A FORCE FOR CHANGE
As drivers buzzed by her group of cyclists making their way from Charleston to Savannah, Betsy La Force realized just how important her job was.
The gang of environmentalists and city planners— participating in a New Urbanism professional seminar in Charleston — experienced firsthand during the grueling 130-mile ride how ill-equipped the Lowcountry is to handle traffic of all varieties.
“The road rage really brought to light the lack of safe bicycle infrastructure in the Lowcountry,” said La Force, who is the communities and transportation project manager for the nonprofit Coastal Conservation League.
At the league, La Force helps shape policy aimed at encouraging transportation alternatives and thoughtful residential development, as well as mitigating runaway sprawl. It’s part of the nonprofit organization’s mission to protect the Lowcountry landscape, wildlife, clean water and quality of life. With more than 30 full-time staff members, offices in downtown Charleston, Georgetown and Beaufort and a full-time lobbyist in Columbia, the group weighs in on policy concerning anything from small-scale farming to highway expansion.
La Force, now 28, grew up on Hilton Head Island, surrounded by what she describes as, “different flora and fauna coming and going with the seasons.” She spent many summers as an Outside Hilton Head kayak guide, learning about coastal ecology and then sharing that knowledge with visitors. During her time at the College of Charleston, she took up composting at the urging of a friend living down the street. After college, she worked for a software company, but it began to feel unrelated to the values she was living out in her community.
“My life felt kind of isolated,” she said. “I woke up, drove to Mount Pleasant, drove home.”
Her composting friend, Dana, helped her land a job with Smart Recycling, a startup, and La Force spearheaded composting initiatives across the region. Because the company was a small startup, she often found herself alone at the office taking care of business instead of soaking up knowledge from peers. She wanted to do more in the community.
“The experience was great but I also felt drawn to something bigger,” she said. “I wanted to affect change on a greater level.”
She saw a job opening for a communities and transportation project manager at the Coastal Conservation League, and wanted to apply. But she was worried she didn’t have the right skills, and that she would need a master’s degree in environmental studies or uban planning. But she decided to go for it, nailing the essay prompt and sending hand-written thank-you notes to each interviewer. She landed the job within a month.
Six months into her new job at the time of this interview, La Force had just returned from an event called Awakening Motion, which brings awareness to the lack of transportation, bike, and pedestrian infrastructure in the Charleston area. It’s centered around an emblematic intersection that was the site of 23 accidents in the past year.
“We got a bunch of people in the community to come out, including artist Jonathan Green and Mayor John Tecklenburg,” La Force said. “It was a crazy busy day at work; I was just furiously trying to get through my checklist.”
But she wouldn’t change a thing.
“Looking back on an old journal entry, there were ideas written down about being rooted in my community. Now I am more than I ever would have dreamed.”