How Young Professionals Engage Underserved Communities

October 1, 2015, Department, by NRPA

P&R magazine hears from three of NRPA’s talented young professionals who share how they engage with underserved communities.Parks & Recreation magazine wanted to learn how young professionals engage traditionally underserved populations to increase their access to services. So, we reached out to three talented individuals for their insights: Allison Williams, a MobilizeGreen Resource Assistant intern with the U.S. Forest Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, has been a member of NRPA since 2008; Atuya O. Cornwell, CPRP, who holds a bachelor’s degree in exercise sports science from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and an master’s from Pfeiffer University, currently serves as a representative on NRPA’s Young Professional Network, Program Committee and Public Policy Committee. He has worked with The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Wheaton, Maryland, and also with the Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department in his hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, and is the 2015 recipient of the NRPA’s Robert W. Crawford Young Professional Award; and Kayode Lewis, M.Ed., CPRP, who holds a bachelor’s in education and master’s of education in teaching and learning — policy and leadership from the University of Maryland, College Park, serves as Coordinator of Instructional and Youth programs for the University of New Hampshire Campus Recreation Department and is the 2014 NRPA Young Professional Fellow, 2013 AAPRA Young Professional Extern and 2012 NRPA Diversity Fellow. 

Parks & Recreationmagazine: How can young professionals help to increase access for underserved populations?

Kayode Lewis: Do your due diligence. Determine who your customers are. Census data provides a statistical portrait of the ethnicities, ages, level of education and income of your residents. Value lies in the knowledge gained through informal interactions with the key stakeholders (community members, seasoned staff, etc.) familiar with your community’s nuances. Treat each citizen as a key stakeholder. A socially equitable approach requires an understanding of patrons who are involved. This information can be used to develop services for populations who lack access. It is our responsibility to provide quality services for everyone. 

Allison Williams:  As an intern with the U.S. Forest Service and Appalachian Trail Conservancy, I was tasked with strengthening youth involvement and diversity through outreach and volunteer service. Engaging diverse populations takes passion and willingness to make partnerships work. This job is not a one-time deal. Providing youth with a seat at the table to discuss environmental and sustainability issues requires an ongoing commitment: attending meetings, joining coalitions and really being the face for change.

P&R:  How can we best assess the public’s need in order to deliver services that are in-demand?

Lewis: An assertive communications style requires the sender to be clear and firm in his or her intent while maintaining the respect of others. Assertive communicators employ empathy in every interaction. They speak “with” and “to” their patrons. They possess an awareness of their own socioeconomic status and its implication on their notion of privilege and bias. Identify and design assessments to elicit the feedback to develop programs for all patrons. Social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.), needs assessments and public information from city council/executive board meetings provide professionals with the tools that can help them effectively gauge the interests of their communities. 


P&R: What types of professional development resources can leisure professionals use (beyond asking their supervisors) to gain the skill set necessary to serve marginalized portions of their communities? 

Atuya Cornwell: Actively engage your peers because the knowledge that is available among park and recreation professionals and students is absolutely amazing and beneficial. By attending NRPA Annual Conferences and/or state conferences, serving on local, state, and national committees, and sharing best practices with peers from across the country, your community and its citizens will be the benefactors of a “people first”-based industry.

Williams: Professional development is a great way to grow. In addition to working with the U.S. Forest Service, I have also gained experience as an AmeriCorps member. Volunteering offered an avenue to pursue my passion for increasing access to open space and public lands. Volunteer experience shows your future and present employer that you are willing to go outside your normal boundaries to help and gain experience doing something totally different.

P&R: How has your involvement with NRPA helped you to gain such  skills?

Williams: Being an NRPA member gave me the gateway to seek out a profession in the conservation field. I have attended conferences and that’s where I networked and became engaged. Through my professional and personal relationships with my new friends, I found the field I am in now. Without being involved in this organization, I would not have found the path to a field that would lead me to writing about it now.

Cornwell: It has meant the world to my professional development, in turn transforming me into a better public servant with the tools to enhance the lives of the citizens in my community through beneficial sports and recreation programs.

P&R: What advice would you give to other young professionals seeking to gain a creative edge in engaging traditionally undeserved segments of their communities?

Cornwell: Let your passion and genuine desire to serve humanity be exposed. I have found success in building relationships with traditionally underserved communities by supporting and engaging local organizations that already have a relationship established with those populations. These service organizations are excited to have a park and recreation professional on their team based on the respect and admiration they have for our expertise. The long-term benefit is a relationship that can lead to the creation of new programs that touch the lives of those who once did not have the opportunity to be exposed to the rewards of participating in park and recreation-led programs. 

Williams: As a person actively engaging in these initiatives at work, I continue to volunteer and work with different groups outside of my current position. This work isn’t just a job. It comes from passion to see equitable access for citizens and professionals alike. Strive through your personal and professional goals to encourage more people to partake in the benefits. Patience is a virtue and partnership is the way to have more diversified and inclusive outdoor recreation in America.

Lewis: Seek the ongoing opportunity to learn how the industry is changing. Gain an understanding of the socioeconomic and organizational constraints facing participants and use those perceived barriers as opportunities to develop new services. Your bilocation as a young professional and community liason offers you a seat at the table to eliminate your agency’s service gaps.