Interview – Clinton Begley American Whitewater’s Executive Director
About a year ago, in August 2022, Clinton Begley became the American Whitewater executive director, taking over Mark Singleton position who decided to step out after 10+ years in office. We sat down with Clinton to see what vision and plans he had for the next chapter of America’s most active river conservation organization.
Kayak Session: Clinton, after being a long-time AW member, August 2022, you became the Executive Director of American Whitewater. How does that role feel nearly a year later?
Clinton Begley: It’s still my dream job every day. Some days, if I am honest, it still feels like I’m dreaming. It’s a really challenging job with a lot of moving pieces, but that is part of what I love about it.
KS: Is the role and your position close to what you anticipated or expected?
CB: I’ve worked in enough nonprofits of similar size to know generally what to expect from a business perspective. Whether it is a national organization or a really local one, the basics of running a small nonprofit of similar staff size and budget are pretty consistent, and so are the challenges. Every team is different though, so I also knew going in with too many assumptions wouldn’t be helpful when trying to learn the skills, interests, and passions of a talented crew of unique individuals or when really connecting with them and building trust in each other.
KS: How has it been to step into a leadership role for an existing team with established dynamics?
CB: The organization is more than positions and roles to arrange like a formula or a puzzle. These thoughtful human beings are paddlers just like me who have a deep passion for what they do and expertise to back it up. Our team is comprised of the foremost experts on this work in the country, probably the world, so my primary expectation was that I would learn a lot from them, and that has absolutely been true.
« To say this is my dream job is an understatement. I’m still a little bashful about telling people my title because it’s hard not to feel like I’m bragging ».
KS: As a conservationist, paddler, and AW member, did you always envision working there?
CB: As an undergrad in Montana I would look at the work of American Whitewater any chance I had and incorporate case studies into my assignments. I even reached out to Kevin Colburn for guidance and some resources—I still have the emails. When I was taking courses in nonprofit administration, and then in my capstone courses at the College of Forestry & Conservation, they were really big on preparing students for the workforce and setting us on the career path we wanted, so they asked us to do some dreaming about where we wanted to go. I remember being pretty explicit at one point about wanting to work at American Whitewater someday.
To say this is my dream job is an understatement. I’m still a little bashful about telling people my title because it’s hard not to feel like I’m bragging. The reality is that I am just so incredibly humbled by the opportunity to give back to an organization that has given so much to me and the community I love to be a part of. It really is a gift to have a strong sense of purpose attached to the work.
KS: You grew up in Quincy, Illinois. Where and how were you introduced to whitewater?
CB: My paddling origin story is about as humble as it gets. In 2003 or 2004 I saw whitewater paddling featured on ESPN or something. One of the “extreme sports” spotlights that really hyped it up. As soon as I saw it, I knew I needed to try it but I was living in the Midwest and there weren’t any opportunities nearby. So I convinced a few of my friends to cobble together some boats and gear and make a go of it DIY style.
KS: DIY style? Tell us more. This sounds exactly like a dirtbag kayaker-style.
CB: The term dirtbag wasn’t in our lexicon, but looking back that is totally what it was. We were really a motley crew. My first boat was a Dagger Zydeco recreation kayak I ordered through a local sporting goods store. I had a Protec skateboard helmet, a water skiing vest, and a two-piece aluminum paddle from Walmart. My buddy Carson had a swimming pool, so when he and his parents were out of town for a week one summer our crew snuck in several days in a row and taught ourselves to roll. I ordered the “Learn to Roll a Kayak” DVD from NRS which was popular then. We would watch it at my place, then drive across town, get in the pool, and try to remember what to do. We got kicked out when his grandma or somebody came over to feed the cat. But it totally worked, we figured it out.
KS: How did you progress from poaching pool sessions to actual whitewater?
CB: Whenever it rained, we’d huck ourselves down these farm creeks and dodge barbed wire and logjams. Our hometown (Quincy, Illinois) sits on this limestone bluff above the Mississippi River. Any tributaries that ran through flat corn fields for many miles suddenly had to cut down a quarter-mile or so down through this bluff, so those were our training grounds. A lot of these creeks were in city parks and county waysides and had cool geology where kids would get their senior pictures or wedding photos taken. But when it rained, they were our whitewater parks. Eventually some paddlers from Team Dirt Clod and the Missouri Whitewater Association took us under their wing on the St. Francis River in Southern Missouri. Since then I’ve always been grateful for the role that clubs play in shepherding beginning boaters into the sport safely.
« I really learned most of what I needed to get started by just reading stuff on Boatertalk. I also had two copies of LVM (Lunch Video Magazine) that I got as a promo with some gear I ordered and saw the stuff Tommy Hilleke, Bryan Kirk, Clay Wright, and others were doing and really wanted to be part of that scene »
KS: Were there any other kayakers near Quincy that you knew of? What was your inspiration after that initial ESPN spot?
CB: Kayaking really wasn’t something anyone did in our area—we more or less pioneered it there ourselves. I used to work nights at a hospital registration desk and we had a T1 internet line, which in 2004 or so was blazing fast. When I had downtime at work, I’d use Ask Jeeves to find out more about kayaking and inevitably found my way to the few websites that mattered at the time, NRS, Outdoor Play, American Whitewater, and Boatertalk. I pretty quickly brokered a deal on Boatertalk to buy a Dagger Vengeance off this girl Chelsea in Indiana and finally had my first whitewater boat. I downloaded videos when I could and tried to figure out how this whole thing worked. I really learned most of what I needed to get started by just reading stuff on Boatertalk. I also had two copies of LVM (Lunch Video Magazine) that I got as a promo with some gear I ordered and saw the stuff Tommy Hilleke, Bryan Kirk, Clay Wright, and others were doing and really wanted to be part of that scene. Needless to say, we had more guts than skills.
KS: Ah, but there must be some good stories from those days.
CB: This one huge storm came through and we were on the front page of the paper paddling this muddy stormwater runoff through town. My friend Byron and I both got meningitis that day; I spent three days in the hospital. There are some falls behind the country club in town that my buddy Adam got a first descent on. It’s like 20 feet into a shallow pool with runout into part of a washing machine, or sheet metal. I don’t think it has been done since. Another time, my buddy Mark and I got arrested for kayaking through some private property, and at 22 years old, I was cocky enough to try and represent us both in court. We ultimately got the criminal trespassing charge thrown out citing navigability statutes in the state constitution and I remember feeling like a big shot defending stream navigability in Adams County. I’d like to say that was some sort of lightbulb moment that set me on the path to where I am now, but the truth is that at the time I was just glad we got out of the ticket.
KS: Were you always passionate about environmental science and conservation?
CB: I actually had a whole life and career in my hometown starting when I was sixteen working in the healthcare business, then wealth management until I was about 27 years old. Throughout my twenties, I ran a small recording studio on nights and weekends and would bring bands to town to do concerts. I also did a lot of fundraising events for local nonprofits like film festivals and adventure races. For a while, I had this mission to bring things I’d experienced elsewhere to my hometown. I’d save up all my vacation time and take these two-week trips out west, where I’d solo hike the Sierras, or backpack across Glacier National Park or around the North Cascades. At some point, it started to sink in that no amount of volunteer community development work was going to be able to compete with the call of the mountains.
KS: How did you transition out of healthcare and recording into finding work in the outdoors and the non-profit sector?
CB: My buddy Carson invited me to join on as a volunteer assistant leader for a ten-day trip he was running to Big Bend National Park in Texas with fifteen college students from Georgia State University. That trip really changed my life—it was the first time I thought maybe working outdoors could be a career for me. I had dropped out of college part way through my sophomore year to get into the workforce and make some money. So years later, when I had this experience in Texas and thought I should try to make a go of working in the outdoors, I went back to full-time night school at my local John Wood Community College as a non-traditional student to finish my associate’s degree in psychology. I was 27 when I made that first step. It took me a couple of years to finish, but by the time I graduated, I’d already been accepted to the University of Montana’s College of Forestry and Conservation as a transfer to the Nature-Based Tourism program. I was 29 when I started that junior year of college. I had a really great professor, Libby Covelli-Metcalf, who supported some independent research I was into.
I had already worked in nonprofits for almost a decade, so I added a minor in non-profit administration. At school in Montana, I started to piece together that my prior life in business and nonprofits had relevance and value in the conservation space. A lot of folks come out of an environmental studies or conservation biology program and get a field position because they like to work outside, but after a while the only upward mobility is into management work and running the business of the organization. They are faced with this dilemma of wanting to continue to give to the work, but the options for advancement are away from what they set out to do. Organizational design, development, and nonprofit administration are really specialized skill sets. When I started to notice that distinction, it made me glad for the circuitous path I’d been on; it started to feel more like an asset to my career goals and what I could offer the world, rather than that I was late to the game had catching up to do.
KS: When you put it that way, your ability to combine your business skills and passion for conservation and water issues seems almost fated.
CB: Looking back at all the steps that got me here makes a lot more sense in retrospect, but it definitely didn’t feel that coherent while I was living it.
« What each of these experiences have had in common is this ethos of connection between people and place, and the reciprocal relationships between them that our planet and our people desperately need right now. »
KS: How did you begin working with AW?
CB: When I started paddling I did a lot of it at our family farm in Missouri. A Mississippi tributary called North River runs through the property, and that was the first place I really kayaked. But it didn’t take long for me to start looking around for other options, which is how I found American Whitewater’s National Whitewater Inventory online. This was around 2004. There was a big hole in the map where I lived, but I saw they had a streamkeeper program. I thought maybe I could sign up and help fill that hole. I reached out by email and a guy named Matt Muir hooked me up with a login to be able to update the rivers in the database. That was the starter’s pistol I needed to go out and find new runs, map them, take photos, and populate the inventory with these rivers in my area, and it was the start of my relationship with American Whitewater.
KS: How did you transition from Streamkeeper to Executive Director? What drove you to keep moving up the ranks, so to say?
CB: Ever since I was a kid hunting and fishing with my dad, walking in South Park with my Mom, or skipping rocks with my Grandpa at our family farm, I have learned so much from my experiences in nature and have directly experienced its transformative power throughout my life. I’ve been really driven to give back to those landscapes that have inspired me. But it took me a long time to really connect the dots between those personal passions, my work experience, and education, which together have allowed me to have a chance at living a life of purpose in service to my values and impact change at the level I’d like. After I made the pivot from my work in my hometown and moved to Montana for school, I have continued to work at the intersection of people and nature ever since. I worked for several nonprofit organizations operating in this space from Watershed Education Network in Missoula, The Glacier Institute in Polebridge, campus recreation programs at Georgia State and University of New Hampshire, and then seven years as the Executive Director at the Long Tom Watershed Council in Oregon. I’ve also served on multiple boards and committees engaged in this space. What each of these experiences have had in common is this ethos of connection between people and place, and the reciprocal relationships between them that our planet and our people desperately need right now. Working to rebuild and nurture that reciprocal relationship and inspiring people to show up on behalf of their rivers, in particular, is a big part of what drives me, and that has led me to the role I have today.
KS: Has your mission or goal changed or evolved at all over the years? How has it changed with this new title?
CB: My number one priority is to take care of the people who take care of our rivers. Full stop. Keep in mind: We have a team of experts in land and water protection, hydropower licensing, legislative advocacy, forest planning, communications, member engagement, you name it. I am none of those. My role is to make sure our team has the supportive environment they need to be the best humans they can be to their best work, take risks, fail with grace, and be encouraged to go big on behalf of our mission. That also requires supporting them to take care of themselves, find balance, and ensure that together we have the endurance to play this infinite game of river stewardship for as long as we can.
KS: River stewardship is definitely a long game, as you put it. How do you balance the short term needs of rivers with long-term thinking?
CB: The harsh reality is that the problems we face will outlive all of us. Our job is to add bricks to the foundation so that those who follow can stand upon them to reach the next plateau. Putting the short-term urgency in that larger context is essential. If we are only focused on what is right in front of us we are going to miss the big picture. Organizations that do this well, balance the urgent with the enduring, require a culture of resilience, trust, connection, and abundance. I didn’t have this language when I was interviewing, but I’ve since become aware of this quote by the artist Robert Henri that has become my mantra this year: “The object isn’t to make art, it’s to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable.” My job is to nurture that environment that makes good projects, tactics, strategies, and outcomes in service to our mission inevitable.
KS: What’s your vision for the future of a nonprofit like AW?
CB: Whatever American Whitewater is going to be in the future isn’t just based on my singular vision alone. My current vision isn’t so focused on what our work should look like on the ground 5 or 10 years from now. My vision is more focused on the practices and behaviors of collaboration that we cultivate. I have a vision that we are resilient and thriving in the face of an uncertain future, and that you can draw a straight line between our values and what we do in practice. My vision is a way of being. That said, one of those core values is to get shit done. We held a strategic planning-focused staff retreat in May, and a board meeting in August, and are in the strategic planning process now. So in addition to our cultural goals, there are absolutely tangible goals still being worked out that our members will be able to hang their hats on. Stay tuned.
« Putting the short-term urgency in that larger context is essential. If we are only focused on what is right in front of us we are going to miss the big picture »
KS: Are there any major changes you want see happen in the near future for AW?
CB: I am a big believer that if it’s not broken don’t fix it. There is so much undeniable success and amazing work underway that a big part of the job is applying the wisdom of where to stay out of the way and support what already works well. But I also think a lot about something called The Red Queen Effect. It’s this idea that comes from the character the Red Queen from the book Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”
Even if all we wanted to do was maintain our impact, we need to change, adapt, and be resilient to keep up with a changing world. If we try to keep our impacts the same by doing things the same way, we are actually going to fall behind. Change is inevitable, but the trick is making the right kinds of change at the right time. A leadership transition is fundamentally a task of change management, but change management is also life itself. It is clear to me that American Whitewater needs to continue cultivating a growth mindset and make some strategic moves so we can do more than just run to keep up. We have a history of innovation at American Whitewater and I aim to continue that culture. Plus, there is more that needs to be done than we can currently tackle, so growth—strategic, and manageable growth—is definitely on my mind.
KS: What has changed in 2023, that was not necessarily true just ten years ago for environmental non-profit like AW?
CB: I feel like acknowledging the presence of Indigenous peoples in the Americas since time immemorial and their heritage of stewardship of lands and waters has been given pretty limited air time by conservation NGO’s and agencies up until relatively recently It wasn’t entirely absent, but I think the academic, and more importantly the popular public discourse, about the role of Indigenous people and Tribes’ status as sovereign nations, with EcoCultural knowledge, and retained rights and power to influence river protection decisions has really evolved in just the last 10 years. It has always been part of the conversation in a lot of regions, but when I hear agencies, funders, and every day paddlers, reflect upon this issue, it is with enhanced openness, awareness, and interest in a way that is really encouraging and that I am excited about
KS: What do you think has contributed to that change?
CB: Some of that comes with seeing the impacts upon the health of our rivers and forests due to the exclusion of Indigenous people and their traditional practices from the landscape. It’s this ah-ha moment we are collectively having where we are realizing what we’ve been doing since European settlement in some areas isn’t working anymore. Maybe it’s time to listen to the people who have been here forever, and support their leadership in stewarding these places. I think another reason I see this changing is the increased power Tribes are asserting in this area and the recognition that Tribes can be powerful allies on these issues. It is complicated of course, and the priorities of each Tribe present different opportunities and challenges. But this issue is super important, and one that I am glad to see American Whitewater engaging with. I think we will continue to see opportunities for greater collaboration between Tribes and NGOs like American Whitewater on issues where our interests for clean water and healthy, connected, watersheds are aligned. We have a lot to learn, but we’re here for it.
KS: Where does climate change factor in your agenda?
CB: Climate change is changing everything. There are all these competing priorities that are in play around water and climate. The narratives around hydropower being a green energy source are one example. It’s touted as this guilt-free green energy source but there are real impacts to fish passage from the operation of these dams, including the impacts on water temperature and toxic algal blooms to drinking water quality, or the carbon impacts from detritus decomposing in trapped sediments, to name a few. It might be better than burning fossils, but it’s not a guilt-free alternative and the impacts to river systems, and the priorities of boaters are obvious.
River reaches are de-watered, natural riverbeds remain flooded behind dams, and access to our public water resources is limited. So-called green minerals and the impacts upon our rivers from mining operations for lithium and nickel for electric car battery construction is another example of competing priorities around our rivers. Cleaner transportation would be great, but we need to be honest about how we are shifting around our impacts. It’s important for me to remember that it is not really our job to make sense of all the complexities and tensions. Our job is to represent the interests of healthy rivers and the rights of paddlers to enjoy them safely. Our charge is to ensure those priorities are part of the conversation, and to defend the rights of the public to access their water resources. If we aren’t at the table asserting those priorities, no one else is going to. There are absolutely emerging issues that we are tracking and engaging on, but our approach to bringing the voices of our membership to bear on these topics is enduring and consistent no matter what new complexities emerge.
KS: What would your goal be if you knew that you have say ten years ahead of you?
CB: Long-term leadership achievement is such an interesting thing to think about. Some businesses like to use the terminology of “KPI’s” or “Key Performance Indicators” to measure performance or achievement of objectives. Once we get beyond fiscal year timescales and into talking about decades, the KPIs of good leadership are things like keep people interested, keep people informed, keep people involved, keep people inspired. I believe one of the most important jobs of a good leader is to create new leaders. If I can create a space where everyone in the organization leads from their area of strength, has the support and trust of the organization and each other to take risks and be creative, and where staff are inspired to be the best versions of themselves in service to our mission, then I’ll consider my goals achieved.
« I hope he (Mark Singleton) already knows how much I respect him, what he built, and the legacy he leaves to me, the staff, and paddlers everywhere. It’s a lot to live up to for sure ».
KS: Mark Singleton left with the AW accounts on the healthy side. That is good news for you; finances are key, right?
CB: Mark deserves a lot of credit for getting the finances of this organization where they are today. He took the helm of a sinking ship in the early 2000s and not only righted that ship, but has sailed it to some amazing places over his eighteen-year career. I am absolutely a beneficiary of his financial stewardship. We are in a good place financially for sure, and financial stewardship is important to me. What is also true is that we are going to have to take some strategic financial risks if we are going to grow. There are way more challenges and opportunities facing our rivers and public access and not enough staff capacity to get to them all; we need to grow. The reality is that we say yes to more things than we probably should and still say no to a lot of really worthwhile projects we could be tackling. If done well and responsibly, growth like that doesn’t happen overnight. But it does take financial investment and a little risk. So this year we are planning to spend some of the money we have saved up, and likely will for the next fiscal year as well to fund some strategic investments. Member and donor dollars shouldn’t be on the sidelines if they don’t have to be; our mission is too important. We have a healthy rainy day reserve we need to maintain, but as much as possible we should be putting member contributions to work for them. If investing in American Whitewater’s next phase of growth is exciting to any of your readers, I’d love to hear from them.
KS: How is AW membership? Healthy? Falling? On the rise?
CB: Our growth has been steadily up and to the right! I have this great graph that shows various ups and downs in our membership figures going back to 2007 but that generally ticks upwards slowly, and then in 2019 there is this awesome spike in membership that is super impressive. I like to remind everyone that 2019 is the year we hired our Membership and Engagement Director Bethany Overfield. She does an outstanding job and our membership has a wonderful relationship with her. What is also true is that she is just one person serving the needs of almost 7,000 members! We took a look this year and realized we actually have a capacity limitation on membership growth, so one of our strategic investments this year was to hire a Membership and Operations Specialist who can boost our capacity to both steward existing members and continue to grow the membership.
KS: How important is membership growth to the future of AW?
CB: Everything we do is member-supported, so if we want to grow to meet the needs of paddlers and our rivers, we need to be thinking about how we bring more boaters into the fold. Since we work from the top of federal policy down to individual access points, I think it’s fair to say that not a single boater who has paddled whitewater in this country (whether they are a US resident or not) has escaped being a beneficiary of American Whitewater’s work. I want to make sure we can continue to make that case to the nearly 80,000 whitewater boaters estimated to be in the United States. I’m optimistic that with this added capacity we can make sure a greater percentage of the paddling community is both making their voices heard by being a member and contributing to our work in a meaningful way.
KS: Any message or words for Mark Singleton?
CB: Mark is the man! Mark and I actually keep in touch. I had a chance to host him at my house here in Oregon shortly after I was hired, and he took me down his backyard run on the Tuckasegee last spring when I was out East visiting the office in North Carolina. I hope he already knows how much I respect him, what he built, and the legacy he leaves to me, the staff, and paddlers everywhere. It’s a lot to live up to for sure.
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