Heather Saunderson: My story as told to Elisabeth Easther

Heather Saunderson worked for law societies in the United States before moving to Aotearoa where she now leads Keep New Zealand Beautiful. To celebrate this year’s Keep New Zealand Beautiful Awards, an event is being livestreamed on October 29 at 6pm on the Keep New Zealand Beautiful Facebook page. www.facebook.com/KeepNZBeautiful

“I grew up in South Philadelphia in a small community composed mainly of Irish and Greek immigrants. Everyone knew everyone, everyone noticed everything, and there was a really strong sense of community even though we were in the inner city.

“All four of my grandparents came over from Ireland as children as a result of the potato famine. My great-grandparents still spoke in their Irish dialect and their accents were very strong. My grandparents survived the Great Depression and remained extremely wary of banks. Pop Pop even had a habit of hiding money under floorboards throughout his house. We weren’t wealthy, and I spent a lot of time at my grandparents’ whose delicacies consisted of the poorest cuts of meat: pig’s feet and cow’s tongue. And cabbage. There was a lot of cabbage and I still don’t care for the smell of it today.

“My aunt had a cattle ranch in Montana and, when my parents were divorcing when I was 6, Aunt Donna offered to take me in for the summer. Hank Williams jnr was their neighbour although I had no idea who he was. As a city kid, I’d never even heard of country music and visiting Montana helped me see there was a big world outside of Philadelphia. It was also the first place I ever saw cows or rode a horse.

“There are three mountains in Montana, called The Three Sisters, and my Uncle Vince took me climbing up one, top-roping. My uncle said this is what we’re going to do and you’re going to do it too. There are often times in life when you think can’t do something, that it’ll break you, but at end of the day I did it. I have no desire to do it again, but I did do it. That was a real learning experience. Climbing that mountain as a small child scared the hell out of me but in the end it built character.

“I worked throughout university. I needed to pay for school and rent and food, so my four-year degree took five years. I worked for the army as a civil contractor in logistics and procurement and they helped pay for school. At least for anything relevant – courses like accounting – and I was subsidised on a sliding scale. If I got an A, 100 per cent of my tuition was paid, a B was 90 per cent and a C 70 per cent. Then I left the army and took up a role with the Presbyterian Church who paid on a similar structure.

“I majored in Political Science and was on track for law school when I went for a role as chief executive of the Baltimore Bar Association. Because I’d built up a work profile working through university, they must’ve assumed I was older. At that time it was illegal to ask someone how old they were in a job interview. But once I had the job, the president of the Bar Association asked my age. When I told him I was 21, he was so shocked, I thought he was going to fall off his chair.

“During that time I saw the sacrifices women in the legal profession make. Maybe they practise for five years, build their way up out of an associate role but, if they left and had a family, most times, when that person re-entered the workforce, there was no consideration given to the time they’d worked prior and they come back at an associate level. Alternatively, some females sacrificed having a family or waited until they’d secured a partnership, and that served as a deterrent to me from wanting to practise law.

“I went to the American Bar Association conference one year in Hawaii but, when I arrived, my luggage was lost. That night I was meant to attend a cocktail function, but all I had in my handbag was a bathing suit and my contacts case. I wasn’t going to spend $600 on a new dress – Hawaii is very expensive – so I wound up at the hotel tiki bar where I met my husband. He was a pilot with Air New Zealand and even though he was flying out that night, we talked at the pool for two hours. He must have asked the front desk for my room number, as later than night, about 8pm, I was getting ready for bed, and there’s a tap at my door. He handed me his email address, said he’d be back in three days and asked if I’d still be there. So I called my office and said I was extending my trip and taking three days of annual leave.

“I never saw myself getting married. I had a running joke with friends about it but, after Kris and I met and talked for a few hours, I called Michelle whom I’d been friends with since kindergarten and told her I’d met my husband. There was a lot of laughter. She said: ‘Get the hell out of here, you’re never getting married’ but two years later we were married and I moved to New Zealand.

“After I joined Keep New Zealand Beautiful, I looked at the organisation’s history. At its inception in 1967 it was an arm of central government’s anti-litter council. Then, in 1979, it became the Litter Control Council and in 1984 it became a standalone charitable organisation. One of my predecessors, Barry Lucinsky, left a scrapbook that had a 20-year span, and when I went through it, I saw a common theme to do with funding and the mission has always been, what are we able to do with what we’ve been given?

“When you look through that scrapbook, you realise whenever we’ve had government funding, we’ve had impactful campaigns. But funding is complicated. Four years ago we received funding from central government for the first time in 20 years. That ended in August and when we reapplied, a lot of resources had been diverted to Covid and Green Jobs so we weren’t successful. We have to rely on memberships, businesses, individuals and councils as well as some partnerships and philanthropic elements, and we achieve a lot with a little. We had over 57,000 volunteers during our Clean Up Week this past September. Our reach is huge.

“One thing I’ve learned in all my different professional capacities – even in politics – most people want to do the right thing. Most people start off doing the right thing and somewhere along the road they become confused about what that right thing is. And litter reduction is something that’s easy to achieve through simple behavioural changes that can have a huge impact on climate change, ecosystems and sea life. Then we can tackle other issues. In a perfect world there would be no litter or illegal dumping and we would put ourselves out of that side of the business so we could focus on other programmes like Plant New Zealand Beautiful and Paint New Zealand Beautiful.

“Kids already get it. They’re not the ones out there, on the side of the road at midnight, dumping tyres, TVs and old furniture. They’re the ones telling us to ‘Be A Tidy Kiwi’ and get with the times. Kids are so ahead of where adults are, and it’s really important we support them, that we listen to what they have to say about how they want New Zealand to be in 20 years, because they’re the ones who are going to inherit the mess we’ve created.”

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