Mary Rose Navarro recently joined Meyer’s Healthy Environment portfolio as the portfolio’s first program officer. In September, Communications & Engagement Specialist Darion Jones interviewed Mary Rose about her background, experience and what keeps her grounded in environmental equity work.
Darion Jones: So, Mary Rose, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Mary Rose Navarro: I moved to Oregon in 1990 from Indiana, but my family moved quite a bit when I was young, so I like to say that I am from five suburban towns in four Midwestern states.
My father was an ambitious businessman. I’ve been thinking about him since he passed away three years ago. I mainly thought of him as this entrepreneur, but when I really look at how he lived his life, I believe he worked so hard so he could make things better for his family, his friends and his community. While he wanted to be valued as a businessman, he really lived his life being of service, always warm, hospitable and welcoming.
He was someone who leaned in wherever there was an opportunity. For example, he was the president of our neighborhood association, and I remember building a float for the Fourth of July parade in our garage with neighbors. He stepped up at church where he was involved in the Knights of Columbus. In more recent years, he got really involved in Project Healing Waters, which is an organization that helps veterans heal from the trauma they’ve experienced through flyfishing and fly tying. He was proud of his involvement in that organization.
Over these last three years, I have come to realize that my own ambition and hard work is also rooted in the desire to be of service to others and lead a meaningful life.
Darion Jones: Yeah, that sounds like a phenomenal kind of community-building and dedication. I now understand a little bit more about what drives you.
Earlier you said you were from four Midwestern states. How did you make the shift from where you are to Oregon?
Mary Rose Navarro: It was a little by accident.
I was attending Purdue University in Indiana working toward earning an engineering degree. I shifted course when I realized I wanted a career with a more creative outlet. Landscape architecture was an attractive option.
Darion Jones: Wow, that is quite a different place to end up.
Mary Rose Navarro: When I made the switch, it wasn’t because I was concerned about the environment. I just wanted to design cool gardens, but then I took a required forestry class. That’s where I read Aldo Leopold and learned about the interconnection of ecosystem services and reflected on people’s connection to nature.
When I graduated, I received an offer in Dayton, Ohio, for a firm that did typical land development kind of projects … and an offer in Portland, Ore.
I had sent my resume to a firm here in Portland that was supporting community groups that were organizing around a system of parks and green spaces. Honestly, I had no idea what that meant, but it sounded closer to my interest in ecosystem health.
It was eye-opening. I had never even thought about the services government provides our communities until I found myself in this room of conservation advocates and “friends of” groups. They were advocating for a long-term plan that would direct more intentional funding into environmental protection. It wasn’t just the idea of a planning document that attracted my attention. It was how many small community groups were actively taking care of a small natural area in their neighborhoods. I was amazed with their interest in connecting with and learning from each other.
Coming from the flat farmlands of the Midwest to the rich natural beauty of Oregon; learning about government services and planning practices alongside passionate community members; experiencing the power of collaboration — all at the same time — really pushed me toward the path that I’ve taken.
Darion Jones: What drew you to nonprofit work?
Mary Rose Navarro: When I completed my masters program at Portland State University, I thought of myself as an environmentalist and somebody who was mainly concerned about trees and habitats and birds (which I do deeply care about). Then I landed a role at Friends of Trees. There I learned that I wasn’t really in this work for the trees ... I was in it for the community-building.
So often, when people come together early on a Saturday morning, it can be cold and rainy. They’re all bundled up and elbowing their way to the coffee pot. By the end of the morning the energy has shifted. There’s a buzz of accomplishment while people eat lunch with new friends and reflect on what they were able to achieve together.
There is also the less visible part of the work. Each neighborhood had a volunteer coordinator who invested many hours of work getting people to sign up for trees, collecting orders and organizing volunteers. My role was simply supporting them.
Their experiences were so inspiring and revealed the more hidden relationship building that was happening.
As I’ve been learning more about the systems that have created the disparities in our world, I’ve wondered “Where do I want to affect change?” What I've come to understand is that it’s one interaction at a time.
Darion Jones: How so?
Mary Rose Navarro: There was one coordinator, who knocked on the door of a particular house over and over and over again. This house was on a big corner lot with room to plant many trees, and we really wanted to plant trees. However, the woman that lived there was very reluctant to open the door. When she finally came to the door, the coordinator learned that she was afraid of the teenagers who hung out on the corner, “They’re hoodlums,” she would say. Ultimately, she did agree to plant trees and guess who planted them? The kids that she had been afraid of. This is the way new friendships are seeded and trust is built, one interaction at a time.
Darion Jones: Wow, it is truly amazing to hear that story come full circle.
Mary Rose Navarro: As we more authentically connect with one another, we will become more courageous to face the internal conditioning that gets in our way. This allows us to then work more courageously together toward equitable and just social change.
In my work at Meyer, I hope to always bring that level of caring. I know that there is a dynamic of wanting to put a funder on some pedestal. But Meyer can’t accomplish our mission without the vision, the passion and the dedication of the people working in community-based organizations and the people they are empowering. That’s where the root of social change is.
Darion Jones: Fighting the good fight, what do you do to relax? Where do you find catharsis and how do you recharge?
Mary Rose Navarro: My practice of taking care of myself and recharging is also a practice toward self-awareness.
By nature, I’m an extrovert, but I find that I need space to be silent and reflective.
I have been practicing mindfulness for over 15 years now. One practice that is really important to me is what we call a “Day of Mindfulness.” My spiritual community practices days of mindfulness once a month at an abbey in Lafayette. I try to attend six to eight times a year. It’s a beautiful setting where I can feel very connected to the earth and connected to the trees. By collectively taking care of ourselves, we can then support each other as each of us brings more intention and awareness to the work we do for the world.
Darion Jones: It sounds like a wonderful and calming place to get centered. Thank you for chatting with me today, Mary Rose. I’m glad you’re here at Meyer.
Mary Rose Navarro: Thank you, Darion.
Interested in reading more about Mary Rose? Check out her staff bio.