Jenna Wadsworth hopes to keep serving on Wake's Soil and Water board

sgilman@newsobserver.comJune 10, 2014 

JENNA1NE053014CEL

Jenna Wadsworth watches her dog, Lucy, as she plows a field on her family farm near Selma last month.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— On a Tuesday in mid-May, when temperatures soared above 90 degrees, 25-year-old Jenna Wadsworth was clambering through brush in boots and jeans, her waist-length light brown hair loose and her shoulders bare.

A member of Wake County’s Soil and Water Conservation District Board of Supervisors – and North Carolina’s youngest ever elected official – sometimes her job takes her into the field to do “spot checks,” periodic checkups on conservation projects funded by the board.

This time, Wadsworth was hunting for a spring in a cattle pasture in Apex.

“The pasture was a little overgrown, so we were crawling through some native plants and briars that were waist high and shoulder high,” she said. “And we had to crawl through an electric fence, which fortunately wasn’t on.”

In the state’s Association of Soil and Water Districts, landowners can apply for money in the Agriculture Cost Share Program for conservation projects like preventing erosion, building a fence to keep cattle from crossing streams or installing a manure compost. Keeping cattle out of a stream, for instance, can decrease pollution and erosion.

“That increased phosphorus, increased nitrogen, would negatively impact that water resource,” Wadsworth said. “We are not only helping that farmer, we are helping the citizens have cleaner water.”

A candidate at 21

In November 2010, when she was more than a year away from graduating from N.C. State University, Wadsworth won a spot on the board. She was 21. Four years later, Wadsworth says she is “really happy” she ran and now has her sights set on re-election this November.

“There aren’t things that are more important than people having access to clean drinking water, to having access to locally grown food,” she said, with her blue-gray eyes shining. “No farms, no food.”

In December 2011, she graduated from NCSU with a double major in political science and women and gender studies. She now jostles her time between monthly board meetings, overnight stays in the hospital with her ailing grandmother, helping with the family farm in Johnston County and volunteering for several organizations.

When she ran for election, she sometimes had to convince people she met while campaigning that yes, she was the candidate. But in office, her youth has proved useful.

Director Dale Threatt-Taylor said Wadsworth’s presence on the board brings humility. “Because she’s so young, she’s willing to learn from our senior board members. She doesn’t just come in and say it’s going to be this and that.”

Wadsworth never misses meetings and is a “very engaged” member of the board, Threatt-Taylor said.

Through social media, Wadsworth reaches hundreds with her enthusiasm.

Her tweets, such as “Busy day today! I’m leaving the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation District office after wrapping up our day of spot checks,” and similar Facebook posts reach a large crowd, Threatt-Taylor said.

“Her virtual presence is helping us reach a lot of citizens, and all these citizens impact our water,” Threatt-Taylor said. “Even though our work is science-based, we can’t just live out in the woods doing that. We have to use every avenue to connect with our citizens to tell them that everybody has a part.”

Wadsworth also has an eye for detail, Threatt-Taylor noted, and often double-checks board documents amid the board’s rush to get work done.

A year ago, she stepped into a first-grade classroom at Swift Creek Elementary School in Raleigh wearing a white chef’s hat and an apron to put on a “soil cafe.” Young students were given samples of dirt to separate into different ingredients, sang songs like “Dirt Made My Lunch,” and learned how their clothes came from a plant that grows in the dirt.

“A number of kids are amazed that cotton is something that grows out of the ground, so it is exciting to see them learn it for the first time,” Wadsworth said. “I just had the best time with them.”

In addition to working with young children, she has helped high school students prepare speeches for the North Carolina Envirothon, a competition that tests students’ environmental knowledge and ability to think of solutions for environmental problems.

Walking the talk

Last September, she led part of the the annual BIG Sweep, when 812 volunteers pulled more than 10,000 pounds of trash out of Wake County’s watersheds. She worked in the Crabtree Creek Watershed near the William B. Umstead State Park.

The position on the Soil and Water board is only part time, leaving Wadsworth free to volunteer with the U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, where she gives speeches on political activism and women in politics, and for the N.C. School of Science and Mathematics, where she has a seat on the Alumni Association’s board of directors.

When she’s not doing any of those things, she said with a smile, “I also make money” as a media consultant for politicians, nonprofits and corporations.

Though politically active, Wadsworth believes that bipartisan work is crucial. The soil and water board, for instance, is nonpartisan. And the New Leaders Council of North Carolina, a group she helped found that teaches young people how to better manage nonprofits, businesses or political campaigns, is also nonpartisan.

“By moving away from partisan politics, I think we are better able to go into communities and raise them up. We are better able to serve the needs of our state without being concerned about partisan rhetoric,” Wadsworth said. “I try to put people and policies before partisan politics.”

Plans for her future are to be on the Soil and Water board again this fall so she can keep serving Wake County residents.

One of her dreams is to raise enough money to introduce a mobile education trailer, one that would travel to schools and be used to teach kids about soil.

“There is really nothing like it, currently,” she said. “I’m really excited about us bringing that project to Wake County.”

Gilman: 919-829-8955

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service