By Dylan Howlett
It was early June when David Bradley ’13 visited Southwest Regional Library in Durham. He was six months into his new role as an open space specialist with Durham County Engineering and Environmental Services, and the library was hosting a meeting of an advisory committee dedicated to issues concerning New Hope Creek. The third item on the published agenda was a proposed development that would place an apartment building next to Sandy Creek Park, which sits about a mile from Durham Academy’s Ridge Road campus. This was of particular interest to Upper School teacher and sustainability coordinator Tina Bessias ’78. She planned to attend, though she had no idea she’d see her former literature student sitting on the committee.
Bradley hadn’t visited DA’s campus in the decade since he graduated. But running into Bessias was all he needed to rekindle his connection to DA. “It was very cool,” he said. Bessias and Bradley chatted and agreed to meet for lunch. Over their meal at Foster’s Market, they talked about the community service component of Cavalier Kickoff (orientation activities for ninth-, 10th- and 11th-graders). Bradley soon got in touch with the 11th-grade lead class advisors — Upper School music teacher Mike Meyer and Upper School French teacher Dr. Stefanie Goyette — and an idea was born: Bradley would lead DA 11th-graders into the woods surrounding New Hope Creek to clear invasive privet, including several 8-foot privet trees that were cloaked in vines.
“These students endured heat, mud and intense manual labor to remove invasive privet plants from the rich bottomland forest along New Hope Creek, one of the most significant ecosystems in central North Carolina,” said Bradley, who oversaw the project in August. “In doing so, they freed up space and resources for important native species and contributed to the global effort to solve our planet’s ongoing biodiversity crisis.”
Bradley visited with the Marketing & Communications team this week for a wide-ranging conversation about Cavalier Kickoff, his day-to-day responsibilities and his “meandering” path from DA to his current role.
This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
DA: Your focus with 11th-graders was on removing privet. What’s so insidious about it?
Bradley: It’s everywhere. It’s this very fast-growing woody shrub that gets very big very quickly. It spreads really fast, and it crowds out some really important native plants that pollinators and other wildlife depend on. When it grows like that, it destabilizes the whole ecosystem. The 11th-graders made a huge dent in one of the worst spots on the trail.
DA: In addition to the 11th-graders making a dent in the privet, what else was rewarding about working with them?
Bradley: One was just reconnecting with my alma mater. It was cool to hear students say, ‘Oh, Ms. Simón is my advisor, too.’ It’s really cool how relevant it is to DA with Sandy Creek, which goes right into New Hope Creek. DA is such an important part of the community, too. To have them learn and be excited about this place that a lot of them didn’t know, and also bring their knowledge from the stuff that they’ve learned at DA with a lot of enthusiasm — it was really touching.
DA: I would wager there’s at least one 11th-grader who now wants to become an open space specialist.
Bradley: We had a few students I was talking to who were like, ‘Wow, this is really cool.’ It would definitely be great.
DA: You were saying that you’ve been out of touch with the DA community for a while, and we know the community is anxious to hear how you’ve been doing. What have you been up to from the time you graduated from DA until you started working for Durham County seven months ago?
Bradley: Kind of meandering, initially.
DA: Welcome to young adulthood.
Bradley: (Laughs) Exactly. One of my friends said that I took the scenic route through college, which I kind of like. I had a lot of personal stuff going on when I graduated [from DA]. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I was in and out of school for a while. Eventually, I just decided, ‘OK, I’ve gotta get some kind of college degree.’ I got an associate’s degree from Durham Tech, and in the midst of all that, I was also starting to really get into all of this environmental work — volunteering and then working some part-time jobs. I transferred to UNC to get my bachelor’s, and I got my environmental studies degree there in May 2022. A couple of days after I graduated, I got a full-time seasonal job at Eno River State Park, which was very cool. It was a very interesting experience to work in a state park. I got my full-time job with Durham County back in February 2023. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing, but I got really great academic experiences and also got cool professional experiences along the way.
DA: You’ve already taught us something, and that’s a job title that we never knew existed. What, exactly, is an open space specialist?
Bradley: That’s a great question, and one that I’m still figuring out. I’ve been with the county for seven months now. But I’m part of the county’s open space program, which does land conservation throughout Durham. My position is a fully new position, and I’m basically an assistant to everyone within the program. I dabble in volunteer work days and outreach, but also mapmaking in GIS and conservation planning. There’s so much to the work, so I’m getting up to speed on everything. But it’s really just a jack-of-all-trades position, which is really cool.
DA: When you were walking this campus 10 years ago, would you have ever envisioned a role like this for yourself?
Bradley: I think I knew then that I wanted to do something in government. Conservation-wise, it was not something that was on my radar as much, and I also wasn’t really thinking about local government. As I kind of started exploring this field, this kind of job was something that I started to hear about more in various titles. There are so many different names for a position like this with the kind of work that’s involved.
DA: When you were a student and getting an inkling that government might be for you, what were the specific classes or experiences that pointed you in that direction?
Bradley: A lot, actually. One, I took Mr. Spatola’s [Mike Spatola, longtime DA history teacher who retired in 2018] classes a couple of times, which were very government-focused, of course. I took Mr. [Owen] Bryant’s world cultures class. I just became very interested in government and politics. I took literature with Ms. Bessias, with Mr. [Lanis] Wilson, and I think I was just very focused on social issues and thinking a lot about that. Mr. [William] Edwards, who taught my biology class in ninth grade, reinforced my interest in life sciences. Mr. [Jordan] Adair’s Literature and War class shaped my thinking about public service, government and other topics. And Ms. [Liliana] Simón is not only a fantastic teacher, but she’s also a wonderful advisor. She was hugely supportive when I was dealing with various personal difficulties in high school.
DA: What would you say is the guiding mission that informs your work and the open space program’s work?
Bradley: To protect land in Durham for the many benefits that undeveloped land provides. It’s a very textbook answer, but that’s essentially it — often ecological, but also historical, recreational, all of that. We basically make sure that Durham County can continue to grow without losing these places that are really important.
DA: What do Durham and Durham County offer in terms of open spaces that the public might not even realize?
Bradley: There’s a lot that I think is well-publicized with Eno River State Park and Triangle Land Conservancy. The county comanages a couple of parks with Orange County: Hollow Rock Nature Park and Little River Regional Park are two that I think are becoming more well-known. Where we had the 11th-grade community service day was the New Hope Creek Bottomlands, and a lot of that is Durham County land. I think that is the least well-known of the publicly accessible places that the county itself owns and manages. But then there are other organizations like Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association. They have a bunch of little, and some much larger, properties out there. There’s really just this whole mosaic of organizations and agencies that are doing work like this.
DA: What is the most challenging part of your work and the county’s work?
Bradley: A broad answer would be taking into account all of the different interests at play. In some ways, it would be nice if it were just ecology and science. Instead, you have to think about development, and economics, and social issues. That’s probably my favorite part of the job because it’s so interesting, and the messiness is really exciting. There’s just so much to balance. We’re a government agency, so it would be wrong for us in many cases to take an advocacy position. There’s this conception that government is this slow process for everything, and it’s actually a very good thing. It means that everyone’s needs are being taken into account. You can get really excited about a project and realize it takes a lot more time and a lot more thinking. It’s easy to take for granted, but it’s really cool to be even just a part of the same government where all of these people are doing really important work. Just in my own department, most people have been there at least 10 years. We have people who have been there for 30-plus years. It’s really cool.
DA: What’s the most rewarding part of the job?
Bradley: I don’t think there are any parts that aren’t rewarding. The public engagement part, whether it’s work days or just talking to people, is really cool — particularly when it’s out in the field. It’s really cool to hear people say, ‘Wow, I had no idea this was here. Wow, Durham County has some really cool stuff.’ There was a lot of it that I didn’t know beforehand, either. On a day-to-day basis, that’s the most heartwarming part of what I get to do.
DA: We know you heard plenty of “Moral, Happy, Productive” mentions during your time as a student. In these last 10 years, how has “Moral, Happy, Productive” shown up in your post-DA life?
Bradley: I’d like to think that where I am now fits those three things. Deciding what I wanted to do in life was a matter of figuring out how to meet all of those three really important needs. Especially as a somewhat angsty teenager, you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m tired of hearing this.’ But getting to be in a career where I am happy with what I do, and it also feels right, and I feel like I’m productive — it’s really cool. And then I get to have that connection to this high school experience with Cavalier Kickoff. It’s other areas of life, too — personal areas, friendships, relationships. You can’t just isolate the career stuff. It has at first unwittingly and then moreso wittingly, I guess, been a pretty important set of principles in my life.