The Accidental Advocate

Renee Stone ’85 has achieved a remarkable career in environmentalism and public service by following her passion from one interesting thing to another.

(Photo by Scott Cook) (Photo by Scott Cook)

It’s a charming fact about Renee Stone ’85 that she has never had a good answer to the question, “What’s your five-year plan?” Because when you read even a partial list of her accomplishments—Rhodes Scholar, juris doctorate from Stanford Law School, multiple high-profile appointments under two presidential administrations—it’s easy to assume there’s a laser-focused strategy behind them. But Stone, whose current position as chief of staff for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) finds her at the helm of one of the country’s most prolific environmental organizations, insists she has simply followed her passion for public service and environmentalism wherever it led.

“Literally my whole career,” she says, “has been wandering aimlessly from one interesting thing to another.”

Take her undergraduate internship, for example. Knowing Stone’s interest in birds and the environment (which she explains comes naturally to her as a South Florida native), a career services counselor helped facilitate an internship at the Florida Audubon Society’s Center for Birds of Prey in Maitland. She worked there three years, earning credit toward her English major and developing a deeper passion for environmental issues.

“It was a real life-changing experience,” she says. “Somebody really sat down with me and understood me and knew me and figured out this [internship] would be a good thing for me to do. It was really a remarkable thing. That doesn’t happen everywhere.”

When Stone needed additional financial aid and was looking for scholarships, that internship yielded another opportunity. An adviser noticed her deepening commitment to environmental activism and suggested she apply for a Truman Scholarship, which supports the graduate education and professional development of students committed to public service leadership. Despite her reservations about applying, Stone won. Later, her advisers encouraged her to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. She won that too.

The Truman Scholarship allowed Stone to stay at Rollins and finish her undergraduate degree in English. The Rhodes Scholarship propelled her to the University of Oxford in England where she studied history. That opened the door to Stanford Law School and her first job at a Washington, D.C., law firm. The connections she made there earned her a political appointment under Bill Clinton, and so on and so on. In all, Stone says she’s had 13 jobs since she finished law school—each one as noteworthy as the one before.

“I took opportunities when they happened, not confident that they would play out,” she says. “Sometimes they did.”

These days, Stone works as the NRDC’s chief of staff. She’s held the title before, more than once, but Stone says the position tends to differ from organization to organization. A typical day at the NRDC can include any number of minor crises that need managing or internal communications puzzles that need solving. It’s a job that requires not only deep subject-matter expertise (Stone’s specialty is environmental law), but also the ability to think nimbly and navigate a range of personalities. Stone credits her liberal arts education at Rollins for laying the foundation she has needed in these complex roles.

“I learned how to read people well, which is something I think comes directly out of having been an English major,” she says. “You learn how other people think; you learn how other people communicate. I think I’m insightful because I was an English major. I think I communicate well because I was an English major. I think all of that leads to the ability to participate in a practical way.”

For Stone, that means working to solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges: things like drinking water and air quality—issues she says impact the breadth of humanity.

“There’s an enormous dedication [at the NRDC] to serving low-income communities,” she says. “It really illustrates the point that environmental protection is not an elitist concern. Absolutely everybody cares what’s in the food their kids eat and whether their kids are exposed to toxins.”

Stone’s commitment to the cause is unwavering. A political appointee under Barack Obama, she knew her tenure in government was coming to a close late last year, so she began looking for her next “interesting thing.” She considered returning to a law firm, but in the end she couldn’t avoid the call to serve.

“I needed to do something more focused on protecting the environmental legacy that I’ve been trying to help build,” she says. “So here I am—completely accidentally.”