• Ben Finzel

The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Torey Carter-Conneen of ASLA

One of the many careers I considered as a young child was landscape architecture. It just seemed cool and I thought it would be a lot of fun. But then, other career paths seemed more exciting, and I moved on. So it’s great fun for me now to have the opportunity to talk about landscape architecture again, but this time with the leader of the landscape architecture industry’s professional organization.


Landscape architecture is relevant to health, infrastructure and environmental policy issues. How we care for the natural environment in our homes, businesses and institutions and the role of environmentally-responsible landscape architecture in climate mitigation are increasingly important issues.


The landscape architecture industry is represented by the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). ASLA’s CEO is Torey Carter-Conneen. I first met Torey when he served as CFO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund during the time I was a member of the Fund’s Victory Campaign Board. I’ve always found him to be exceedingly level-headed and remarkably easygoing for a man with so much responsibility.


Torey has served as ASLA CEO since August of 2020. Prior to joining “the professional association for landscape architects in the United States,” he was the Chief Operating Officer for the American Immigration Lawyers Association and before that, he was SVP and CFO for the Center for American Progress. He has degrees from George Mason University and the University of Maryland Global Campus. He also volunteers with ASAE’s Executive Management Professional Advisory Council and Shepherd’s Table, a community organization in Silver Spring, Maryland that provides food to people in need. He and his husband Mike have two children.


Torey’s varied experience in association and professional management and his expertise in financial management make him an interesting person to interview about communications. His insight into the role communications plays in highlighting the mission-critical priorities for industry and professional society should be both valuable and relevant to communicators of all fields. We’re grateful for Torey’s willingness to share his thoughts and insight here as the latest participant in the Common Sense Colloquy series.


My thanks to Torey for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.


Q: Tell us a bit about the landscape architecture industry: What are your priorities? How does your industry engage around climate and environmental and energy issues? What role does communications play in that engagement?


A: We can all agree that the profession of landscape architecture is one of the least understood professions in the world. The general public, in fact, often confuses our profession with landscapers. It is a misnomer, for sure, and requires effective communication to make sure the profession is described accurately to the press, public, and potential students.


By publicly detailing our unique expertise in climate, environment, public health, safety and more, we are illustrating the knowledge and depth of the industry and differentiating it from the more common perceptions people have of us. Sure, landscape architects can elevate the natural beauty of a space. But today, landscape architects are also using their know-how to do far more nuanced work, such as designing security-minded environments around government buildings, capturing carbon emissions through nature-based solutions, mitigating coastal and inland flooding, and designing accessible and inclusive outdoor spaces for all.


We use storytelling as a way to illustrate the vastness and variety of the profession’s contributions to society. Our website is filled with case studies to detail just how the work of landscape architects can solve the growing crises brought about by climate change. Our social channels feature amazing projects created by our members to revitalize urban areas, restore historic treasures, and even develop an island for recreation right off of Manhattan.


Q: The concept of intersectionality – defined by Merriam-Webster as “the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination (such as racism, sexism, and classism) combine, overlap, or intersect especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups” – has come up in several of our Common Sense Colloquy Q&As. With your varied leadership experiences, your lived experience as a gay man and a father, and your role advocating for a profession focused on environmental and climate concerns, I’m guessing this concept has a specific, personal resonance for you. How are you addressing the challenges of leadership within the context of your own experience?


A: For most of my career, I've lived intersectionality -- presenting myself to the world as both a Black man and a gay man. It's often been a challenge in some workplaces. But nonetheless, I've succeeded in large part because I've brought my whole self to work, not despite it. And I will forever be grateful to the LGBTQ Victory Fund and Institute for opening my eyes more than a decade ago to what a safe, and inclusive workplace could look like.


Throughout my career, especially as I have grown and continue to learn as a leader, I've promoted a culture of acceptance and inclusiveness—principally because it's the right thing to do, and because it happens to be very good for business! I believe that my leadership style has been very much shaped by my early experiences in life, dealing with discrimination, micro-aggression, bias, what have you. Those experiences have allowed me to be more thoughtful in designing programs to promote racial equity in the organizations that I have led.


At ASLA, we take great pride in not only the diversity of our staff and members, but the diversity of their work, especially when their projects are inspired by their unique backgrounds. This past year, we've celebrated the cultural heritage of our Black members, the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, and the LGBTQ community. We feature photos of their designs on our social media feeds, along with short essays of the members describing the inspirations for their work. And we've seen an amazing diversity of that work -- from revitalizing Chicago's Chinatown, to bringing green spaces to inner cities, to making Stonewall an historic monument. Surely, we'll be celebrating the work of our Latino community during Hispanic Heritage month, so stay tuned.


By doing this, ASLA is not only able to show our dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), but we are showing the world how landscape architecture can be used to solve many of society's problems --- problems you never knew could be addressed by landscape architecture: from advocating for social justice, to promoting better mental health, and even creating accessible spaces for the disabled.


When I came aboard, I made it clear that I needed everyone to feel good about bringing their "whole selves" to work. I know that may sound clichéd. But here, the staff can see how comfortable I am not only as a Black man, but an out, Black man and father, sharing photos of my husband and children. So that's saying to staff: "I want you, too, to be 'out' one hundred percent with whomever you might be, whatever identifiers you use to define yourself.”


Only by doing that can we set a tone of trust, safety, and freedom for everyone to fully and respectfully express themselves and learn from others. I hope that my being so open has let everyone else know that the person you are at home is the same person we want to see at work. That's how we've been able to foster the kind of culture we continue to build today, even if that culture currently exists only over Zoom!


Q: In your varied roles in associations and professional organizations, what role has communications played in driving the mission and promoting the priorities? How has that shaped how you’re tackling the challenges of representing the landscape architecture industry in your new role?


A: Having worked for several associations over the years, I know that it’s one thing to set priorities, but quite another to communicate them with credibility to our stakeholders. Early on, I realized that the key to doing that is to align our communications with our behavior. You can make “rah rah” statements all you like, but these become empty words on a screen if they’re not backed by action. That’s why I’ve always been guided by the mantra: “actions speak louder than words.”


For example, one of the most critical objectives I set for ASLA when I arrived a year ago was for the profession to lead in helping solve the nation’s climate crisis. In addition to advocating for good climate policies, we’ve taken several actions to prove our commitment to climate action. For instance, we’ve signed pledges with two well-regarded international organizations for our profession to significantly reduce carbon emissions over the next ten years. We’re producing more educational seminars for members to learn about and exchange the latest practices in mitigating and adapting to climate change. We’ve even required all members to sign onto, and live up to, our code of environmental ethics.


Our climate action work and advocacy has been recognized by the Kresge Foundation, identifying ASLA as one of only nine professional organizations taking a holistic approach to educating our members and the public about climate change “that includes adaptation, mitigation, and the explicit consideration of social justice.”


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?


A: The best “common sense” advice I’ve gotten about communications is to understand how best to speak to your audience, whether an audience of one or an audience of 15,000 (the number of members we have at ASLA). I think it was Dr. Stephen Covey who wrote, “seek first to understand, then to be understood.” If you speak or write after first considering the background, experience, and expectations of your audience—and communicate in a way to show you understand them—you will be much more effective in sharing your message, and winning their trust.


Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?


A: Listen first. Speak later.



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