Jeneen Reyes Garcia: With Feet in Two Worlds
"When I graduated, I swore I'd never take a job that would make me wear closed shoes."
Well, let's just say that when Jeneen Reyes Garcia made that declaration, as a young, sandal-clad, beach-loving native of the Philippines, she hadn't yet imagined one day occupying a high-rise office in the heart of Washington, D.C. Now eight years and counting as an evaluation analyst and officer with GEF (and with a drawer full of heels in her office), Garcia has come to find the corporate tradeoffs well worth "the psychic rewards of loving the work I do.
Navigating between the gritty trenches of environmental conservation and the polished headquarters of GEF, Garcia's talents for bridging the two come nurtured from childhood. She grew up in downtown Davao, a Philippine city of nearly two million people. Yet her family managed to balance the concrete and crowds with gardens of coconut, mango, and cacao. They kept menageries of pigs, ducks, chickens, and cats. They lived only five minutes from the coast, and took full advantage: "We went to the beach a lot," says Garcia.
Her early affinities for nature led Garcia to academic degrees in environmental science, marine biology, and coastal management, before embarking on her current career as evaluator for GEF. From coral reefs to corporate towers, her transition to life at GEF has been surprisingly seamless. "I love exploring new software programs for data analysis as much as I love weaving words into poetry, or diving 100 feet underwater to discover fish I've never seen before. There's a creative part of this job. Each evaluation is different. You solve a problem. How do you answer the questions you're trying to answer? There's no template."
Central to Garcia's evaluation expertise is an appreciation for complex systems—the chaotic nature of environmental impacts in an unpredictable world of epic floods and earthquakes, political turmoil and economic upheavals. "You may stop a factory that's producing toxic chemicals, but the effects on the environment might not be immediate. It may take years, decades. How do you know if you're putting your funding in the right places? For me, its ultimately about impact. It's about improving the state of the environment and producing environmental benefits."
And enhancing livelihoods. "The optimist in me believes in synergies," she says, "in providing social and economic benefits while improving the environment as well. But sometimes it calls for change. And people don't like change. That's where I want to do more—to focus on the behavioral sciences: What are people's motivations, what keeps them stuck in their thinking, how does one intervene to change their mindsets and habits?"
In Garcia's personal life, the balancing act goes on. Now living hours away from her beloved beaches, she gets her water fix any way she can, kayaking the Potomac River, swimming every week. Her girlhood's menagerie of pigs and chickens has been replaced by one low-maintenance cat. And though sandals remain her preferred kicks for the daily commute, her dress shoes still fill the office drawer, standing ready for whenever formal duty calls.