Rob Thomas, senior sustainability planner at AECOM, led an SCA crew in his hometown of Newark, NJ in 2009. Shortly thereafter, he interned with the City of Newark Office of Sustainability. Thomas remained with the City for approximately 11 years after his internship, eventually being appointed as the Chief of Energy and Environment.
What was your first experience outdoors that you can recall or remember?
I’m originally from Trinidad and Tobago and my earliest and fondest experiences outdoors were spending time in our yard, hiking in the hills, sailing, kayaking, and camping on the beach with family. I have wonderful experiences in the states as well – riding my bike (everywhere), spending time in parks with friends and family, and spending as much time outdoors during the spring and summer months.
You led a community crew in your hometown of Newark, New Jersey. What part of that experience had the biggest impact on you?
Working with crew members and introducing them to beauty in their community. In Newark, residents typically spend most of their time in their neighborhoods and rarely explore what other wards have to offer. I also enjoyed introducing the crew to nearby parks and museums on environmental education trips at the end of our workweek.
We are starting to see a need for more urban crews and programs in the field. In your opinion, what are the experiences, benefits, and values associated with urban conservation crews that are different from those in the backcountry?
Urban crews provide equal access, opportunity, and exposure to environmental stewardship to students that might not have had the opportunity in school or in their neighborhoods. Working in the community also provides crew members with a greater sense of pride and purpose by making their neighborhood a beautiful and more resilient place to live. As a direct result of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, cities around the world recognize the importance of creating and preserving open space in urban communities more than ever. The positive health, social, economic, and environmental benefits far outweigh the proliferation of impervious surface and major development, and urban community crews are essential to realizing those benefits.
What advice would you give to a young BIPOC individual who feels like they do not belong in green spaces or nature and who doesn’t feel comfortable in the outdoors where so few look like them?
This is your neighborhood, your city, your country, and your world. Experience all of it as often as you can and as comfortable as you feel. Visit parks or recreation areas near where you live and go with a friend or family member. It is always better to have new experiences with people who love and/or support you.
You worked for many years in city government. As SCA places our 100,000th member in the field, what does the word “service” mean to you, and has the meaning changed over time?
To me, service means working to improve the lives and experiences of others. The meaning has not changed over time, but my desire to continue serving has grown significantly.
You also served on the SCA Alumni Council. Imagine this was an alumni conference, 100,000 strong, and someone handed you the mic. What would you say?
I would share my happiness and gratitude to be in the presence of such hardworking and dedicated environmental stewards. I would also encourage our alumni to share their SCA experience with broader audiences to ensure we continue to grow (as an organization) and provide positive environmental experiences.
SCA uses the term “conservation leader” a lot. How would you define it? Do you consider yourself one? How can one achieve such a designation?
I would define a conservation leader as a person who has a strong understanding of environmental protection and preservation and provides guidance and direction to others who have similar values and interests. In some ways, I think I am, but I still have much to learn. To be a “conservation leader”, one needs to be dedicated to conservation and have the experience and understanding to provide support that protects the natural environment.