Engagement is a fairly common word these days. Companies, non-profits, and public land managers alike are looking for ways to connect with the changing demographic of the American public. But when it comes to engagement, what is really working? What efforts are making lasting change in the lives of young people and communities?
I decided to look at what engagement means in the National Park Service. Specifically, how do we successfully involve and appeal to communities of color? As a student employee of the National Park Service Conservation Study Institute, I was able to work closely with park staff and partners to explore how two large, urban parks–Santa Monica Mountains and Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Areas–engage their surrounding communities through youth programming.
I spent three years meeting with and interviewing park and partner staff, program participants and their families, and community members. I was able to see programs in action, visit schools and talk with teachers and principals, and see the impacts of program activities firsthand in parks and communities. I distilled what I learned into six principles. These principles were shared across all the programs I explored, whether they were 5th grade interdisciplinary school programs, internship programs, or single-visit fieldtrips.
- It is critical to have staff members who are skilled in youth development and reflect the diversity of the local community. This leads program participants to feel comfortable and enables staff to act as mentors within and outside the program.
- Leadership at both the park and partner organization need to remain committed to community engagement and encourage park and partner staff to experiment and be innovative in developing and delivering programs. Management needs to create an environment that supports creativity.
- The parks and partners are more successful at engaging diverse youth when programs are developed through community dialogue; ensuring that school and community needs are met. Community events and interdisciplinary school programs take a considerable amount of time and effort but allow for programs that meet the needs of everyone.
- Community service projects foster a general appreciation of stewardship and a personal sense of ownership toward park and community resources in program participants. Projects like riverbank cleanups and planting native species also provide youth with meaningful work that creates a feeling of ownership in the park and pride in their work.
- Whether or not a program is designed to focus specifically on career exploration, getting hands-on experience and interacting with different park staff introduces youth participants to the range of job opportunities with the NPS.
- Just as staff needs to be skilled in youth development, they should have an understanding of local cultures. Whether that is the ability tospeak the various languages of the communities or incorporate local perspectives in interpretation, staff needs to be able to communicate and relate to communities. When staff is knowledgeable about local cultures, members of the community feel more comfortable and welcome in the park and its programs.
When parks and partners are working towards fulfillment of these six principles, they are actively developing programs that foster deep engagement–connecting with youth in ways that make national parks a vital part of program participants’ daily lives and visible members of surrounding communities. Does your local park do a good job of involving the community, reaching out to youth, and embracing diverse perspectives? Several of the programs from Santa Monica and Boston Harbor were started by community members that saw an opportunity or had an innovative idea. If you have ideas on how your local park can partner with the community, let them know. The most successful programs are the ones developed in partnership.
To find out what is happening in your community, visit www.nps.gov/communities.