Senior Policy Specialist, National Sustainable Agricultural Coalition

Alyssa Charney

Career Sector

Policy

Degrees

BA in Environmental Studies from Vassar College, MS in Agriculture and Food Policy and Master of Public Health from Tufts University (dual program)

Briefly describe your career path from college until today.

After I graduated from college I had two primary jobs that shaped my career. The first was moving to Lyons, Nebraska, to do an internship with the Center for Rural Affairs working on rural policy issues. From there I went further west to Montana and did two years of a program called FoodCorps, a national service program to connect kids to healthy food in school. Both of those opportunities were a chance to see the on-the-ground challenges and opportunities when it comes to rural communities, agriculture and conservation issues. These experiences helped shape and solidify my desire to work on federal agricultural policy, and after two years in Montana I came back east to Boston for the master’s program at Tufts. In between my first and second year, I interned at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC). When I finished up at Tufts in 2015, I was hired by NSAC to do policy work on farm conservation.

What was the best advice you received regarding your career?

I got two really great pieces of advice. The first was to take that time between undergrad and graduate school to explore a little more and figure out what I really wanted to do. Working at the Center for Rural Affairs was a turning point for me, in the sense that it helped me understand more about the communities I ultimately wanted to work to support. I was taking a risk, having grown up and gone to school on the east coast, by moving to rural Nebraska, and I would say that experience was really helpful in digging in on new issues. If I had immediately launched into graduate school from undergrad I don’t think I would have had the same trajectory I did.

And, secondly, getting that on-the-ground experience was really valuable advice—even though I knew I wanted to work on policy, getting a strong understanding of what’s happening on-the-ground. Whether we are talking about food access or conservation—understanding what that really looks like and how does that impact real people’s lives. I think it’s really important to have that understanding and grounding to do the policy work. I also gained a valuable skill in learning to work well with folks who have different opinions and backgrounds than me. Working at the community level helped me see the necessity of taking that approach, and I think that’s something that is very much valuable in the policy work I do today.

Describe the best choices that you’ve made along your career path. 

I loved Montana, it continues to be my favorite state in the country. But moving there where I had never been and didn’t know anyone, and with no details about what my job would look like, turned out to be wonderful both in terms of the experience itself and the connections to the work I do now. I was in south central Montana, south of Billings in a town called Red Lodge. It was very rural with about 2,000 people living there. When I was there I was the only FoodCorps member in that town. There were other FoodCorps members throughout Montana, but you know in Montana that means a minimum of four hours away. It was kind of the best of both worlds because I had a strong network and friends throughout the state, who I got to travel and see, but in terms of my day-to-day work, it forced me to really integrate into the community and that became my base and my home. And through my FoodCorps experience, I was connected with a professional mentor who worked at NSAC. So that was my initial foot in the door. That combination of valuable connections, on the ground experience related to the policy work I do now, and taking some risks and trying new things was really important.

How has SWCS impacted your career, or contributed to your continued education and/or professional development?

This past year was my third year as a member, and my third year attending and presenting at the annual meeting, all of which have been wonderful. Especially for me it’s a chance to interact with a different audience than I generally do. It’s really valuable to be able to connect directly with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff who are implementing and managing the programs we are advocating for on a daily basis. Making those connections that are useful moving forward—knowing individuals in states across the country, whom I can reach out to and get a first-hand account on program implementation, that’s been really great in terms of those connections, and the exposure to those perspectives.

What is the job outlook in your current position?

I definitely think there is a wealth of opportunities in the policy space for folks looking to work on conservation and agriculture policy. When I was originally looking at working in policy, there were three different areas I considered: the advocacy space, which is where I ended up; working at an agency, like USDA or NRCS; or working on Capitol Hill for a member of Congress. All three of those remain readily available. And there is lots of movement and new opportunities and also different levels to enter into those spaces and get the experiences that you need to get started. Even with the uncertainty around what’s next related to farm bill, whether we’re in implementation or continuing to work on this farm bill next year, there’s definitely a strong need for policy work.

What changes in required skillsets do you foresee?

I think it’s really important to have a combination of skills—both having an understanding of the issues from on-the-ground policy experience whether that is on the Hill or even at the state level. Being in Washington, DC, and seeing how Congress works is also a really valuable experience. I think policy and issue area expertise is really important, but I continue to see the need for a combination of skillsets. I don’t think there’s any one set formula for success.

What impacts have you had on fostering the art and science of natural resource conservation?

I work on NSAC’s conservation portfolio, so working to shape and influence the policies that are out there in the field and available through NRCS conservation programs. Protecting what we have is where I see my greatest impact right now. But also working to drive change through the farm bill. A lot of the policies that we have worked with our members to advocate for are included in the draft farm bills that Congress is now working to negotiate between for a final bill. Additionally providing support to our members who are doing the conservation work in the field, and giving them the tools they need to advocate for these policies. That linkage, translating out to the field, is really important.

What advice would you give to college students who want to go into policy?

Make sure you try it out. Washington, DC, and working in policy, especially currently where unfortunately we do have a lot of polarization, can feel draining and exhausting and frustrating. Giving that a test run and seeing if it’s the right fit is really important, because you have to enjoy the process. I like the process. I enjoy being in DC and digging into the weeds in terms of policy work. I also stay motivated by engaging with our members who are organizations, farmers, and ranchers all around the country, who are out in the field doing this work. I appreciate them and am grateful that they keep me rooted to what is happening on the ground, while engaging on the nitty gritty (and oftentimes frustrating!) policy process here in DC.