N.C. State alumna Jenna Wadsworth, who made history as North Carolina’s youngest elected female official, spoke Monday to incoming CHASS students about the meaning of a CHASS education.
At age 21, Wadsworth won the position of Wake County Soil & Water Conservation district supervisor in November 2010 when studying political science and women’s and gender studies at the University. Now, Wadsworth spends her time campaigning in hopes of being re-elected on Nov. 4.
As supervisor, Wadsworth puts the lessons she learned growing up on her grandparents’ farm in Johnston County to good use.
“Farmers are really, I would argue, the first real conservationists, environmentalists, because they realized the value of land and they knew that if they did anything to destroy it, that obviously would ruin their ability to be productive, to put food on the table for their family, for their friends and for their neighbors,” Wadsworth said.
To carry out Wake County Soil & Water’s mission of preserving the county’s natural resources, Wadsworth allocates funding received from cost-share programs, such as the North Carolina Agriculture Cost Share Program and the Community Conservation Assistance Program, to projects requested by county landowners. Projects can include the construction of rain gardens or installation of compost manure systems.
Other days, Wadsworth visits public and private schools to teach students of all ages about environmental education.
“It’s really amazing talking to them, especially when you hear them say they’ve taken to heart the kind of lessons they’ve learned about conservation and you hear them say they want to do something,” Wadsworth said. “They want to clean up the environment, or reduce fossil fuels, stop littering, so that’s really a rewarding experience. Helping to create the next generation of environmental stewards is something I’m proud of.”
Wadsworth’s own interest in conservation began while she was attending the N.C. School of Science & Mathematics, where she took courses in environmental ethics and environmental policy. In December, the school appointed her to the Alumni Association’s Board of Directors.
If re-elected, Wadsworth said she hopes to secure more grants for environmental education to bring more raised beds, greenhouses and outdoor classrooms to schools. She’s also working on bringing mobile soil trailers stocked with hands-on materials for students to use and further enrich their education.
Other plans call for more easements, which would protect areas from future development. Wadsworth helped secure an easement for Mac Country Acres after the passing of its owner, Caroline MacNair Carl.
“It’s one of the few big farms right outside in the Raleigh city limits, and so [Carl] wanted to do something to commemorate her love of the land and her service to Soil & Water and so she actually worked with us, and our staff worked tirelessly as she was getting sicker and we got an easement,” Wadsworth said. “This is very special to me because it’s a beautiful piece of property and it kind of goes with everything we want to work for in Soil & Water.”
Not only will the easement preserve the land, but it will also protect water resources because it lies next to a tributary, according to Wadsworth.
As supervisor, Wadsworth said she learns more about how to make policy as opposed to the theory of making policy taught in her political science classes at N.C. State.
“I really enjoyed that from an intellectual standpoint, learning about political structures, which is part of the reason I went into political science with a concentration in American politics… because I think learning the history and really synthesizing the history of the American political system and American government is how, as good leaders, we figure out what people who came before us did right, what they didn’t do right and what we might be able to improve upon,” Wadsworth said.
One of her favorite projects involved partnering with the N.C. Foundation for Soil & Water Conservation, the U.S. Marine Corps and the Navy as part of the Market Based Conservation Initiative. The program works with landowners who have land underneath a military training route for aircraft that run through Wake County.
“This military training route is crucial to national security because there is no other MTR like this in the entire country… and so what we did with this partnership is farmers and landowners who had land under the MTR could submit bids to be able to participate in a program that would allow them to actually be compensated by the Marine Corps and the Navy to be able to keep their land in the current modes of production,” Wadsworth said. “I really enjoyed this because it was a little bit different than what you would typically think of Soil & Water doing…”
Wadsworth, the student, the activist, the philanthropist
Even before her days as supervisor, Wadsworth involved herself in a number of activities during her time at N.C. State.
She attended national environmental movements, such as Power Shift, and helped campaign for John Edwards and Secretary of State Elaine Marshall.
Wadsworth worked as a legislative intern for the General Assembly, co-chair for the N.C. House of Representatives Finance Committee and deputy finance director under former Gov. Bev Perdue.
Through organizations such as Teen Democrats (where she served as president) and Young Democrats of North Carolina, Wadsworth said she found herself meeting public servants and youth who sparked the activist in her and shared her enthusiasm for “changing the world for the better.”
“I was interested in what politicians, or as I’d like to think of them, public servants, could do to make the lives of citizens better,” Wadsworth said.
This enthusiasm, combined with her women and gender studies major and political roles, propelled Wadsworth to voice her beliefs in equality and feminism.
She now volunteers with the International Visitor Leadership Program, where she speaks to delegations from countries across the world about youth engagement and activism, voting, finance, progressive nonprofits, agriculture and water rights and women and minorities in politics.
“There was one woman from Africa who was just so impressive and she and I felt like we had this sort of kinship…but she ended up going to medical school and law school and ended up running for office and I think ended up being one of the first women elected in her village, so it was really amazing to get to hear from her afterward,” Wadsworth said. “I really enjoy my work with that group because I feel like it kind of translates to helping other people make a difference in their communities, too.”
Wadsworth participates in other philanthropic activities such as running a nonprofit she co-founded called the New Leaders Council-North Carolina, attending meetings of the Young Elected Officials Network and picking up trash at cleanups in the area.
“I guess what drives me is knowing that my work with Soil & Water, or with my nonprofit, or with international affairs, all of these things, or with the N.C. School of Science & Math, all of these things are things that make a difference,” Wadsworth said.