After 26 years working for Sierra Club, I just experienced a "first." I spent three days in Washington DC as part of the Mission Outdoors delegation at Great Outdoors America Week (GOAW). GOAW opened my eyes to many things:
1) Washington DC - inside the beltway - contains the powerful people in this country; 2) However, those in power welcome and need to hear from "the people" on a regular basis to stay in touch with what is important to us and our local communities; 3) Working at the local level with our own communities is where things get done; 4) But we need our elected representatives to influence federal policies that help and support our work on the ground; 5) Building relationships despite the climate of "no" currently existing in Washington, is an important part of making change.
As I said, this was a week of "firsts." Laureen Guerriero, ICO National Steering Committee Co-Chair and Hartford ICO volunteer leader for 15 years, and I found ourselves signed up to speak to the legislative aides for Senators Lieberman and Blumenthal of Connecticut and Representative Langevin of Rhode Island. We are not lobbyists, by any means, but we are passionate about ICO. So we spoke from our hearts and shared our knowledge and experiences about how important it is to ensure people in local communities have access to the outdoors - be it in improved pedestrian paths, better public transportation to local or regional parks, or hands-on environmental educational opportunities within the school curricula. We made the connections between what ICO has been doing for 30 + years to get kids outdoors, with a legislator's ability to support and push for public policies and funds to support clean air, water, and lands and community-based collaborations to promote healthy environments in which we can all live. I spoke to the "Healthy Kids Outdoors Act" - a proposal to provide state-level incentives to develop strategies using public health, parks and recreation, transportation and other sectors to support community-based local initiatives to connect children, youth and families with the natural world. Laureen made personal connections with these Connecticut aides who offered to help promote ICO through website presence, visits to the communities with an ICO presence and even participate in an ICO trip if feasible.
One highlight was our visit to the EPA with 60 young students from Baltimore who attend an AP (Advanced Placement) summer academy. Nicole Veltre, high school science teacher and Chair and outing leader for Baltimore ICO, accompanied the group. EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, and her staff put together an amazing panel of speakers, highlighting the work EPA does in the areas of climate change, environmental justice, and intra-agency community-based projects to improve the local environments. The speakers emphasized the importance of studying Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) courses. Each panelist shared her/his paths to these jobs at EPA. Especially inspiring was to hear primarily African-American women who were chemical engineers, toxicologists, environmental engineers, and chemists, talk about how their work is all tied to improving the health of our planet. Lisa Jackson spoke from her heart too. Her down to earth, passionate speech about her journey from loving math as a child, seeing engineers as people who provide solutions to problems, and ultimately becoming a chemical engineer to find solutions to making our air, water and communities healthier. As she said, if people are getting sick because of the dirty air, than nothing else can move forward. Ms. Jackson pointed out that the EPA's job is to ensure healthy communities and that people must demand environmental protection. She also spoke to the meaning of the "great outdoors" - which for her is a walk in New York's Central Park, for example. The great outdoors is different for each of us, but we all need safe, clean, air, water and land to appreciate it. I was struck by the variety of community-based projects EPA initiates nationwide,such as, teaming up with the City of Baltimore to assist non-profits improve their energy efficiency and save money - money better spent on providing the vital social services the non-profits provide.
BIG TAKE AWAYS:
1) VOTE - It matters who is elected!
2) WRITE LETTERS, MEET with decision-makers, EXPRESS the problems and needs of your local community to those who have the power - It matters!
3) WORK TOGETHER locally to create safe, healthy, communities and encourage people to get outside - we are all in this together!
I am happy to be back in the fresh, cool air of San Francisco. I appreciate being able to live and work in one of the most beautiful urban areas in the U.S. I am proud to be part of Mission Outdoors. But I am especially glad to be working directly with all the Inner City Outings volunteers and Mission Outdoors staff to continue the work we do so well...connecting with young people, providing safe, fun, outdoors experiences to those who would not otherwise get these opportunities, and ultimately building a better future for us all. I thank all of you ICO volunteers who make this program shine and make me proud to be supporting your efforts in your own communities and advocating for ICO on the national level.