A Week at MFI and My Personal Journey to Do More

Danielle GiftIn February, NYSUFC Board Member Danielle Gift attended the 2014 Municipal Forestry Institute at Lied Lodge & Conference Center in Nebraska City, Nebraska.  

As a child I never had any interest in climbing trees. What I did like was having my feet on the muddy ground and scrambling under vines and logs, ending my day with wet knees and dirt under my fingernails. I remember getting my Arbor Day trees in the mail and planting them with my dad (25 years later, two of them are still around!) I remember as a fifth grader being very concerned about recycling, the Amazon Rainforest, and the humpback whale.

Throughout high school I was usually in one of two places—romping about with the Ecology Club or playing the piano and singing with school ensembles. I went on to study music education in college but I found that teaching music wasn’t for me; the thought of being cooped up in a classroom for the rest of my life seemed soul-crushing. I moved to Flagstaff to study forestry at Northern Arizona University, a move that didn’t shock the people who know me best.

Pinus ponderosa
Pinus ponderosa pollen cones. Photo by Dave Powell, USDA Forest Service

It didn’t take long for me to realize that forestry was my home. I had no idea I could work with trees for a living—how cool is that? The more I learned, the more I wanted to do. I focused on ecological restoration and spent my summers as a professional tree hugger. (When you’re measuring 40-inch ponderosa pines on the north rim of the Grand Canyon all day, you have no choice but to hug … and smell. Ponderosas smell amazing!)

Although I love the great outdoors, I’ve always been a bit of a city girl. I grew up outside of Philadelphia and I really love the things cities can offer—music, museums, great restaurants, public transportation! For me, a passion for ecological restoration with an underlying need for city life naturally led me to urban forestry.

I moved to Blacksburg to earn my master’s degree in urban forestry at Virginia Tech. I learned about the amazingly natural but intricate relationship humans have with their surroundings and again, I wanted to do more. Where better to do more than in the largest city in North America? I packed up one more time and headed to New York.

I’ve been with NYC Parks for a little over four years. I’m the Special Projects Forester for the Forestry, Horticulture, and Natural Resources division and it’s a bit of a dream job. In this position, I develop and implement specialized urban forestry projects and work on citywide initiatives and urban forestry collaborations.

Basically, I work on all sorts of projects, covering all sorts of subjects, and I get to work with all sorts of people. I know that’s pretty general, but it just about sums it up. One day I’m helping to create a tree risk assessment program and the next I’m meeting with state and federal partners to discuss the next step in Asian Longhorned Beetle eradication.

MFI_logo no yearI have a pretty amazing boss who supports whatever I do and wants to see me succeed on the job, in my career, and in my life.  He knows I want to do more and he does his best to make that happen. He also happens to be an MFI graduate.

For the past year, I’ve been submerging myself in leadership and management studies. I had been floundering a bit in where I wanted to go and after having some good, solid, heart-to-heart conversations with my boss, I started reading books like 7 Habits and Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff. I also read some great books by people in the sports industry (if you know my boss, you know I borrowed those from him). I was once again ready to really apply what I was learning and I was ready to do more. MFI provided that link for me.

The Municipal Forestry Institute is a week-long leadership and management development “mini-school” specifically designed for urban and community forestry professionals. My class consisted of 43 folk from all across the country, all with different forestry roles, who all had the same basic passion to create the best urban forest to meet the needs of the people they serve.

Rosenow and Gift
Danielle with Arbor Day Foundation President and Founder John Rosenow, who addressed the MFI attendees.
Photo by Nancy Buley

At MFI, we not only learned how to be good leaders, we learned how to be professionals, how to communicate with the public and the media (and with ourselves), how to develop and nurture important relationships, how to hone our strategic planning skills, and ultimately how to be better at what we already do best. I made amazing connections with people that I know will be in my life and career for a very long time.

A highlight for me was working with my peer learning group (PLG). Each day we were tasked with a problem or mini-project to work on with our PLG, so we would break out into our groups, discuss the issue, compare programs and experiences, and work on a solution. One person was timekeeper, another was note taker, and a third would report out to the entire class. Every person in my group (which was the best one, according to Andy Hillman) was an absolute marvel. Hearing about what they do and how they approach their individual challenges was humbling and inspiring all at once.

Peer Learning Group
A Peer Learning Group at MFI
Photo by Paul Ries

I found myself worrying about letting my PLG down if I missed something in the notes or let us run over our time, but the most nerve wracking part came with my turn to report out, also known as the dreaded on-camera interview! My group helped prepare me, we did all we could, and then there I was in front of the camera being asked the silliest questions about a fictional scenario having to do with air pollution from a nearby industrial building.

When it was over, I really thought I had completely crashed and burned. Everything we had talked about had flown out of my head and was on its way to Florida, so to speak. I thought I had really let our group down, but it wasn’t even close to as bad as I thought, and PLG 5 was with me all the way! They were so supportive and encouraging, and I’ll never forget that.

Moving forward, I plan to incorporate the knowledge I gained from MFI into everything I do, both on the job and in my life. I’m still very much riding the “MFI High” and I find that my approach to challenges, no matter how big or small, is almost from a Zen point of view. I find myself reaching back to what we learned and really thinking about the best way to work things out, and what I’m finding is that I can do more. I’m applying leadership techniques and communication skills to my every day and things seem to be falling into place which such an absolute ease that I wonder why I never approached things like this before.

I’m very grateful for the support of my boss and my agency, as well as the support of the NYS Urban Forestry Council and the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation. I’m glad for the opportunity to attend and can’t wait to see where I go next and how I can do more.

MFI class 2014
The MFI Class of 2014 had 43 new grads, making more than 400 total MFI grads.
Photo by Paul Ries

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: