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Of Opera Cake and Environmental Conflicts

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I will begin this entry by describing to you the various constituent layers of opera cake pastries—this description serves the purpose of incenting you to go out and eat the sweet, and, more importantly, (depending on how you look at things), serves the purpose of being the best description I can give of myself.

Opera cake was introduced by the Parisian pastry house Dalloyau—some say the recipe was perfected as early as 1890. It consists of six layers, prepared in separate sections and then carefully assembled using melted butter as glue: three layers of almond sponge cake dipped in a coffee syrup, a layer of bittersweet chocolate ganache, a layer of espresso-flavored buttercream, and a layer of chocolate glaze at the top. The beauty and genius of opera cake lies in its ability to combine otherwise uninteresting or seemingly unrelated layers into a whole product that is quite delicious.

My intellectual pursuits over the last ten years have much in common with the construction of an opera cake, but at the risk of overusing this analogy, I will refrain from making too many direct comparisons. From age thirteen to twenty, I relentlessly pursued the singular goal of scientific achievement, conducting research on renewable energy technology, competing in science fairs and studying applied math and biotechnology as high school electives. My desire to remain within the first three almond sponge cake layers was fueled by an interest in consistency, familiarity and by my belief that to impact the world in a positive way, technological innovation was sufficient.

Well, that all changed in 2007. When participating in what would be my last science competition, I encountered an environmentalist who lamented the lack of cooperation between scientists and policymakers, and the dearth of progress on ending global dependence on fossil fuels. By the time she left my project, I was at a loss for words. I suddenly realized that policy reform, namely the complementary dimension to scientific discovery, was a field I had never considered. With that came the revelation that—in Insight Collaborative terminology—half the value I stood to contribute to the world was still on the table.

It took me an additional three years to absorb these thoughts and apply them; in retrospect, these years allowed me to overcome my fear of delving into a world about which I knew nothing, and allowed me the freedom to seek out an opportunity that could truly be a complementary layer to the scientific foundation I painstakingly created since I was a teenager.

In 2010, I spent the entire summer in India working with two organizations on environmental policy issues: with Greenpeace India, I worked on improving nuclear safety regulations; and with Advocate M.C. Mehta, I worked on a campaign to prevent dangerous, fast-tracked dams from being constructed on the Ganges River. In both situations, I found myself initially approaching the issues from the mindset of an analyst and engineer, seeking out the logical flow of events and the objective data that would convince everyone of the ‘right’ course of action. But as hours became days, and days became weeks, I recognized that the multi-layering I sought in my own skillset and education existed in issues I was working on as well. Science was only one aspect of environmental issues. Integral to it were layers of social structures, religious beliefs, standards of living, economic investment, political tension, and personal opinions.

Since my return from India, I’ve fully embraced the importance these layers play in the context of environmental protection, and have taken advantage of every opportunity to contribute to those aspects, and to develop them in my own identity.

But while I found many opportunities to develop as a public speaker, a writer for non-scientific audiences, improve my knowledge of religions and their connection to the environment, one crucial layer I had yet to add was the ability to find resolution to the heated and sometimes violent conflicts that erupted between stakeholders of environmental issues. I think back to 2010 when I could only watch while spiritual leaders, environmentalists, the erstwhile Indian Minister of Environment, and corporate executives traded disparaging remarks, accusatory tones, and dismissive retorts.

They fight here in this conference room and the Ganges has become no cleaner. The dams remain and for those stand to lose their lands and become displaced, there is no knowledge of what is going on behind closed doors, I thought to myself.

What manifested as frustration then, was actually, in retrospect, my understanding that while I was developing the hard skills to comprehend the positions of those involved in environmental conflicts, I had little of the soft skills to understand their interests, mediate between stakeholders, or help one side understand the mindset of the other.

The Insight Fellowship

When I first came across the Insight Collaborative, I knew immediately that the Fellowship offered training and challenges that could help me transform my frustrations towards environmental conflicts into skills for resolving them. Having no background in conflict resolution or negotiation, I applied for the Fellowship conveying only my genuine desire to develop as an individual and pursue the study of conflict management.

After the Finalist Weekend and my interactions with Insight Collaborative President David Seibel, CEO Patrick McWhinney, Operations Director Enid Cherenson and 2009 Insight Fellow Roxanne Krystalli, I was thoroughly excited at the possibility that this Fellowship would become a reality for me. I often tell my friends and family that I have never felt more comfortable being open and honest about myself in an interview than when speaking to members of Insight Collaborative. The skills and methods that I could learn at Insight Collaborative were undoubtedly applicable to environmental conflicts, but this was, of course, only one of a myriad layers to which these skills could be applied. These skills were useful in improving every relationship, and that, in my view, was especially powerful.

Now, I’m not entirely sure if there was a specific way to deal with an acceptance call from Insight Collaborative, but I’m confident that doing a ‘happy-dance’ after receiving that information had to be it. Being offered the 2013 Insight Fellowship set off a whirlwind of excitement and anticipation. I was a little nervous too…

I arrived in Boston June 6th, and have finally settled into an apartment. I am excited to learn conflict management, negotiation and effective communication skills. I am also thrilled at the idea of connecting with environmental NGOs around the world as I finalize my placements for my Fellowship year.  Some of the milestones I have set for myself this summer are

–Connect with as many conflict management professionals as possible to develop a professional relationship with them and learn from their expertise;

–Observe a negotiation workshop first-hand (what better way to learn!);

–Combine my training with Insight Collaborative and my background in environmental issues through a publication and/or speaking engagement.

I cannot wait to see what my Boston placement has in store for me. Sitting in my office, reading over negotiation lecture notes and researching funding opportunities, I get up to take a quick look at the Boston Common.

Somehow, windows lend themselves to reflection.

As each layer of my skillset and identity has developed, I have found myself questioning its compatibility and relevance to my overall goals. For anyone looking back in a similar fashion, my advice is simple: enjoy the cake.

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