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Rebecca Harned '03

Prepared for Change: Rebecca Harned '03 takes D.C. by Storm

On Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, Colby-Sawyer's Incident Response Team met in a Colgate Hall classroom to monitor Hurricane Sandy's progress as it barreled toward New England with predictions of heavy rain and high winds. Facing the threat of downed tree limbs and power outages, and with more commuter students and far-flung faculty and staff to consider than ever before, the team decided to close the college on Monday, and then again on Tuesday.

Such decision-making sessions were happening up and down the Eastern Seaboard, but perhaps nowhere with such intensity as in Washington, D.C., as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) held center stage in the preparations for what became known as Superstorm Sandy. An agency within the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA's mission is to support the country's “citizens and first responders to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.”

A decade after leaving Colby-Sawyer, Rebecca Harned '03 is the executive officer at FEMA's National Integration Center (NIC). The NIC manages implementation, administration and education and awareness of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). NIMS is a comprehensive, national approach to incident management that provides the template for dynamic and unified incident management.

“It all comes down to human security and resiliency. Everything is about building a stronger community,” says Harned, who is with FEMA for a two-year tour of duty through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program, which allows someone working in local or state government and non-profit organizations to be assigned to a federal agency. “A main area of focus for me is the practical implementation of national preparedness policy and doctrine at the local, state, tribal and territorial government levels.”

From Windy Hill to Capitol Hill

Harned is a private person with a public charge, and she chooses her words with care. She notes that she's been in Washington and working with the federal government for most of her career, but she prides herself on not adhering to any political party's line.

Harned's journey from Colby-Sawyer's Windy Hill to FEMA's offices within sight of Capitol Hill has been a long and international one with plenty of miles still to go. Born in Pennsylvania, she spent some of her early years in Egypt, where her father was an aerial photographer and cartographer for U.S. Aid, and her mother worked with the World Health Organization. She then lived in Pennsylvania again before moving to Connecticut and on to college at Colby-Sawyer.

A diagnosis of Lyme disease had Harned thinking she'd like to be a doctor, and Colby-Sawyer's flexible liberal arts curriculum offered the opportunity to major in pre-med while still pursuing her passion for the studio arts. But when she became more conscious of the sources of problems that create diseases, she started looking at the world from an environmental health perspective. “How you treat the environment impacts the body,” she says. “It's not the actual science that's going to make a change, but what you do with the science that matters.”

In the days before Colby-Sawyer recycled, Harned did what she could to start making a difference and rescued bottles and cans from campus dumpsters to take to the local transfer station for recycling. She found mentors on campus, too: Professors Laura Alexander, Ann Page Stecker and Leon-C. Malan, along with staff members Tom Wilkins and Nancy Teach.

The Environmental Studies major was created too late for Harned, who graduated with a degree in biology, but she was part of the first Desert Communities class in Arizona and completed a policy-intense internship as the special assistant to the director of Environment Health and Safety at the Metropolitan District Commission in Connecticut. She was the first Colby-Sawyer student to study with School for Field Studies (SFS) and chose Costa Rica, where she gained experience with that country's environmental and social issues. Through another program in Cuba her senior year, she researched the rise of urban organic agriculture as a way to mitigate food security issues.

“My experience in Cuba changed my life. Seeing and living in a true communist country is unlike anything you could imagine. Cubans can't speak out, they can't even talk about the fact that they disagree with the government,” says Harned. “No one can leave the island. It was the least expensive program I ever could have gone on because it was so hard to spend any money.”

And money, in general, was an issue. Without scholarships, loans, grants and extraordinary efforts from Colby-Sawyer's Financial Aid Office, Harned's story would have been quite different.

“We had extenuating circumstances in our family and there wasn't a reserve of funding. Anyone working in Financial Aid then would remember me and how serious my family's situation was,” says Harned. “They worked closely with us to figure out a way to allow me to be at Colby-Sawyer, and I've always felt indebted for the support the college gave. There are very few schools that would have supported my type of dynamic situation.”

After graduation, Harned was hired as a program coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Development through the SFS in Costa Rica. The salary was small, but housing was provided and the opportunity came with the significant benefit of deferring her student loans. She worked on the center's organic farm and with the government to help protect the national parks, and with the United Nations' La Bandera Azul program, which recognizes sustainability efforts in local communities across Latin America. She began to look at the U.N. from a policy level.

“How can you implement an international program at the local level? It comes down to households, so we got people recycling,” says Harned. “Now everyone in this town in this developing country recycles and they even have trucks to collect it. People don't litter; they have too much respect for nature and their country because of community-based education.”

While Harned worked, she earned a master's degree at the United Nations mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica, and on a river clean-up, she met the man who would become her husband. “Costa Ricans have little interest in leaving Costa Rica, and for good reason,” says Harned. “The only reason my husband left is because I needed to come back to the U.S.”

Married and with her advanced degree in hand, Harned was ready to change the world, but had to find out what that actually meant. To start, it meant moving to D.C., where she worked on safe energy and helped start a firm focused on advancing transitional and alternative energy in the U.S. and in building carbon exchange markets in Central America. She also helped start a few charitable non-profits, including the National Alliance for Public Safety GIS Foundation, which works with the public safety and homeland security communities to advance information sharing and interoperability in support of local and national preparedness goals.

Making Change Every Day

Harned gives high praise to her agency's leadership but is frank about why she is at FEMA. “There was a need to bring in a new way of doing things. The agency got a lot of flak for Katrina, but we have laws now that were written because of those perceived shortfalls,” Harned explains. “My boss came from outside the federal government, which is unusual, and we can get a lot done that way. Not everybody likes that there's new leadership, of course, that we have come in and are trying to make sweeping changes. You have your friends and you have your foes, and that's just the way it is. You deal with personal attacks every day, in some passive-aggressive form, and you just don't let it bother you. You know it's just that they are afraid of change. Lack of change makes me restless, but others don't want to see change, ever.”

One of Harned's priorities for her limited time with FEMA is to improve morale. “Everybody in our agency and the NIC is the only person in the country who has that job,” she says. “I want people to recognize the opportunities they have to make changes for the country. We're committed to building that kind of culture.”

Another priority is to uphold the White House's emphasis on individual and fiduciary accountability and transparency — to be a good steward and make the greatest possible impact with every taxpayer dollar.

“The stuff I deal with is intense and incredibly challenging — 12-hour days are normal — but I love what I do, and the foundation for it was laid at Colby-Sawyer,” says Harned. “The liberal arts give you an ability to think across disciplines. When I design an inter-agency workshop, it's not just my perspective I have to think about. Every person there will have a different agenda, and interdisciplinary thinking helps you address them all.”

The fact that Harned's stint at FEMA has an end date is freeing, she says, and as for what comes next, the world awaits. “I'll never stop working,” she says. “Just change.” There aren't any microbreweries in Costa Rica, and her husband is interested in returning home to open the first. After seven years of marriage a family of her own beckons, and she ranks appreciating health and family at the top of her priorities. And then whatever she can do to change the world.

“Take the time to seek your passion and explore everything you can do to make a difference in the world,” Harned says. “Success is different for everyone, but for me it's doing as much as I can do to make positive change in a myriad of ways in a day, every day.”

- Kate Seamans