We’re excited to introduce you to the always interesting and insightful Jennifer Walton. We hope you’ll enjoy our conversation with Jennifer below.
Jennifer, appreciate you joining us today. Let’s kick things off with your mission – what is it and what’s the story behind why it’s your mission?
My education and expertise is in climate change, environmental and science communication. I’ve worked for environmental and scientific national and international non-profits, NGOs, and PR agencies mostly in the areas of strategic communication, corporate communications program development and leadership and crisis communication.
My experience working in these technical arenas was a bit of a mixed bag. I got to work with and learn from some of the most brilliant scientific minds and amazing people who were truly passionate about their work. But in some of those organizations, I also witnessed and experienced a climate of largely unchecked misogyny and gender discrimination that I felt I had no choice but accept/stay silent about in order to stay employed. As I grew more senior in my roles, I began to feel like I had to choose between what was right and what was secure. I was managing teams, and felt that I needed to be a role model for some of the younger and/or junior staff, because we all learn behavior from observing others. I eventually began to speak out and set boundaries.
While I didn’t know it at the time, those decisions kick-started my journey toward discovering what I now believe is (at least part of) my life’s purpose: empowering girls and women through storm chasing and weather, and what is now ultimately the mission of the Girls Who Chase initiative.
For as long as I can remember, I have been obsessed with severe weather. And for most of my early years, I believed I couldn’t storm chase because I wasn’t a meteorologist, it was too dangerous, and I needed to go with experts, if I went at all. And importantly, I really hadn’t seen anyone out there who looked like me… that is, anyone female. Storm chasing is a largely male-dominated arena.
In 2018, I decided to let go of that limiting story, and sent myself on a chase tour and then started studying weather and forecasting. I began chasing on my own and quickly became obsessed; I studied nonstop each winter, and would analyze severe weather events I wasn’t able to chase, absorbing as much information as I could. Along the way, I was surprised to discover there was actually a plenitude of talented, capable female storm chasers out there, and then couldn’t help but notice an obvious and significant imbalance in content sales, engagement, and overall support for their work. I suppose you could say I was primed to see this due to my work history. There was definitely a reason I hadn’t noticed them at first, as a newcomer to the field of storm chasing. I became quite frustrated by what I was seeing, and finally launched an Instagram account in 2021 called Girls Who Chase (www.girlswhochase.com) to highlight and boost content from female storm chasers.
The account almost immediately exploded, and the chase community embraced the concept with open arms and requests for additional capabilities. It seemed that the energy had been there for quite some time, waiting to be harnessed – and of course, while I’m no women in storm chasing pioneer, the time had clearly come for the spotlight to be placed on all women in this arena. After all, storm chasing is a badass and engaging way to illustrate women doing science, and working in a non-stereotypical field.
Girls Who Chase formally launched in January 2022, with a web site, promotional video, podcast interview series, and Patreon community. Its mission is to “inspire, empower and equip girls and women to pursue storms, the sciences and their passions.” It seems every day we have an opportunity to discuss new ideas or hear experiences parallel to our own from female chasers, meteorologists, researchers, and broadcast meteorologists – women who, like me, had chosen to speak out. We are expanding into K-12 and adult education opportunities, and are considering partnerships with a variety of networks. I’ve begun to say the sky’s the limit for Girls Who Chase, and the pun is definitely intended.
Let’s talk about resilience next – do you have a story you can share with us?
I launched the Girls Who Chase initiative a year after losing my last full-time job, and in the middle of a global pandemic, and while I was in the midst of building a communications consulting business that wasn’t yet bringing in enough work funds for me to pay my bills. 0/10, do not recommend launching a startup while operating under these circumstances. *insert slowly drowning gif here*
It wasn’t a thought-out strategy. The thing started itself; the path became immediately clear, the right people showed up, at the right time, with the right resources. The requests were coming to me instead of vice versa. Everyone was brainstorming, and the energy was immense. It was very clear to me that I had stumbled into what was meant to be the next thing, even though I thought my communications consulting business was the next thing. Instead, Girls Who Chase became my first substantial client.
This is a beautiful story, but it gets ugly fast when it’s been 1.5 years since you’ve seen a salary with benefits and your first client is basically a “pro bono until further notice” project. Add in that I’m your classic public relations risk-averse Type A planner type, and the stress levels go through the roof. My personal work this time was in taking the leap knowing that my freedom, happiness, and ability to make a difference through this initiative was worth more than a steady paycheck and a calm mind. It’s involved limiting my travel (which, for a storm chaser, is oxymoronic), a strict budget like I haven’t seen since I was 20, and relentless 18-hour days. And it’s involved believing it will come back in spades, in all the right ways.
We often hear about learning lessons – but just as important is unlearning lessons. Have you ever had to unlearn a lesson?
I suspect a lesson we all learn at a young age is that our worth, and ability to belong, is determined by the people in our lives. We learn in grade school and from our families to look outside for validation, to know we’re okay, and for proof we are on the right path.
Of course, this is wrong as hell, and after having my rear handed to me by life several times, I’ve now begun the arduous journey of erasing 35 years of external validation training. My life is like if someone drew that quote “never ask someone for directions to a place they’ve never been.” My life has been strangely comprised of firsts, that have grown in scope and scale as I’ve aged: first semester program, first field school, first public relations hire, first corporate communications program, first director, first global women in storm chasing initiative. And yet, I forever fight the urge to ask someone how to do this stuff or if what I’m doing is right, because I’m certain I’m surrounded by people who all know exactly what they’re doing and that I must be missing some knowledge base for life.
What I keep learning, over and over, is that first – no one knows what the hell they’re doing, and if they tell you they do, they’re lying. And second, the only person who can decide I belong and that I’m worthy is me. And third, by saying these things out loud, and sharing how that manifests – the good and bad, ups and downs – I can create space for others to do the same.
- Website: www.jenniferawalton.com
- Instagram: trailblazinmaven
- Twitter: mejenwalton
- Other: Girls Who Chase: www.girlswhochase.com IG: @girlswhochase Twitter: @girlswhochase
Photo of Jennifer chasing: Tara Whichello Image with Girls Who Chase logo: Shannon Bileski