Alumni Spotlight: Cindy Dittbrenner

For the past year and a half, Cindy Dittbrenner (’07, M.S.) has committed several days a month, as well as three additional weeks for longer trips, to take part in the AgForestry Leadership Program. She’s been traveling to intensive, hands-on seminars in different cities and towns across Washington, tackling subjects from public policy to media relations and the criminal justice system—and culminating with her helping introduce an actual bill to the Washington State Legislature. It’s been an immersive, exciting 18 months.

Now, as she prepares to graduate from the program later this spring, Dittbrenner has started reflecting on what’s made it such an empowering experience.

Cindy Dittbrenner

Cindy Dittbrenner earned her master’s from SEFS in 2007, and her husband Ben is a current doctoral student here.

The Hook
Dittbrenner, whose husband Ben is a current doctoral student with SEFS, studied forest soils with Professor Rob Harrison and earned her master’s in 2007. After she graduated, she spent four years working with Snohomish County on watershed restoration. Dittbrenner then moved to her current position as natural resources program manager for the Snohomish Conservation District, where she works with private landowners to better steward their property to protect natural resources.

Each county in Washington has as conservation district, which operates like a unit of government but is not officially connected to the county. These districts were organized during the Dust Bowl era with the goal of soil conservation, and their missions have expanded to include a range of issues, from water quality to restoring salmon habitat to cleaning up storm water runoff in urban areas.

Part of what attracted Dittbrenner to the role was this broad spectrum of coverage areas, and also the potential for more leadership opportunities and growth. Six months into her job, in fact, she attended a statewide meeting of conservation districts in Cle Elum, where she met a farmer who had recently completed and strongly recommended the AgForestry Leadership Program.

The Washington Agriculture and Forestry Education Foundation was founded in 1977, and for the past 35-plus years its leadership program has supported adult professionals working within and connected to Washington State’s agriculture, forestry and fishing industries. The purpose of the program is to train and cultivate confident, well-rounded leaders—with versatile skills in communications, political savvy and issues management—who will work to maintain healthy farms, forests, near-shore environments and rural communities throughout the state.

Dittbrenner proposed the idea of signing up to her boss, who agreed to support her application and fund the $6,000 cost of participating. She was accepted into the 36th leadership class and began in October 2014.

Cindy Dittbrenner

Dittbrenner, who studied forest soils with Professor Rob Harrison, now works as the natural resources program manager for the Snohomish Conservation District.

The Program
As a leadership fellow, you continue your current job while participating in 12 three-day seminars held throughout the state, generally from Wednesday through Friday. The curriculum also includes two travel seminars, starting with a seven-day visit to Washington, D.C., to learn about the federal government, and then a two-week international trip. All told, the schedule involves about 53 training days.

One of the hallmarks of the AgForestry program, as well, is the variety of perspectives and backgrounds represented, and Dittbrenner’s group didn’t disappoint. “It’s a diverse group from all over Washington,” she says. “Ages range from mid-20s to mid-50s, and there are foresters, farmers, viticulturists, recreation specialists from DNR, shellfish growers—just about everyone.”

Those viewpoints get tossed together and tested at each of the seminars, which are thoroughly interactive, blending talks and discussions with practical lessons. One of Dittbrenner’s seminars, for instance, was held in Spokane and involved how to work with the media. While visiting a television station, the fellows had to practice giving on-air, unprepared comments, and the interviewers grilled them—in some cases using ‘dirt’ on social media to rattle their composure. “I did horrible,” says Dittbrenner. “Because I had liked the Humane Society on Facebook, they asked me if animals should be put in captivity and in feedlots, and it took me off guard. So I stumbled over some lame answer about wanting to help pets that were stranded during Hurricane Katrina.”

Another seminar concentrated on public speaking, and one project involved developing a five-minute persuasive talk. Each member was videotaped and got to see how he or she looked—and then had professionals critique them unsparingly (to the point that a couple of Dittbrenner’s colleagues started crying). “One by one, they tore us up,” she says. “I learned so much about things I do while talking, and there were definitely some things in the video that were frightening, including a little weird clicking noise my tongue was making.”

The next day, after seeing themselves and getting feedback, the fellows got another chance to give their talk—and on her second run, Dittbrenner nailed it. “I did awesome.”

Cindy Dittbrenner

Dittbrenner and other AgForestry fellows at Angkor Watt.

Later in the program, the group headed to Cambodia and Vietnam for the international component. The main goal is to learn about trade and some of the issues developing countries are facing, such as natural resource depletion and other impacts of urban growth and expansion. “But since you’re in another country for two weeks with 25 people, it becomes much more than that,” says Dittbrenner. “A lot of people had never traveled abroad before and had to get their passports for the first time.”

The class visited different agricultural areas, from rice patties to fisheries to a coconut processing plant, and met with staff at the U.S. Embassy to hear about the role and mission of the United States in the country. Much of their time was programmed, with activities starting around 7:30 or 8 in the morning and running through a reception that evening. Yet they also got to do some exploring, including a boat tour of the Mekong Delta and a memorable stop at Angkor Wat in Cambodia. “It was so, so beautiful,” says Dittbrenner.

The Project
Another central element of the AgForestry program is that fellows are divided into smaller groups of five to complete a public policy project together. Given the incredible range of social and political viewpoints in Dittbrenner’s group, though, the process of settling on an issue to champion was no small task.

“We first thought we wanted to do something related to agriculture or water or natural resources,” she says. “But for the first few months, we’d lob out ideas for the project, and someone would shoot them down. Finally—it was actually really interesting—we agreed on something I didn’t think we’d agree on: reintroducing ex-offenders successfully back into society.”

Cindy Dittbrenner

Dittbrenner on Cat Ba Island in northern Vietnam.

During an earlier seminar on crime and corrections, the fellows had visited a juvenile detention center and the state penitentiary. They’d met with inmates and learned how hard it can be for ex-offenders to get a stable job after getting released, and that one of the biggest hurdles involves the box on applications that asks whether someone has ever been convicted of a crime—a box that, if checked, often automatically disqualifies an applicant.

Researching how to approach this issue, Dittbrenner’s group worked with several nonprofits and settled on the “Ban the Box” movement, which aims to remove that question about previous convictions from applications. More than 10 states and 90 cities and counties have adopted some form of this policy, says Dittbrenner, and Seattle passed a version in 2013. Their policy project, the group decided, should be to draft a bill to make “Ban the Box” statewide law.

“One in three people released from prison in Washington ends up back in prison within three years,” says Dittbrenner, so this bill could have a huge impact on thousands of people and families in the state.

The Political Process
The fellows first collaborated with the Washington Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to draft the bill’s language. Then they started trying to generate support and corral enough potential votes in the Washington State Legislature to give the bill a chance.

In addition to tapping the extensive AgForestry alumni network, Dittbrenner sent out rounds of emails to classmates asking them to reach out to their Republican legislators. Bridging the partisan divide was an eye-opening and rewarding experience for her, and she ended up becoming close friends with some of the most conservative members of her leadership group. It’s a tremendous feeling to find accord despite vocal differences, she says, and reach a solution that could help so many people.

Cindy Dittbrenner

The international trip was particularly special for Dittbrenner, who headed over two weeks early with her husband Ben to get more travel time in Southeast Asia.

Their legwork started paying off. The “Ban the Box” bill got introduced in the state senate and house last month, and Dittbrenner’s group secured committee hearings in Olympia on Friday, February 13, to lobby for their bill. That was an achievement on its own, as not every group was able to get far enough on a project to have a bill written and introduced—and Dittbrenner felt confident they had generated solid bipartisan support.

After passing out of the House Labor Committee, the bill then made it out of the Rules Committee. But it fell just short of getting a vote on the floor, which would have sent it back to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee for round two—and a real chance of becoming law. Undeterred, Dittbrenner says the bill is still very much alive. “We’ll try again next year!”

Even with the disappointing result of the vote, Dittbrenner says the experience has been deeply satisfying and empowering. Before she started this program, she had found the legislative process largely opaque, even intimidating. Yet patiently and determinedly pushing the “Ban the Box” bill—with all of its myriad iterations and steps and votes—has transformed her understanding of public policy. “I’m not afraid to talk to my legislators,” she says, “and I feel like I can be instrumental in making change happen.”

Part of reaching that point has been learning how to be a better listener and more open-minded, says Dittbrenner. That’s a powerful takeaway from this leadership program, and she knows it will serve her throughout her career. “I’ve been able to broaden my perspective and understanding of where people are coming from, and how we can focus on our similarities to get a lot of work done.”

Photos © Cindy Dittbrenner.

Cindy Dittbrenner

Dittbrenner planting rice in Ben Tre, Vietnam, as part of the AgForestry international trip.