Seeing world-wide problems through a small-town lens
Last updated 6/22/2021 at Noon
Kelsey (Newport) Harpham’s childhood in Sisters fostered a love of the outdoors, travel, and an appreciation for the waterways throughout Central Oregon. She’s coalesced her education in the Sisters schools and college into a career that has taken her throughout Asia. She and her husband, Nathan, lived in Hanoi, Viet Nam, where she has been involved in water resources management planning, climate adaption policy, disaster risk reduction, and infrastructure resilience projects in Viet Nam, Nepal, Mongolia, Thailand, Lao PDR, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia.
Harpham is a water resources engineer and planning specialist. She works for the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM). She began her position with ICEM after being chosen for the highly coveted Luce Scholars program. It’s a U.S.-based national fellowship program about leadership, professional development, and exposure to Asia. Her job with ICEM combines the technical elements of water-resource engineering with urban policy, and training in water-conflict transformation with diverse international development projects. With COVID keeping her in the U.S., she and Nathan live in Bend and work remotely.
“Right now, I’m a project manager working at the intersection of water resources, climate resilience, and disaster risk management. I have projects throughout that realm. I currently have two projects in Mongolia — one’s a disaster risk-management project and one’s focused on water governance — as well as a project in Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR) looking at disaster risk reduction through watershed management. The Luce fellowship is for one year and ended in 2019. I was hired by ICEM and have been an employee ever since,” said Harpham from her home office.
Harpham says she has a mixed background that includes an undergraduate degree in urban and environmental policy. She went back to Oregon State University to get a masters in Water Resources Engineering. “This work is a good fit for me because it has some technical aspects to it. It looks at large-scale water management but also how that impacts infrastructure, communities, and agriculture. A lot of my work is at higher-lever socioeconomic and sector-level planning and is providing recommendations from those angles.”
For Harpham, water is always at the center of climate change. “It’s often looking at too much or too little water and the impacts on, for example, roads and how flooding and landslides and precipitation events impact transportation. There’s an ethical engineering side of my work with planning, systems. That background allows me to look at a bigger picture. I’m a project manager so I’m mostly coordinating things, encouraging people to talk to each other, and moving things along. I’m not the expert on the projects; I work with immensely talented teams from around the world and international experts who have spent entire careers working on these kinds of projects.”
Her career has been an extraordinary learning opportunity.
“I’m writing emails to people and governments coordinating meetings, workshops; and I learn from all of that,” she said. “When I edit technical reports it’s a huge opportunity to learn, and then do additional research. I’m learning how to coordinate and move things along in challenging circumstances. We’re there to help complete the projects.”
Kelsey and Nathan have been on an exciting journey together. “I married my high school sweetheart. We’ll be married for nine years this summer,” said Harpham. “Right now, it’s a funny time to do this interview. Nathan’s been in law for six years. Luce supported me enough for him to come. He could relax and immerse himself in Viet Nam. He volunteered for a nonprofit that rescues women from China in sex trafficking. Then he began working remotely for his law firm, and in person after we were back in Bend. But recently, he’s decided to take a step back and figure out what the next thing for him will be. We’re in a positive period of transition.”
Harpham graduated from Sisters High School in 2007.
“I am so proud of and continually inspired by all the people in my class who are doing amazing things and have truly invested in the community here, like Kate Tibbits (Nordquist) becoming a teacher in Bend, and Audrey Tehan and Benji Nagel who are feeding the community, or Kelly and Danny St. Lawrence creating a new community space, and Maren Burck and Laura Campbell giving back through their art and in so many ways. And those are just a few who I was close to in high school. I feel so inspired and privileged to know them and be part of this community where people want to come back and be here. This is always home for Nate and me. It’s the roots and foundation for us.”
A favorite childhood memory was growing up with her grandmother, Betty Dyer, picking up all her grandchildren from school every day. Family has been a firm place to stand for Harpham.
Like everyone, Harpham had to overcome some obstacles, too.
“On the one hand, growing up in a small town like Sisters, people come to perceive you as one person,” she said. “It’s challenging to grow out of that and change. I’ve had to navigate the interpreted expectations by other people in my hometown.”
Through the sudden and unexpected loss of Nathan’s brother six years ago, Kelsey learned grief and trauma truly change everything.
“Part of that is understanding that everybody has a story and everybody has gone through different things in their life that contribute to shaping who they are but may not necessarily be evident from the outset,” she said. “My experience with grief and trauma taught me to find a different level of compassion, kindness, and empathy, which has been applicable to all parts of my life.”
In both her professional and personal life, Harpham has integrated what she’s learned into everything she does.
“I approach things with enthusiasm and probably too much naiveté – I want to always be learning,” she said. “I try to focus on being more observant and paying attention to little nuances.”
Harpham’s parents shaped who she’s become more than anything else — first through connections with the Central Oregon landscape.
“I grew up going out into the mountains and on the rivers,” she said. “My parents continue to do so much for the community. That’s been an incredible example for me of how to show up in the world; of contributing and connecting to a place and community. They taught me about understanding how communities and cultures are connected to physical landscape, and in this way led me to a career in water through the understanding of how water is such a part of our community and economy in Sisters and Central Oregon.”
Harpham says she was impacted by teachers Rand Runco, Brad Tisdel, and Mike Baynes, all of whom deeply shaped her perspective of the world.
“I was never in one box — not just an IEE (Interdisciplinary Environmental Expedition) kid or Americana kid or art kid,” she said. “Those three people and so many others in the Sisters Schools community had such a passion for teaching the next generation and exposing their students to so many different things. It’s such an incredible dedication to community and giving back. They shaped the way I move about in the world and I’m incredibly grateful.”