Good Work Story: From Hair Stylist to Earth Care Advocate

posted in: Writing Portfolio

An interview with Sonja Urban, Conservation Officer at Conservation Volunteers Aotearoa

Sonja was a hairstylist for years. In the salon she was known for having conversations with clients around sustainability, environment and politics – not your salon usual!

It came as no surprise to her friends that she’s now working in the Do-Good sector. In fact, several of them alerted Sonja to the listing for her current Wellington-based role with Conservation Volunteers/Te Ohu Tiaki Taiao o Aotearoa on Do Good Jobs.

Sonja’s success over many applicants was in part due to her experience as a volunteer herself. She jokes she’s spent a ‘lifetime volunteering’. It’s clear she loved every minute of it and those volunteer hours have paid off in an unexpected way. Lived experience as a volunteer helps Sonja with best practice in her role as Conservation Officer, something her organisation’s recruitment team saw as a huge plus.

They were right.

Conservation Volunteers enable people to make a difference. Working nationwide, their vision is  ‘Inspiring change through connecting people to nature’  and in so doing, restoring Aotearoa’s wild places and protecting our environment. Through their projects, anyone can get involved planting and caring for native trees, eradicating pest weeds, protect threatened species and help make natural spaces accessible.

Since 2006 their staff and volunteers have organised 11,000 project events and 100,000 volunteer days. Planted over 1 million trees, collected around 56,000 kg of rubbish, weeded about 455ha area and raised over 500,000 seedlings. That’s a lot of zeroes!

Sonja used to plant trees and do beach clean ups as a volunteer, now she’s paid to do it alongside the volunteers she’s responsible for.

“I actually hadn’t heard about CVNZ before I saw this job advertised, which really surprised me as it aligns with my interests. The more I read and learnt about CVNZ, the more I was convinced that this was the perfect role for me.”

Sonja is a long way from her days in the salon working as a hairstylist in Germany’s Black Forest. Moving to Aotearoa in 2012, she took on the challenge of studying at Otago University as a mature student – studying a Bachelor of Applied Sciences, majoring Environmental Management and Politics as a minor. Sonja’s radical salon conversations continued as she worked as a hair stylist throughout her years of study to pay for her fees. Smart!

Sonja added on a GradDip in Teaching and worked as a teacher in Te Whanganui-a-Tara for several years. She had her eye on the Do Good Jobs listings throughout this time, poised to pounce on her dream job. Sonja says, “I’ve been passionate about helping Papatūānuku since I was very young, so it only made sense to spend my working time, not only my spare time, doing so. My role as Conservation Officer came up in October 2019. Several friends also sent me the advert on Do Good Jobs. I decided to apply, as it really did sound like my dream job.”

The past year’s COVID climate has added extra challenges, obviously the lockdowns have put several projects on hold, but Sonja states their main challenge as the loss of their international volunteers. “Before Covid we had international volunteers stay with us – which was a beautiful way of connecting and engaging travellers with Taiao.”

No day is the same, and while there is time in the office, Sonja has that rare thing, work/life balance – in a pretty good place.  “I recently got myself a little electric van and love zipping to site during lunch or before I go to the office to see our volunteers and get my hands dirty before going back to my laptop.” Her workplace was supportive of her working remotely and out of the Auckland office while she was in the city doing a course recently. She takes time out for regular yoga classes and is learning te reo Māori, taking little quiz breaks in the office with a colleague who is also learning te reo.

“I have been in my role for 1 ½  years now and I am still growing each and every day within the job. I love learning with, and from, my colleagues. So amazing to work within this sector and within such a passionate team.”

Sonja’s favourite whakataukī:

Toitū te marae a Tāne, Toitū te marae a Tangaroa, Toitū te tangata / If the land is well and the sea is well, the people will thrive

The original is on the Do Good Jobs website here

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