On a chilly night at the Jackson Campus of Teton Science Schools, a room of motivated young leaders from around the country sat captivated by a brick. The brick lay in the hands of Grand Teton National Park Superintendent David Vela, who walked from participant to participant, imploring them to make a physical connection with the weathered stone. As each leader touched the brick, she felt the pulse of history: the brick was a cherished remnant of the McLean House, the site of the signing of the surrender of the Civil War. For Superintendent Vela, it was even more: the McLean House was one of his first appointments in the National Park Service (NPS).
It was a fitting end to a week of finding significance and story in one’s place. Mountains to Main Street is an ambassador program facilitated at TSS in conjunction with NPS, Groundwork USA, and the Student Conservation Association (SCA). This past week, 30 young leaders from all corners of the nation came to Jackson to develop outreach models to connect the next generation of urban youth to the national park system. Throughout the week, these community leaders questioned, debated, and analyzed past initiatives and future plans to increase meaningful experiences for youth in national parks. The week spawned 30 new action plans rooted in each ambassador’s home community, each plan as unique as the community that inspired it.
Mountains to Main Street focused on three of the NPS’ Urban Agenda principles: 1) Be relevant to all Americans, 2) Activate “ONE NPS” by engaging the entire park service, including lesser-known units, and 3) Nurture a culture of collaboration. To these principles, Mountains to Main Street added a few of its own ideal outcomes: 1) Connect the next generation to parks, 2) Increase workforce diversity and youth employment in parks, and 3) Enhance urban outreach.
A primary focus of the week was to engage students in a streamlined framework that empowered them to leverage their communities’ resources into actionable outreach plans. The framework, aptly titled SMART, challenged the ambassadors (and instructors, alike) to create plans that were:
Specific – Ambassadors were encouraged to develop outreach plans that targeted a specific audience, had specific programmatic objectives, and contributed to larger goals, such as connecting urban youth to natural places.
Measurable – The outcomes of the programs should be concrete enough to gauge impact. How many youth camped for the first time in a national park? What skills did the youth bring back to their families after their national park experience?
Attainable – The programs should be reasonable in scope, take into account the available park and community resources, and consider the applicable experience each ambassador brought to her project.
Relevant – Outreach means little if the experience is not made relevant to the participants, so the ambassadors were challenged to come up with a hook for families: Why should you send your child outside on this program? What skills and experiences will he gain? What growth will this program inspire?
Timely/Trackable – Ambassadors were given a tight timeline of three to four months to finish their plans, advertise, and implement their programs, with check-ins by NPS, Groundwork USA, SCA, and TSS along the way.
Our ambassadors truly showed their SMARTs as they identified key leverage points – places where small shifts in a system can lead to major shifts in that same system – in their communities, their knowledge bases, their plans, and themselves. One week after their arrival, we bid a snowy farewell to those same 30 ambassadors, sending each home with a community outreach plan in tow.