Lasting change often comes from thoughtful, integrated and organized efforts. I believe it all starts with listening to ourselves and to one another.

The following is my story about how the best plan is often having no plan at all beyond listening with your heart and mind. 

It was a few days before leaving for Santa Fe to begin work as the executive director of the local animal shelter that I received a call from a reporter from the New Mexican, Santa Fe’s local newspaper. 

The resulting front-page article called me the “new voice for animals,” and made a point to include the fact that I’d been working for a national humane society for ten years. 

During my time as a staff member at the Humane Society of the U.S., I assisted with a major cruelty case in that state and was also involved in that State’s efforts to strengthen animal cruelty laws. The New Mexican had provided news coverage of both. 

The reporter’s focus for the article about my arrival in Santa Fe, she said, was to learn what I planned to do in my first days and months at the shelter. We met about a week after I arrived.

When asked what my initial plans were, I responded that I had only one: to listen and learn all I could from the community. 

To say that the article was a major disappointment to my Board is an understatement. Excited about my work history, anxious to tout that someone from DC was now at the helm, they apparently hoped that I’d make a splash in this article — listing the many ideas I had about the future of the Santa Fe Animal Shelter. 

The assumption, of course, was that because I had in fact worked with the staff and board of hundreds of shelters and their City and County leaders on animal welfare issues, I should have arrived with at least a few grand plans. In reality, it would be almost one year before I would approach my Board of Directors with the first comprehensive plan for change.

What did listening mean to me? I wanted to know more about the community and its relationship to animals. To do that, I needed to listen, and then listen more deeply in order to really learn about this new place I would call home. I knew that my time in DC would be viewed as much as a hazard as a help. 

While my Board and some community members thought my experience was a plus, my credentials did not impress many of the people who lived in Santa Fe, In fact, it simply added to their perception that I was so different that I couldn’t “get” them, and worse, that I’d try to force pre-decided ideas onto them. Perhaps most importantly, I knew I was viewed as an outsider, and that that could only change with time and with trust.

It was through listening that I would begin to understand the rich and very different cultures that make up New Mexico: New Mexicans born in the state; New Mexicans from Mexico; Hispanics that moved here; Caucasians who were born here, and those who moved here. Within each of those groups, I needed to learn about the very different economic classes and how that impacted relationships. Finally, I wanted to learn from the Eight pueblos surrounding and around Santa Fe. This diversity of cultures translated into very different views of animals – both in how people related to their own animals, how they viewed the larger population of “animals” in the state, and how they viewed “others.”

That first interview did not detail all of this, but it emphasized my goal and intent of listening, and then, over time, creating a plan with the communities. No big splash. 

Listening, by its nature, is a very quiet undertaking. When you are fortunate, listening with your mind and your heart can result in people sharing from their mind and heart.

This intention does not translate quickly. Trust is earned. And although it did, in fact began translating into real, and lasting change inside the shelter within the first week, much could only happen over a much longer time.

Ten years after I first arrived in Santa Fe, I would still be listening and learning, and attempting to understand. 

It would indeed be ten years before that “plan,” which evolved and grew every year, would come into its real fruition. Over those ten years, we’d begun several new programs that remain a success today, from a revamped Adoption Program to a Volunteer Program to free and low-cost spaying and neutering not only to the people of Santa Fe, but all of northern New Mexico – including the Eight Northern Pueblos. 

We wrote curriculum for Humane Education that was integrated into the schools. And more. At the end of those ten years, the (renamed) Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society – with a changed mission statement – left its small, overcrowded home of over 60 years into a 100 acre animal care campus. 

And it all started and ended with listening. Anyone in the CEO’s position is tasked to provide leadership. For me, the essence of that leadership was to translate the wealth of information offered from the community members back to the community. 

The solutions – involving plans, budgets, donor support, city and county approval, and on and on – came from within the community. Did I have ideas from all of my experience that I brought into the discussions and plans? Of course. Did that experience influence how the ideas from the community would take shape? Absolutely. 

Which is where the science comes in. To quote Oxford, science is “a systemically organized body or knowledge on a particular subject.” 

Lasting change often comes from thoughtful, integrated and organized efforts, but the knowledge begins and ends with listening to ourselves and to one another. That is where true change is born.