Story by Adrienne Egolf
Tori Linder ’14 never imagined she’d find her dream job in Florida. After graduating from Sullivan Foundation partner school Rollins College with a degree in political science, she found herself working on human sustainability issues in Africa alongside giants of the conservation sector. It was her dream job.
“But every time I came home to Florida,” she says, “a new chunk of what I loved and what I considered wilderness would be gone and turned into another shopping center. I loved everything I was doing in Kenya, but my own backyard was disappearing just as quickly.”
So in 2017, Linder returned to her home state to take on a leadership role with Path of the Panther. The multimedia storytelling effort is aimed at safeguarding the Florida Wildlife Corridor, a stretch of wilderness that links Florida’s Everglades to the rest of North America, and preserving the region’s wetlands. Besides providing habitat for the Florida panther, the massive wetland also supports an astounding diversity of life—including drinking water for 17.3 million Floridians.
As project director and producer, Linder spends much of her time wading through chest-deep swamps with alligators swimming past and venomous snakes hanging from the limbs above her head. “I average 150 mosquito bites a day,” she quips, then adds quickly, “but it’s beautiful, in its own way. There’s nowhere else like it in the world.”
Linder is uniquely qualified to appreciate Florida’s wild beauty. Born into a fifth-generation cattle ranching family, she grew up riding horses through her family’s ranchlands, surrounded by the upper reaches of the Everglades. Even then, she was disturbed by the furious pace of development she saw around her. “I wrote my admissions essay about how I wanted to go to Rollins so that I could better understand the conservation issues in my own backyard,” she remembers.
Linder says she went into college knowing she wanted to make a difference in the world, and at Rollins, she found her niche. As a student of environmental studies professor Barry Allen, she participated in a two-week field study focused on sustainable development in Costa Rica. Seeing firsthand the country’s success in developing an economy around environmental sustainability and sustainable tourism was a turning point. “That’s where the dots connected for me,” she says. “I saw that a healthy environment underpins a healthy society.”
Back on campus, Linder began pursuing environmental studies in earnest. Along with Allen, then-Director of Social Innovation Chrissy Garton, and a small group of peers, she helped launch the Social Enterprise and Sustainability Initiative (SESI), which eventually took root at Rollins as the Social Innovation & Entrepreneurship Hub. She took the lead on developing the group’s changemaker speaker series, recruiting environmental thought leaders to share the details of their winding careers so that students like her could better understand the zigzags that a path in environmental work often entailed.
For Linder, the next step in her journey came in the form of a lecture by conservationist Carlton Ward Jr., an eighth-generation Florida rancher and National Geographic photographer who’d spent years working in Africa. Linder left the talk inspired and even chatted with Ward after the presentation, but she never imagined the zigzags in her own path that would eventually lead her back to this moment.
Later that spring, her senior year at Rollins, Linder finally found herself in sub-Saharan Africa working on a development project as a social enterprise fellow for ThinkImpact. The three months she spent in Rwanda would provide the foundation for her postgraduate career, which included a stint as an impact investment associate at the firm Madeira, a position working with the Africa Resource Centre through the Gates Foundation and serving as a manager of Conservation International’s Africa field program.
Through colleagues, she wound up meeting Ward again and picked up right where she’d left off at Rollins. “It was like sitting down with a long-lost brother,” she says. “You don’t have too many of those moments in life.” Ward told her about his work protecting the Florida Wildlife Corridor and recruited her to help lead the Path of the Panther project. Today, Linder is a passionate advocate for the landscape that’s defined her since childhood.
“My favorite part of this job is working with people,” she says. “Particularly working with these cowboys because they are the most unlikely conservation heroes in the world. We can’t save the environment without people. And to hear someone like that talk about how they’re going to do everything in their power to save the land that they work on—that’s pretty remarkable and special.”