Rhea Suh

Suh, Rhea_copy.jpg
Name: 
Rhea Suh
Year of Birth: 
1976
Institutions or Organizations: 
William & Flora Hewlett Foundation
Institutions or Organizations: 
Asian-American Pacific Islanders
Institutions or Organizations: 
Philanthropy Assoc.
Title(s): 
Program Officer
Title(s): 
Member
Quote: 
The environmental community is at a crossroads redefining themselves and who they are to Americans.
Year Quoted: 
2010

Rhea Suh was raised by her father Chung-Ha Suh, a professor, and her mother, Young-Ja Suh, a floral designer. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado, Suh was exposed to the rugged natural beauty of the Rockies from a young age. Looking back, she feels privileged for the opportunity to participate in a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, camping and skiing. By the time she was ready for college however, she was ready for a change of scenery and consequently decided to attend Columbia University. Despite the dramatic difference in natural environments, she continued to be passionate about the environment and chose to major in environmental science.

While at Columbia, her definition of environmentalism expanded to include issues like urban redevelopment and questions of sustainability. Her education helped shape her attitudes about the environment from a view that predominately featured the “green” aspects of the field to one that also addressed the “brown” issues of pollution and remediation.

Suh completed her undergraduate studies in 1992 with a double major in environmental science and education and was certified as a high school teacher. She then went on to teach earth science in high school, and at the time, believed that this would be her chosen career. However, after a few years of teaching, Suh decided to reconsider whether or not the education field was where she wanted to be.

After some soul searching, Suh decided to return to her hometown. Upon her return to Boulder, Suh found work as a waitress, but she still continued to look for opportunities to learn about different of sectors of the environmental field. She had continually been interested in politics and decided to volunteer for an elected official. Through a series of events she attributed to “random luck,” she was hired by Ben Nighthorse Campbell – a new United States Senator from Colorado – as his state representative on environmental issues.

In Colorado, Suh worked on federal environmental issues such as violations of the Clean Air and Water Acts, Superfund sites, the decommissioning of the Rocky Flats nuclear facility, and public lands. She was ultimately transferred to Campbell’s Washington D.C. office to serve as a legislative assistant assigned to cover the Energy and Natural Resources committee. Her experience there was invaluable. It gave her an in-depth perspective on how policy was crafted, as well as an understanding of the politics around environmental issues. However, it was also difficult. Senator Campbell switched political affiliations during her tenure, a move which Suh both characterizes as “a valuable exposure to different perspectives,” and “personally challenging.” Ultimately, Suh decided to take a break from politics and decided to go back into the education field. She went to Harvard University to obtain a master’s degree in education.

During her time at Harvard, Suh focused on the intersection between the environment and education. In particular, Suh developed a master’s project at the Kennedy School of Government working with the National Park Service. The Park Service had been concerned for some time that they were not reaching a diverse enough audience. Her project helped the Park Service think through the options for how they could create a formalized educational program that could help bring the parks into classrooms around the country. In 1998, Suh completed her master’s degree and was offered a job in environmental policy. Currently, Suh is a program officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. As a program officer, she manages the program’s portfolio of grants designed to protect the ecosystems of the western part of North America.

Suh has had much success during her time at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and attributes much of her accomplishments to the guidance of her mentors. One of these individuals is her first supervisor at the Hewlett Foundation, Michael Fischer. She describes Fischer as an early pioneer in efforts to diversify the environmental movement. As head of the Sierra Club in the early 1990s, Fischer promoted environmental justice initiatives and the need to hire more people of color in the national environmental organizations. She describes him as going out of his way to support her career development as a young person of color, helping her get involved in professional organizations and develop projects on diversity for organizations which Hewlett funded. Suh also describes her current boss, Hal Harvey, as another key mentor. She considers him a leader in the philanthropic sector, and as “sharp as you can get around strategic and substantive issues.” He has helped her develop her skills around strategy, writing, communication and politics, and has supported her personal and professional growth. She credits these two mentors—both for providing consistent and flexible support—as well as the Hewlett Foundation to her career accomplishments.

Suh has not directly mentored any minorities in the environmental field, but her extensive involvement with and dedication to the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) benefits many minorities in the environmental field. EGA is a professional association for foundations that give money to environmental causes. They have briefings and annual meetings to discuss crucial issues that are presently important to the advancement of the environmental field. Suh is very active in this group, serving as the chair and vice chair of committees, and has consistently championed issues of diversity and equity as part of the organization’s agenda. Her commitment to diversity in the environmental field is exemplary. She has helped to design workshops that address issues of race, community and equity in the context of the environment, and was asked to be the keynote speaker at one of their conferences to discuss diversity and her feelings as a person of color within the context of a predominately white organization.

Suh has not directly mentored any minorities in the environmental field, but her extensive involvement with and dedication to the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA) benefits many minorities in the environmental field. EGA is a professional association for foundations that give money to environmental causes. They have briefings and annual meetings to discuss crucial issues that are presently important to the advancement of the environmental field. Suh is very active in this group, serving as the chair and vice chair of committees, and has consistently championed issues of diversity and equity as part of the organization’s agenda. Her commitment to diversity in the environmental field is exemplary. She has helped to design workshops that address issues of race, community and equity in the context of the environment, and was asked to be the keynote speaker at one of their conferences to discuss diversity and her feelings as a person of color within the context of a predominately white organization.

Suh has stayed in the environmental field because she cares a lot about it and feels lucky that she can have a job that she is passionate about. She also believes she is in a good position to try to make a difference on issues that are personally important to her. The thing she says she is most proud of in her career has been the opportunity that she has had to develop a greater awareness of diversity issues in the environmental field.

For minorities considering a career in the environmental field, Suh says, “There are lots of opportunities for people of color to play profound roles in the environmental movement. The environmental community is at a crossroads, redefining themselves and who they are to Americans. Minorities should play a role in shaping what the next generation of environmentalism becomes and what it can mean for more Americans. If environmental groups don’t diversify—both organizationally and substantively, the environmental movement will be forever impaired. We need to recognize the limitations that our homogeneity places upon our ability to create sustainable social change and then we need to change the way to do our business. That, I believe, is the only way that the environmental movement will remain relevant and effective in the years to come.”


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