Q&A with Sally Jewell, US Secretary of the Interior

US Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell with SCA Alum Roland Richardson at SCA's Find Your Park Day of Service at Anacostia Park in Washington, DC, in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., January 18, 2016

We catch up with the Secretary at our MLK Find Your Park Day of Service

For the second year in a row, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell spent her Martin Luther King Day serving with SCA alongside hundreds of community volunteers in Washington DC’s Anacostia Park. After a busy morning of picking up litter and cutting down invasive plants, she was nice enough to answer some questions from SCA’s Roland Richardson. Here’s what she had to say on volunteerism, urban parks, and America’s young people as they relate to Dr. MLK’s dream and this year’s NPS Centennial.

As the National Park Service Centennial approaches, why is service and volunteerism at the center of your engagement strategy?

The Centennial of the National Park Service is all about national parks belonging to all Americans. And yet, when you look across the landscape, it is really a subset of Americans that enjoy many of our national park assets. If we don’t reach out and engage new generations of young people, they’re not going to recognize what we have, what’s at stake, and care for it in the future. The outdoors and nature are part of our souls; they’re part of what we need to be human beings. Yet, our society is moving kids further and further away from nature.

[Speaking to DOI’s “Play, Learn, Serve, Work” initiative]…

“Play” is about just letting [young people] get outdoors and play. It gives them a chance to be more focused in school but also be more whole. The best classrooms are the ones with no walls.

“Learn” is about using the outdoors and nature to teach kids about the world around them in a way that sticks with them, because experiential learning is so much more effective than just sitting and reading about animals in a book.

“Serve”—look at the 600 people that are with us today at Anacostia Park, we are connecting people to place in a way that never leaves them. I have done hundreds of service projects all over the country and I remember those places. I remember whether its building trails or cleaning up trash or removing invasive species.  I learn about invasive species, I learn that on the Anacostia River, one of the big problems is that trash floats down the river and accumulates here—and that connects me to this place, where I understand what’s at stake. 

“Work”… It is recognizing that there are jobs in these sectors. There are jobs as biologists and conservationists and ecologists that aren’t even on the radar of young people that don’t get a chance to have these experiences. 

That is why it starts with “play,” then “learn,” then “serve,” then “work” – and that’s what we’re all apart of today.

In your mind, what are some of the defining moments of the NPS’s first hundred years…and what will be some of the defining moments in the next hundred years?

The establishment of the National Park Service 100 years ago recognized that there are places that are too special to develop. Some of the inspiration for starting the national parks was Niagara Falls, which is completely commercialized. And that’s what humans will do; they will exploit a natural resource for personal gain. The national parks were founded so that they became places for all Americans. Teddy Roosevelt and the founders of NPS said, “In many other countries these special places are for kings and queens and the aristocracy. In the US its different, they’re here for all Americans”. That was the first 100 years and recognizing there are special places to set aside.

In the next 100 years, it’s going to be about an urbanizing America. A place where people are moving to cities and away from nature.  How do we bring nature into people’s everyday lives so that our iconic national parks… are protected and preserved for future generations who actually will care about them and come and visit them because they’ve had an experience with a local park. [Many urban Americans] have found their park close by and that has shaped who they are. [The next 100 years] is going to be very much about making sure that National Parks are welcoming to all Americans - that they serve all Americans—that they really do reflect the diversity of our country, and the diversity of our ideas, and they tell the stories of our history and our culture in a way where everyone can see themselves in that picture. 

Beyond getting important work done on public lands, what do you see as the true value of SCA, the work that we do, and our volunteers?

In the New Deal era of the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps, that effort changed the lives of millions of Americans. We invested in those young people. The Student Conservation Association is really the CCC 2.0. … SCA is the largest of the organizations working to fill that gap today – reaching out to young people and saying, “These public lands are here for you, there are careers here.” It’s the Serve and Work component of Play/Learn/Serve/Work, and SCA has done a great job for almost 60 years in making that effort. Thank goodness for their good work!

How does ensuring access to public lands for all Americans connect with the legacy of MLK Jr?

True equality means access to open spaces, jobs, schools, and opportunity. But all men are not yet equal in this country — and one of the areas where there is still great disparity is in parks … especially in many of our lower-income neighborhoods, including right here around Anacostia Park. Dr. King understood that education, which starts by playing and learning in the outdoors, is a very, very important part of our ability to achieve human rights, and equal rights for all. So this event plays right into that.