Friday, February 19, 2010

Thoughts from a Partnership Conference

I spent last week in San Diego at the annual Association of Partners for Public Lands (APPL) conference, listening to keynote speakers and participating in concurrent sessions about youth outreach, volunteerism, and partnerships. It was a productive conference, not least due to the opportunities to network with others in the field and share ideas. Here are a few highlights gleaned from three days of sessions:

From Ruth Coleman, director of California State Parks: in lean fiscal times such as these, partners, cooperating associations, and volunteers are the only way to stay afloat. I'm sure that's true of California's state parks even more than it is, so far, with the National Parks.

From Jason Morris of NatureBridge: If we want to connect students to the natural world through our national parks, "the time is now." In a time of Richard Louv's book "Last Child in the Woods" and the Ken Burns film, when even commercials stress "green" values, when Secretary Salazar's priorities in the Department of the Interior begin with youth employment and the engagement of youth as stewards, there's tremendous political will to support productive partnerships. NatureBridge does this by encouraging a sense of place in the natural world, teaching science "in context," and encouraging stewardship. Longitudinal studies show that long-term commitment to the natural world is based on a series of experiences, not just a single experience, and so it's critical that groups coordinate with each other to offer a continuum of learning experiences that build on one another. Marketing materials should reflect the faces of the communities we serve. NatureBridge is working with SCA (as are we here at Mount Rainier) to expand our options for connecting youth to nature to include components of education, volunteerism, internships, and youth employment.

Another great kernel of an idea: do as much preparation as possible with groups ahead of time, before they come to the park, so that you can maximize the experience in the park rather than spending it covering rules and regulations.

The best keynote speaker during the whole event was delivered by Shelton Johnson, the ranger featured so prominently in the recent PBS Documentary "National Parks: America's Best Idea." I had a chance to chat with him in person, and was pleased to discover that he's as eloquent and creative in person as he is edited on film. (He's also really tall!) From his address:

- The greatest obstacle preventing people of color from coming to national parks is a sense of security. You don't anticipate having a fun vacation someplace you don't feel secure. There are few references to wilderness in the everyday lives of people of color: in their magazines, their radio stations, their newspapers.
- To overcome this, we need to welcome people personally to the parks. Invite individuals to the parks for personal experiences. Talk to people one-on-one. Meet them in their communities, where they feel comfortable and empowered.
- Outreach needs to be less about "let us help you," and more about "can you help us? We need you!" In Johnson's words, "Hi, I work for you--I'm a public servant and you can help me out!"
- Keep going back. A single visit just confirms that you aren't serious.
- It makes a difference when kids see people like themselves in video and images from the parks.

From another session, a "round table" discussion on engaging youth in service and employment on public lands: In order to reach the community, you have to become part of the community. Often we say "I'm intimidated about going into a new community to talk about the national parks." But that's exactly how the people in those communities often feel about coming to the parks! It takes time, and it takes relationships. And outreach works best when we work in partnership with people who are already part of the community. "Peer leadership" is key: it means so much more coming from someone in their own community, even if they can't say it as "well." Be friendly, be welcoming: "don't just stand there in uniform and wait for them to come to you," because, usually, they won't.

Great things to think about as we build our outreach program for 2010.

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