to change the world.

Is that comforting in terms of the big scary stuff? I think it can be, and what’s the alternative? We don’t have great answers to give our kids that are really comforting — unless we’re lying to them we can’t honestly tell them, “You know what honey, everything is going to be fine.”

What do you think you have in common with other moms?

The lack of balance, and I think what gets lost for most of us isn’t our kids I think it’s probably ourselves. It is sort of like you want to maintain that ambition in your life, you want to feel like you’re doing something important. But what’s the most important thing to do? Is it getting my name on that op-ed or is it being home for dinner? And they answer to both of those questions is yes and no at the same time. I think we know that women do make lots and lots of different decisions in answering that question.

It’s amazing how quickly those things snap into focus when something bad happens though. Say one of my boys has an accident on the playground and needs stitches. Whatever meetings I had scheduled that day? Whatever deliverables I had to do? They’re gone. I’m taking my kid to the hospital to get stitches and if you don’t like it? Screw you. It becomes very easy and very clear. And I think that luckily we don’t live in that state of urgency all the time, which makes it less clear what the most important thing to be doing is.

I’ve gone through periods when I’ve felt like I’ve had it all together and I’ve gone through more periods where I’ve felt like I was just treading water most of the time. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that like, you know, I’m going screw it up but I’m going to be there for the stuff that’s most important. Every once and awhile you have a win — you have a great conversation with your kid, or you overhear them saying something that you know came from you and you’re like f&^#, I nailed it. I’m doing okay, but that doesn’t happen very often.

What other moms do you admire?

Oh my god, my best friend. I don’t know how she does it. She is a labour and delivery nurse, she works 12 hour shifts, she has four kids, and she’s the best mom I know. And she devotes her life to women, she teaches breastfeeding classes on the weekends, you know. She is Wonder Woman in my mind, and we’ve known each other since 8th grade.

She gave me the best parenting advice ever when I had my first son: She said there are days when you’re going to look at him and you’re going to feel so overwrought and exhausted and you just need to say the best thing I can do for you today is love you. And I actually found that very comforting as the mother of a newborn. And I find it very comforting now, where it’s like I’m sorry that I was not the one to pick you up from dance class tonight, and I am sorry that I had to get a gift certificate for your friend’s birthday because I couldn’t get out to get a present for it, and I’m sorry for all the little tiny, tiny ways I might have let you down but I love you with my whole heart and today that has to be enough. And usually for your kids it is.

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The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.

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