Rhea Suh, 44, is the new president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. At the Department of the Interior, she was assistant secretary for policy, management and budget. A daughter of Korean immigrants, she was raised in Colorado and lives in Washington with her husband and young daughter.
What led your parents to immigrate?
The aftermath of the Korean War. The country was still in ruins. They had very little money but had these outsized dreams and hopes and this huge degree of optimism of what America is and what it could be. I’ve inherited that optimism. I feel in my bones that same belief that this is a great country.
I went camping above the tree line in Colorado. The moon was so huge, and I kept thinking, Wow, this is what it was like before electricity.
The experience of the big, big moon and the clear, clear stars and the blue, blue sky — that was the first 20 years of my life. I thought that was what the world looked like.
What did your parents do?
Father was an automotive engineering specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
My mom was a homemaker. She tried to wrangle all
three of her daughters
into some degree of
Was that successful?
Sort of. [Laughs.]
Well, we have jobs. No rehab. It’s all good.
Where did you go to college?
I think I’m the only person from Colorado who came to New York City [Columbia] to study environmental science.
Did your dad say, “Um ...”?
Absolutely. It was about as different a part of the country as it could have been. My eyes were opened very quickly to the “brown” side of the world. The pollution side, the land impact side, the community impact side. My site visits were not in stations up in the Rocky Mountains but to Fresh Kills Landfill, taking water-quality samples from these mounds of garbage. It was a huge experience for me.
If my kids wanted to go into government, I think I’d say, “Aren’t they hiring down at the car wash?”
That’s so sad, because these are people really dedicated to their missions, really dedicated to the idea that they’re serving the American public. At Interior, I always talked about the example of the park ranger. The national parks are just a lovely experience, and people may not realize if it’s a park or a refuge or whatever — but they love those rangers. They’re so friendly, and that’s a government employee! People buy dolls of these rangers. Who buys dolls of government employees?
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