Retirement just a change of course on Faye Sleeper’s road map

Faye Sleeper decided early on that being a woman was not going to limit her life choices. Her father taught her to change tires and motor oil and she was her own bike mechanic. Her parents’ life and work ethic of fairness and kindness to all, cautious optimism and unwavering stewardship for the earth, had a profound effect on their daughter who carried those lessons into her life and work. “My parents modeled a conservation ethic long before it was trendy,” she says. Both Faye’s parents had advanced education and valued a college education for their daughter.

Faye carried this framework into her college studies, majoring in social work. Upon graduation she worked for a few years in corrections, then transitioned into working with troubled young people in residential centers. That work cemented her work management style; learning to stand firm, while seeking out the best that each person has to offer, and helping foster those qualities.

Needing a work life change, Faye did a career assessment at the University of Minnesota, which landed her in cartography, though the world was moving away from paper maps, so she made the switch to environmental policy, a period of time during which she jokingly says “My dream was to sit in a canoe and draw up maps of the Boundary Waters, like they don’t already exist!”

An internship at the DNR land section division led in turn to a position at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), in the Construction Grants Program, which provided funding and enforcement of wastewater management rules. At one time, Faye oversaw 150 municipal wastewater facilities in the Brainerd/Detroit Lakes area.

As Faye moved into management and non-source point pollution at the MPCA, she oversaw the development of the Impaired Waters Stakeholder process, a series of meetings with environmental groups, business concerns, agriculture groups, Soil Water Conservation Districts, and cities, with a goal of making changes that would matter to water quality. It was this work that created the foundation for what became the Clean Land and Water Legacy Act. In reflecting on this outcome, Faye says “Program development is like being in whitewater constantly until the end; satisfying work, but not always comfortable.”

Faye was aware of the Water Resources Center through interaction with Deb Swackhamer and Jim Anderson in her work at the MPCA and she was impressed with the work of the center. When the position of co-director was offered to her, she jumped at the chance to move from a regulatory focus to promoting research-based solutions to water problems. Avenues not open to her at the agency blossomed before her. One of many firsts: an invitation to be a co-author of a book chapter about the beginnings of the Clean Land and Water Legacy Act, a process that she really enjoyed. Other opportunities included sitting on the Board of Water and Soil Resources, planning the first and successive Climate Adaptation conferences in Minnesota, developing the Watershed Specialist Training program with Ann Lewandowski, and most recently, aligning the UMN Extension Water Team more closely with the WRC.

“So much variety. Even in the tough times, working with people who have so much knowledge and passion for water . . .so worthwhile.  I’m fortunate to have had this opportunity with the WRC to do so many things.”

There will be plenty of variety in retirement for Faye. Her immediate future includes European travels and exploring neglected treasures closer to home.

Look for Faye on the water in a kayak, or on her bike, possibly fixing her own broken bicycle chain on the side of the road.

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Faye Sleeper kayaking on Mirror Lake in Wisconsin in 2016.
Photo credit: Jane Stone Tonn-Kreski