Resilient. Tough. Adaptable. Driven by a desire for excellence. These are but a handful of adjectives to describe Carolyn McKnight, superintendent of the East Baton Rouge Recreation and Park Commission (BREC). We can also add “award-winning,” as McKnight is set to receive the National Distinguished Professional Award at the 2016 NRPA Annual Conference. Still, it’s difficult to come up with a way to adequately encapsulate the awesomeness of this woman who, before endeavoring to raise two boys on her own, was busy serving in the Air Force, earning her master’s degree from Texas Christian University and joining the Texas Air National Guard — she retired in 2006 at the rank of colonel, having served for more than 20 years as a reservist. McKnight also boasts an impressive parks and recreation résumé — she worked for the city of Dallas Park and Recreation Department from 1985 until January 2012, after which she moved to East Baton Rouge, where she’s since served as superintendent. “When I get up in the morning, I don’t feel like I am going to work. I feel like I am going to make a difference in people’s lives,” McKnight says, shooting her formidable ray of uncompromising optimism out into the world. We were fortunate to talk with McKnight, as she and her staff continue to play a critical role in recovery from recent historic flooding in Baton Rouge — following is a portion of our conversation.
Parks & Recreation magazine: What do you feel has been the most impactful lesson you’ve learned as you arrive at this moment in your career?
Carolyn McKnight: Resiliency during and after crises, service before self, and excellence in all we do are core values driving my steps every day. I learned and had these values reinforced while serving in the Air Force, as a single mother for 20-plus years and as now as the leader of BREC and as a new member of the La Capitale Chapter of The Links, Incorporated. These values have sustained and motivated me to keep moving, regardless of how tough or difficult it might get. It has been a very difficult year for the East Baton Rouge community with the police shooting, the constant and bitter protests that followed, the killing of three law enforcement officers and now the historic flood of 2016. I have seen our community torn apart by racial unrest and brought together by the worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy. Before the flood waters came, we were brainstorming and actively engaging law enforcement officials about joint programming to close the racial divide. I have learned that it isn’t just a saying — “parks build communities” — we are the most positive entity in a community to help rebuild. Parks and special community events are vehicles to allow young African-American youth and law enforcement officials to see each other as people — not as a badge and a uniform, a title or their station in life — but as real people. As they play together and spend time together, people get to know each other in a whole new way.
P&R:East Baton Rouge has been heavily impacted by recent flooding — how have you kept up morale, both within your agency and the community at-large?
McKnight: From the moment the waters began to rise, the BREC team sprang into action. We opened five shelters at the request of the American Red Cross. We deployed our two “BREC on the Geaux” mobile recreation playground units and the BREC Art Gallery teamed up to offer healthy activities and a creative outlet for children in shelters across the parish. We opened 10 emergency camps that allowed parents a safe place for their children while they worked or began the long journey of assessing and removing flood-damaged homes. Our BREC team worked to open camps in our buildings until schools re-opened and we used several of our facilities to store needed cleaning and other supplies donated by people from all around the country. We allowed the National Guard and Department of Transportation and Development to stage at our sites and we have used another site to temporarily hold debris to greatly speed up collection and clean up from several thousand flooded homes in our parish.
We did all of that despite having about 25 percent of our own BREC staff impacted by the flood. We have helped staff by providing them with a financial stipend given by our BREC Foundation, acting as a shelter-in-the-workplace for employees and their families for as long as they need it, maintaining distribution centers for donated supplies, expanding emergency leave and soliciting donations on behalf of our employees and community.
Despite a skeleton crew in many areas, we were able to inspect all 184 parks and quickly re-open and repair the majority of them to give people a sense of normalcy and a place to get away from the stress and devastation wherever we could. This recovery is going to take a long time, but our staff has responded to the needs of the community and I believe they will continue to do so for the duration.
— Samantha Bartram, Executive Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine