Protecting wildlands and volunteering on behalf of Geneseo highlights the true value of strengthening what each of us holds most dear. 

By Jessica L. Blair ’00

I live on the ancestral lands of the Lakota people, near Bdote, where the Mississippi River converges with the Minnesota River, in the city of Minneapolis. Before being forced to cede their home to European settlers in treaty after treaty, Indigenous people stewarded the lands in my adopted state of Minnesota with a sense of responsibility and reverence, knowing that they were merely caretakers for future generations.

As a philanthropy officer for The Nature Conservancy, I’ve been learning about the values-based approach that Indigenous communities take in stewarding lands and waters. For centuries, they took care of nature because nature took care of them. Even now, Indigenous people around the world are on the front lines fighting extractive pipelines, deforestation and threats to fresh water. Traditional approaches to land stewardship exceed modern man’s ability to conserve biodiversity, provide ecosystem services (think: filtered water, clean air, agricultural productivity) and increase carbon storage.

I feel deep gratitude and respect for Indigenous people’s skillful stewardship of these lands and waters that now give me sustenance. In addition to learning, in the last several years I’ve also been unlearning much of what I was taught in my elementary school days about Manifest Destiny and American pioneers. My “Little House on the Prairie” illusions have finally been shattered by the knowledge that my childhood hero, Pa Ingalls, illegally occupied land rightfully owned by the Osage people.

But there’s another kind of stewardship that’s been on my mind lately. Last summer, I joined the Geneseo Foundation Board of Directors. The focus of our work is helping to ensure the ongoing health and vitality of our beloved Geneseo. A place as special as Geneseo doesn’t just happen. Over the decades, people have given their time, expertise and money to help the college thrive. They’ve stewarded the institution for the benefit of future generations of students. As a former scholarship recipient, I now understand that someone made a generous donation to support my learning. My degree was the outcome of her gift, which she made with love for the College and the community of Geneseo.

The COVID-19 pandemic hit many higher-education institutions, like Geneseo, hard. A study in  May 2020 by the educational consulting firm Edmit found that a third of private, four-year colleges were in danger of closing permanently. Many others will be forced to merge. Public institutions are not exempt from this risk. Funding from New York State has decreased steadily over the decades, and all SUNYs are forced to rely on philanthropy to meet their budgets.

Increased alumni support and involvement are the way to avoid losing what we hold most dear in Geneseo. It is up to us to steward this college with all the resources we can muster. From hosting interns, to giving lectures on campus, to making annual (or major!) gifts, to including Geneseo in estate plans —  there is so much that alumni can do to steward Geneseo into the future.

I believe that it is imperative to carefully steward the things that are most important to us today, so they’ll be here for us tomorrow: our lands and waters, our college, our community. I am reminded of the Greek proverb that reads “A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”

Here’s to planting more proverbial — and actual — trees.

Jessica L. Blair ’00 (née Partch) lives in Minnesota with her husband Peter Blair ’00 and a menagerie of three- and four-legged mammals. After graduating with a theatre degree, she became a fundraiser for organizations and causes she cares about, including The Trust for Public Land, 826 Valencia and now The Nature Conservancy. She has been a member of the Geneseo Foundation Board of Directors since 2020.