Jennifer Harnish is Chair-elect of the NRPA Citizen Network. She has attended the Legislative Forum in Washington DC for the past 5 years as a member of the Texas Recreation and Park Society. She is a former chairwoman of the Fort Worth Parks Board and continues to be active in related nonprofits groups. Her career is not in the parks and recreation field, but rather as the Technology Director for an elementary school, educating teachers in the use of technology for the classroom.
Why do you believe it is important for citizens to engage in advocacy at the national level?
"All politics is local" is a phrase I have learned to understand through my advocacy efforts at the national level. Legislators become our neighbors when they return home to our communities; and these communities are “home” because of a certain quality of life. Parks and recreation contribute directly to these livable communities; and citizens are ideal for educating legislators on the local benefits of parks, recreation and open space—often developed with assistance from federal funding.
As a constituent who appreciates that parks really do build community, I volunteer to share with my lawmakers the immense value and examples found back home. Fort Worth recently received a $5-million federal Transportation Enhancement grant. Leveraging these funds with matching support from some great local partners will develop five projects, primarily hike and bike trails. The value that parks and recreation have on people and communities can go largely unrecognized without this continual dialog.
How can citizens get energized to be active and make their voices heard?
Two words: Social Media. Join the discussion to promote parks and recreation. NRPA is active on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, you-name-it.…so friend, follow or share NRPA. The larger the discussion, the louder it becomes.
Embrace America’s Backyard. This grassroots effort showcases the important role of parks and recreation in American life—health, physical fitness and fighting obesity, economic development, environmental preservation, and community vitality. America’s Backyard gives a collective voice to the message that parks are vital and need adequate investment.
Margaret Mead once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
What advice do you have for other NRPA citizen advocates or volunteers?
As a citizen advocate, one role is to educate. Offer to be a resource for your legislators and their staff. Staff are often relied upon for briefings and can help shape viewpoints. Utilize the NRPA website for advocacy tools, updates, and data to pass along throughout the year. Let your parks and recreation successes be a source of pride for your legislators.
Familiarize yourself with NRPA’s Legislative Policy. Attending NRPA Congress in the fall and Washington’s Legislative Forum each March helps me to better understand and articulate the issues. Connecting with my state agency and being an active member of the NRPA Citizen Network encourage me by sharing similar issues and concerns—as well as assets—in our communities.
Remember that being a volunteer has its challenges. Work and family life compete with limited time. I engage my family when I come to Washington. They have walked the halls of Congress with the Texas Delegation and have conveyed their experiences from the perspectives of an engineer and a couple of college students. The discussion just got a little louder…