Skip to content Skip to navigation

Learning to be a pilot light

The people who attend Animal Care Expo are what makes it great

A ripple of embarrassment washes over me when I realize I’ve been squirming in my chair. I strain to focus through familiar content just to glean a couple new nuggets of wisdom. Then, directly after lunch, I fight off sleepy daydreams about what’ll be served for dinner, during which time I can use my coveted drink ticket.

I confess, this is a brief glimpse into what my mind usually does at professional conferences— that is, until I started attending Animal Care Expo.

It was 2013, and a coworker and I were driving to Expo in Nashville, Tennessee. As part of the St. Louis shelter for which we worked, we had recently been chosen as one of the first 10 official mentorship groups in the Pets for Life (PFL) program. It was our first animal welfare conference and, while we were excited, we didn’t quite know what to expect.

I was still relatively new to the animal welfare field, and I was hungry for creative ideas. I hoped to have my knowledge tested and my assumptions shattered. Being a part of the PFL program since the fall of 2012 had already exposed me to an entirely different way of seeing my work and the world around me. Focusing outside the shelter walls to provide free resources to underserved communities and removing barriers for pet owners living in poverty—this concept was unlike anything I had seen in animal welfare. It seemed apparent to me that this would become a major movement and propel our industry’s impact in one of those groundbreaking ways that makes you ask yourself why it took so long to become a “thing.”

So when I found my seat that first morning at a PFL workshop, not uncomfortably close to the front, but also not obviously too close to the back, I had high expectations. I was not let down.

I was challenged by philosophical discussions about social justice, inequality and how institutional racism and systemic poverty impact pet ownership and play a critical role in how my organization could serve our surrounding community holistically. I listened intently as door-to-door outreach strategies were presented in tangible, accessible ways. I think I even asked a question and made a comment. After a while, it dawned on me that I hadn’t given a single thought to the free lunch or the swag I might get in the exhibit hall.

At the risk of overselling it or coming off like a geek, I even took more notes in between workshops—thoughts and inspirations that I just had to get down on paper lest I forget to report them to my executive director back home. I also bumped into colleagues from across the country who worked for organizations that were PFL mentorship groups, and we talked about what a cool opportunity this was. Then we swapped contact information, so we could continue talking about how cool it was weeks and months later.

Civil rights leader and U.S. Congressman John Lewis astutely said, “It’s better to be a pilot light than to be a firecracker.” That idea—that fighting for a just cause with steady consistency will “light” countless others over time—always resonated with me. At the conference in Nashville, being surrounded by kindred spirits who were equally interested in redefining the status quo, served as a catalyst that would alter my personal perspective and define the trajectory of my career for the next five years and beyond.

What ignites your passion? In what areas are you hungry for more knowledge? What new concept are you incubating that will prove to be the next big inspiration for us all?

Movements can begin when we’re not merely preaching to the choir and when ideas aren’t just chatter within the walls of conference centers. Forward-thinking, outspoken, collaborative people finding ways to make our movement more fair, just and inclusive are what ensures Expo will be completely worthwhile and, most importantly, have the capacity to alter our communities in positive, meaningful ways long after the exhibitor booths are broken down and the last chair is stacked.

I hope to see you there, and I look forward to learning from you. And if you aren’t going to use your drink ticket, I’ll happily take it off your hands.

Join Jason and his co-presenters, Natalie Corwin, president and CEO of Pet Community Center, and Aldwin Roman, director of anti-cruelty and outreach at Charleston Animal Society, for “Beyond bad guys: Maximizing your fundraising efforts with positive messaging,” taking place on the Fundraising and Marketing workshop track on Tuesday, May 15 from 9:45 – 11:15a.m. We also encourage you to attend all the great workshops on the Reaching Underserved Communities track, which is filled with new and exciting Pets for Life program content!

About the Author

Jason Schipkowski is a mentorship and training manager with Pets for Life (PFL) at the Humane Society of the United States. As part of this role, he provides training support throughout the country to organizations that desire to connect people in underserved communities to information and services for their pets. Prior to joining the PFL team, Jason worked for a rescue and shelter group in St. Louis, Missouri, where he helped to implement the PFL community outreach model and served as marketing and development director. Jason has additional years of experience in marketing, communication, and companion animal medical care.