Deputy Director candid, revealing in SCA interview
SCA recently sat down for a conversation with Mickey Fearn, National Park Service Deputy Director for Communications and Community Assistance. He was candid, insightful and revealing…
SCA: To your mind, what is the single biggest issue facing national parks today?
Dep. Director Fearn: (Laughs.) Well, there are a lot of those. Jon [Jarvis, NPS Director] has identified four of them: relevance, education, stewardship and workforce, and they’re all interrelated.
Certainly, we have the challenge of a number of our employees being eligible for retirement in the next four years which means there’s going to be a huge transformation and workforce transition in the context of uncertain budget cuts. And when you talk about that workforce you also talk about our relevancy, inclusion and diversity issues. Our diversity numbers have to get better. Not for compliance or moral reasons but because in order for us to be an organization that serves a country as demographically diverse as America, we need to have a workforce that reflects that.
We also have to spend some time making sure that this organization values diversity as an asset, an asset that’s full of enrichment and possibility. Understanding that increases the ethnic and cultural relevancy of our programs and services.
All of this is committed toward a sort of vision where we use the assets of the National Park Service – the cultural assets, the physical assets, human resources – to inspire civic and environmental stewardship, and to help people live powerfully and fully in a democratic and a demographically, culturally and ethnically diverse society. We want them to become environmental stewards – as a matter of fact, we would like to see a society where there is no such thing as an “environmental community,” but that every citizen understood their responsibility for environmental stewardship and environmental justice.
It’s not just our stewarding of the resources we have, but us inspiring an ethic of stewardship so that people in urban areas who are living in the midst of environmental injustices and people in rural areas who could have other kinds of concerns all share the ethic of environmental stewardship. In order to do that, we have to begin to look at the National Park Service as an educational institution that has a responsibility not only around formal education but to participate in helping Americans have revelations and discovery about the places they live in and the country they live in.
You mentioned the Park Service’s need for greater diversity and to reach out beyond park boundaries. How does NPS plan to build those bridges?
We’re working on youth development, organizational transformation, innovation and creativity. We’re working on relevance, diversity and inclusion, and we’re working on how to engage populations of people who have not traditionally been engaged.
My assessment of SCA is that it works with young people to help them become environmental stewards for life. That is, having a meaningful experience that inspires a sense of responsibility for nature, wherever it is, and one of the things I most appreciate about SCA is that SCA does not necessarily define nature as away from urban areas but it looks at nature as habitat and ecosystems wherever they are.
The thing that I have been most pleased with lately about SCA is at AGO (America’s Great Outdoors), one of the things we noticed was the adults that attended were primarily white, middle class to upper class homeowners who are involved in the environmental movement. When we looked at the youth sessions, with the exceptions of Montana and maybe one other, those sessions were almost 60% people of color, and the reason was largely due to how hard SCA worked to get those populations out to AGO.
I know your founder was recognized by President Obama last year [Liz Putnam became the first conservationist to receive the Presidential Citizens Medal in Augiust, 2010], and what she has done and what SCA is doing, is creating a movement that is similar to civil rights movement. You’re beginning to see populations of people concerned about environmental stewardship that historically weren’t concerned about that, and I think that’s largely due to the work of SCA. I would not want to discount the work of other groups and organizations but I think SCA has been a leader in that.
As NPS struggles for relevancy, its centennial is just five years away. What does that say for the future of our parks? Our people? And what is NPS doing about it?
When you consider that we have not fully promoted the National Park Service to people, in fact we have oversimplified it, it explains why people don’t necessarily see the potential of the National Park Service in terms of enriching or adding to the quality of their lives. So we have a challenge, to sustain the interests of those people who know and love us already.
We also have a need to make sure that people know about the National Park Service and what the “arrowhead” stands for. And we have to make sure that the people who are aware that we exist but don’t use us, we have to calculate why that is and start working on that.
The [biggest] challenge is the non-aware/non-user population which means, according to Jon’s goal of relevancy, we become relevant to all people. Because what happens over a period of time, those people whose lives we are touching, based on their avocational and recreational interests, develop a career interest in the National Park Service.
We’ve been kind of backwards, in a way, in believing that we would become more relevant if, in fact, we diversified the workforce. The reality is it’s going to take a long time to diversify this workforce. So we have to get the workforce to understand the importance of becoming relevant to all people and as a result of becoming relevant to people, those people will then want to do this work.
What is NPS looking for from youth programs in the years ahead?
One, we are looking seriously at the kinds of immersion experiences that have connected all young people with the National Park Service, and we see that those immersion experiences primarily have to do with outdoor recreation or work programs. Part of what we need to do is to engage youth in many different ways about a number of different things.
Most people see us as outdoor recreation resource or as a tourist attraction. In fact, the National Park Service is a classroom that’s full of possibilities for revelation and discovery. It’s an economic engine, it’s a scientific laboratory; there are sacred places where people come and have special experiences, and what we’re trying to do is connect youth with the National Park Service in a way that honors the complexity of all the National Park Service is.
The National Park Service is also trying to create youth programs that are based on sound youth development principles, principles based on allowing young people to find their power and find their gifts and being intentional about those things. One of the decisions we have to make is: what can we do relevant to youth service as a direct service and what can we do through our partners? What we’re committed to is to not try to become a youth development organization in ways that are not specifically tied to our core lines of business. We want to be sure we are using our partners to do that – partners who know how to do that work, who’ve been doing it for a along time and have shown success in doing it.
We also have to consider that we have a need to have people develop an interest in public lands careers, although I don’t necessarily think that that is the total measurement of our effectiveness. We have to understand that part of what we’re trying to do is develop these environmental and cultural stewards and then some of those people will decide to work in this agency. I’m going to ask [NPS Youth Programs Manager] George McDonald to give you a few specifics on that.
George McDonald: Deputy Director Fearn and Director Jarvis have developed new guiding principles for youth programs. One is to provide opportunities for experiences in nature and connections to our shared cultural heritage. We also want to provide educational opportunities that expand a participant’s academic and intellectual capacities; reinforce healthy lifestyle choices through outdoor recreation opportunities in parks and through National Park Service programs; overcome the barriers that youth and their families may face that inhibit full participation in park activities; and promote adventure, curiosity and self awareness through park programs.
We’ve also developed some macro goals. One, build a resource stewardship ethic in all participants that will be sustainable over their lifetimes. Two, develop participatory citizenship values; our youth programs should motivate all participants to become involved in natural and cultural resource protection in their immediate communities and beyond. And third: develop leadership skills. These programs need to instill through the program components leadership skills in the participants that encourage them to teach to others the National Park Service mission of natural and cultural resource stewardship, in their immediate communities and beyond.
Obviously, we also want to provide employment, education, volunteer service and educational opportunities to young people between the ages and five and 25 and provide a continuum of experience to young people through their formative years. And I think those line up, the principles and goals, with SCA.
Mickey Fearn: Every human being is of nature and therefore has a meaningful relationship with nature. I think SCA gives people the opportunity to connect with that. There are a bunch of things in American society that have disrupted people’s relationships with nature. For me, it was rural racial violence. For some people it’s forced work, or urbanization.
But through the work that SCA does, and not only the actual work that people do but the education programs around that, is that it’s helped people understand their relationship with nature and to become comfortable with nature again and to understand what their responsibility is for it.
Sometimes when you get turned on by that, that becomes your life’s work. And one of the things that SCA often helps to do is get people to go back to their own communities and say ‘why isn’t my neighborhood or community as beautiful as this place I’ve been working in?’ and then begin to fight to make it so. SCA reconnects the umbilical attachment that people have with nature and it becomes something that they are profoundly interested in either as a career or as becoming environmental stewards.
Everyone I know who has a strong connection to the outdoors can cite a particular moment or experience that forged that special bond. What’s yours?
I grew up in D.C. and my parents were always fond of taking us to very beautiful places. So I’ve always loved – there’s always something sacred about nature, the relationship between spirit and God and nature, that’s always affected me.
But the experience the crystalized it was around 1980, because of some interesting changes in my life, I actually did something that was sort of like joining the Foreign Legion. I needed to get away from certain influences in my life and certain decisions I had made so I asked Russ Cahill, who was director of California state parks, if I could go work in a park. And I lived in Big Basin State Park for four months, probably the most significant four months of my life because at Big Basin I was able to get away from the distractions that were causing me trouble but also I was around nature every day.
I was asked to do a campfire talk one night and I decided I was going to do it like The Johnny Carson Show, and I was Johnny Carson. I went and sat down beside this Redwood tree called the Mouth of the Forest, which is 300 feet tall, 2,000 years old, and I started asking questions and answered the way the tree might answer the questions.
I tried to think of answers relative to how something as smart as this Redwood tree, this source of wisdom, would answer those questions. We “talked” about death and dying and race and all that kind of stuff. I did that one day and then did it every day for the next four months.
It literally transformed my life. When I came out of the park, by virtue of that relationship with nature, I began to understand what I needed to include in my life that would enrich me and help me grow, and what I needed to keep out of my life. It was the four month experience and 15,000 acres of Redwoods and beginning to understand nature and the power of nature, the undeniable relationship between sacred things and spiritual things and nature. That was the transformation trigger for me.
What a remarkable story. Thank you for sharing it, as well as your other insights.
Thank you for the opportunity.