Heather Govern '02: Fulfillment in Nonprofit Environmental Work
Issue   |   Fri, 10/20/2017 - 01:19
Photo courtesy of Heather Govern '02
Govern transitioned to working in the nonprofit world after several years in the corporate marketing world. Now she works as an attorney at the National Environmental Law Center.

Govern met with me at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning at a coffee shop in downtown Boston. We talked for nearly an hour and a half before she headed off to work. I was surprised by the flexibility her work schedule allows her.

This, she said, is just one small benefit out of the many rewards of working for a nonprofit.

Govern works as a staff attorney for the National Environmental Law Center.

Though she took a rather roundabout way to her current career, she has gained a deep passion and appreciation for environmental law and discovered her own deep commitment to doing the most good for others through her career.

That excitement for her work became more and more apparent to me as we talked about her life and her career.

Govern’s love for her work comes from tenaciously sticking to the principles that are most important to her.

Moving Toward Victories in Environmental Law

As an attorney in the field of environmental law, Govern spends much of her time researching and searching for new legal cases whenever an ongoing case ends.

She looks for violations to environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act which regulates pollutant discharge the Clean Air Act which monitors emissions, and the Endangered Species Act which provides measures and regulations to help conserve endangered plants and animals.

“[Finding polluters] is not that difficult, because there is very good documentation and data related to the violations that the companies are experiencing,” Govern said. “All these companies have to submit reports ... and they’re taking measurements of what they put into the water or what they’re putting out into the atmosphere.”

At the moment, Govern is especially interested in Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), for short. CAFOs are large-scale animal farms, which are notorious for abusing and burdening waterways through improper waste disposal.

One of these CAFO cases that is in its final stages — Environment Florida, Sierra Club v. Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. — looks at the violations the poultry production company, Pilgrim’s Pride, has committed against the Clean Water Act by dumping its chicken waste into the Suwannee River.

The settlement from Pilgrim’s Pride is about $1.3 million, which will go to Florida family farms to cover costs of sustainable farming practices, such as open pasture systems and integrated farming, techniques that allow for cleaner water and a healthier environment overall.

The relatively new interest in CAFO law suits in Govern’s field comes as the National Environmental Law Center wraps up one of its largest cases to date: Environment Texas, Sierra Club v. ExxonMobil.

Govern described the case as a true “David and Goliath” tale, as Exxon’s legal team was over twice the size of the environmentalists’.

After a long legal process, the federal district court ruled that Exxon had violated the Clean Air Act for 16,386 days.

As a result, Exxon was ordered to pay a hefty near 20 million dollars in reparations, which, according to Govern, is likely the largest sum ever imposed on a corporation in a Clean Air Act citizen suit.

This major environmental victory is the product of hard work of a team including not just Govern, but two other Amherst graduates. David Nicholas ’81 worked as a lead attorney on the case and Jonathan Shefftz ’89 worked with them as an economist.

This collaborative team of Amherst alums speaks to one of Govern’s favorite aspects of Amherst: the Amherst alumni do not disappear after one walks out with a diploma.

“I really love that there is such an Amherst network when you get out,” she said. “Everyone is so supportive. Everyone is so smart. You know you’re in good company when you’re working with someone who went to Amherst. You quickly have this kinship with whoever you’re working with.”

Govern expressed a genuine appreciation for the closeness between alumni that lasts over time.

“Amherst has never gone away, and I’ve been out fifteen years … I really love that,” she added.

A Roundabout Road

Though Amherst’s presence has not left her life, Govern herself has changed and come a long way from the day she graduated, especially in terms of her future goals and plans.

“Right after Amherst I wanted to write, and I wanted to write creatively,” Govern said.

Soon after college, she began what would become a seven-year career in marketing.

Her firm took on a client that wanted to market environmentally harmful cleaning chemicals as sustainable.

However, contrary to what she expected, her colleagues in the firm were collaborating with this client, drafting ways to mask the product’s true nature and tout it as environmentally safe.

“I was sitting in this meeting thinking, ‘What? What are you talking about? What are we doing? Why do we want to trick [people]?’” she said.

“[This], I just thought, was unethical and wrong,” she added.

This experience marked Govern’s shift toward her current path, as she began investigating a change in career and eventually she decided to pursue environmental law.

After searching for schools, she ended up applying to and receiving her degree in a dual degree program from Northeastern University School of Law and the Vermont Law School, with a masters in environmental law and policy in 2013.

Despite the detour it created on her road to becoming an environmental lawyer, Govern does not regret the time she spent working in marketing.

“Being in marketing for so long helped me figure out exactly what I wanted,” she said.

This gave her a certain resolve and clear vision for an end goal as she headed into law school, which helped her easily choose a school and design her own coursework in order to pursue her end objective of nonprofit environmental law.

While she does admit that seven years was perhaps a long time in marketing, she advised Amherst students to experiment.

“I tell people to work in the real world for a little bit, to get an understanding of how you want to go home at the end of the day and describe your job,” she said. “Do you want to be be proud of it, or do you want to care more about how much is in your paycheck?”

The Payoff of Working in Nonprofit

Upon her graduation from law school, Govern began an internship for the National Environmental Law Center (NELC), which eventually turned into a paid position. That was four years ago, and she has worked there ever since.

“It’s great — I love it,” Govern said, adding that she is excited about the outcomes of a string of cases that have recently wrapped up.

Govern credits her love for her job to the fact that the firm is a nonprofit. In contrast, many corporate lawyers find themselves burdened with work and unhappy with their career, she said.

“In nonprofit work, you feel like you’re doing something good for other people, and for the world,” she said.

Govern’s job comes with other advantages beyond the content with which she works.

“My work-life balance is fantastic,” she said, describing her flexible schedule, which allowed her to meet with me during what would be regular work hours for most others.

“It is a totally different world [from corporate law],” she said. “Anytime there is corporate versus nonprofit, you’re going to have such a better lifestyle and not have to work as much in the nonprofit.”

Her positive experience with the National Environmental Law Center, especially after her time in the for-profit world of marketing, form the basis of the advice that she has for current Amherst students and what they choose to do after college.
“More money is not going to make you happy,” she said. “

Doing something that you’re really proud of, that helps people and the world and maybe the environment, will bring you so much more happiness than a higher paycheck,” she added. “You will derive so much more satisfaction from a job that you value and where you feel valuable.”


Original read: "As an attorney in the field of environmental law, Govern spends much of her time researching and searching for new legal cases." updated 10/22/17

Original read: "This major environmental victory is the product of hard work and effort not just by Govern alone, but by two Amherst graduates. David Nicholas ’81 worked as a lead attorney on the case and economist Jonathan Shefftz ’89 was also involved." updated 10/22/17

Original read: "As a result, Exxon was ordered to pay a hefty near 20 million dollars in reparations, which, according to Govern, is likely the largest sum ever imposed on a corporation in a civil suit." updated 10/30/17