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IDP Blog 1: What is our full potential as a National Park Service and how do we reach it?

What I know…and what I don’t know

The highs and lows of evolving our interpretive craft

For more than 50 years, The National Park Service’s Mather Training Center has been a leader in defining the craft of interpretation. For more than 20 years, the Interpretive Development Program has helped the field define and achieve success.

As Training Manager for Interpretation and Education for the National Park Service, I’m often expected to have some answers – as are you as field practitioners. I alternatively embrace and resist that role of expert. Here in this blog, I will share that struggle…maybe it speaks to your own.

Today’s topic – What is our full potential as a National Park Service and how do we reach it?

I know the tours I gave in the Everglades more than 10 years ago hit the mark. Visitors exclaimed when I could find an alligator nest or identify a heron as it took flight, they asked rich and probing questions, and thanked me when the tour was over. They sometimes even cried when I used the Marjory Stoneman Douglas quote. But more than that, these reactions gave me a glimpse of the emotional and intellectual connections they made to place. My professional community agreed: I achieved competency standards in all 10 benchmark competencies. Three of my programs were used as anchor training examples.

I know our interpretive techniques and strategies worked for our past visitors to our parks. I know this in part because our parks are preserved, our visitation robust. What I don’t know is if they work for our future. Interpretation of the 20th century enriched lives – I provided joy, contemplation, learning, and deep reflection. But I never really learned much from my audiences. I didn’t solicit feedback or collaborate with them in a way that helped me grow as a person or agent of this agency. I only flirted with our full potential.

I also know that current preservation and visitation aren’t the only measures of success. Even while our visitation increases, our visitors represent our country’s demographics even less than 20 years ago, a trend on track to only worsen. Additionally, the critical role of parks as a warning and a balm to our society is more imperative than ever. Survival of the National Park Service, and possibly even civil society, may hinge on fulfilling that role.*

For me:

  • We interpret Civil War sites so we never have another civil war
  • We interpret slavery so we can acknowledge the wound we still bear
  • We interpret civil rights to ensure the arc bends toward justice
  • We interpret internment so we never again cage our citizens
  • We interpret acts of terror to find the courage to be heroes in the moment of need
  • We interpret immigration so we can claim our roots and challenge our identity
  • We preserve breathtaking landscapes so we never have another Niagara Falls
  • We interpret the peaks and canyons to be humbled in the shadow of their grandeur
  • We preserve wilderness to push against our instinct to tame and consume
  • We preserve wildlife to define our humanity by more than our own needs
  • We offer transformative recreational experiences so we can heal our besieged bodies, buoy our flagging spirits, and believe in our endless potential.

We are more than the sum of our parts. We hold the collective conscience and hope of the country. We have national parks so we can live…and learn to be the best versions of ourselves — as a nation, as a people, as a person. That’s what I believe. And I know we can’t do it alone.

In our first century, I’m not sure I asked the right questions. But in this century, I feel derelict if I don’t – don’t ask, don’t learn, don’t doubt, don’t grow. So I ask you, what is the full potential of parks to you? How do you measure success?

*For more on where these ideas come from, read the National Parks Second Century Commission report on Connecting People to Parks.

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  1. Thanks Katie. Good and thoughtful post. I am in on the ground floor with Blog#1 and look forward to many others to stimulate conversation and help me reflect on, and understand, MY OWN PART in the collective NPS community….and beyond.

    On a logistical note, how do we know when you’ve shared a new blog? If we ‘follow’ someone, will we automatically be notified of a new share?

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  2. Thanks so much, Mary Lou. We are committed to doing these blogs bi-weekly through the summer (and maybe fall). While there isn’t any way to directly subscribe yet, I think you should get the notifications by following me – which you have 🙂

  3. Lovely entry, Katie. From my point of view, I wonder how “full potential” relates to understaffed sites. This last couple of years, I’ve been to numerous sites that had paper signs on the door, “facility closed early due to…” or “program cancelled”. Personally, I think we may need to be more selective about what tasks interp staff spend their time on, and do those things very well. That means not doing everything anymore. I wish I had some kind of NPS vision/policy guidance that would help parks make these decisions. Should a park close the VC two days a week, in order to handle collateral duties? Is it appropriate to stop giving educational programs for the next five years, and just conduct regular after-school programs? Katie, I don’t have lots of time for blogging, but I sure would like to stay in the loop. Thanks for the opportunity!

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  4. The full potential of parks to me is the restoration, (if it every really existed) and/or creation of civil discourse in our nation, We live in a time of vicious polarization. Even some of our highest elected officials eschew civil discourse in favor of crude language, name calling and xenophobix rhetoric. There is no passion for uniting us as a people and in fact it often seems the goal is to tear us apart pitting group against group.

    I believe that the highest potential for parks is uniting us as a people, reminding us of that everything you name here is a collective experience because it happened in America to Americans. Understanding and empathy are nutured through connections forged in parks. That understanding and empathy I believe will lead to greater tolerance, civility and the ability to engage in meaningful dialogue so that we can face and overcome our nation’s challenges together.

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  5. Thanks for the comment, Peggy. I think you are exactly right – we need to be more strategic and intentional about what we do. That’s why “Just One Thing” was such a huge theme of the Interpretation Leadership and Business Skills trainings for Chiefs of Interpretation last year – if you pick one thing to start doing, pick one thing to stop doing. Tom Medema and Sheri Forbes are pulling together a work group to start writing programmatic standards for 21st Century Interpretation, so we can ensure we have good targets for this new work. I hope you can be involved!

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  7. Anyone who has felt a disconnect between “natural” and “cultural” interpretation should read Katie’s blog and her ideas as to why we interpret wilderness, wildlife, and landscapes.

    I will use this blog and others in seasonal training to stimulate thought and hopefully inspire the new generation of interpreters to be more holistic as they set goals in their programming.

    How do we measure success? For years I would have said the state of our resources is the best measure of success. But maybe, we haven’t paid enough attention of “Maslows
    SOCIETAL Hierarchy of Needs.”

    At all sites, if we can foster civility, empathy, and build community first, then the collective power of that community can be more powerful in addressing the stewardship demands of bears, battlefields, and biological soil crust. In other words, every goal we have as an agency will be a team effort. As we realign our interpretation for the 21st century, we aim to build a more reflective, agile, diverse, and skilled team of rangers, citizens, and stakeholders. So how do we measure success?: is our team growing and diversifying? are they addressing relevant issues? Are they fostering skills among each other to confront future challenges?

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