A Park and Rec Kid Comes Full Circle

August 1, 2019, Feature, by Sonia Myrick

August 2019 Feature Kristine Stratton 410

Kristine Stratton, NRPA’s new president and CEO, is from Maine, the northeastern most state and a place that boasts 3,500 miles of coastline (more than California), 6,000 lakes and ponds, and 17 million acres of forest. With its breathtaking vistas and myriad opportunities to engage with the outdoors, it’s no wonder that her idea of a perfect day is one spent on the water or in a park with her nearest and dearest family and friends, capped off with some good food and a piece of blueberry (the state berry) pie. A quick scan of her career path and the organizations she’s chosen to devote her time and energy to — Stratton is a board member of 1% for the Planet and the Environmental Health Strategy Center and was formerly the senior vice president of operations at Earthjustice in San Francisco, California, and, prior to that, the executive director of Waterkeeper Alliance in New York, New York — reveals her passion and dedication to environmental, health and justice issues. Parks & Recreation magazine recently spoke with Stratton, who’s been at the NRPA helm since June 5, to learn how her past experiences have informed her career path, what constitutes her leadership style and why she so readily identifies as a park and rec kid.

Parks & Recreation: What aspects of your past work experience, particularly from your time at Earthjustice, do you see informing your role here at NRPA?

Kristine Stratton: When I looked at NRPA as an organization, what stood out for me is the fact that we are a member and community-driven organization that is focused on supporting communities across the country. The idea of amplifying the importance of parks and advancing the conservation, health and wellness and social equity pillars of NRPA was and is very compelling to me. My career is almost entirely nonprofit management and leadership, and in organizations that are very much rooted in community and in service.

For example, I spent 11 years in a public broadcasting organization that was a community licensee, and that was, every day, looking at how it could serve the community better — how it could be innovative, how it could be impactful. And, my role in that organization was to make sense of that — was to innovate and find better ways of executing on our mission and serving the community. When I look at Waterkeeper Alliance, I liken it to NRPA in that we served our member organizations, amplified their voices on key advocacy issues and worked to grow the movement. So, a key feature of my work experience is serving nonprofit organizations that are community and member-driven, so that is directly aligned with who NRPA is.

Another key feature of my work background is this blend of the broad educational programs of public broadcasting with the environment and public health programs, reflected in my master’s degree and environmental experience. From the Conservation Law Foundation to Waterkeeper Alliance to Earthjustice, all three of those organizations are environmental groups. However, the lens they look through to serve the populations they support is both a health and environment one.

From a practical standpoint, I’ve acted in strategic and operational roles for my profession. What really drives me, and what I’m excited about applying to NRPA, is the ability to both set a vision and to be strategic, and to couple that with a practical ‘how do we translate this into action? How do we translate this into how we operate as an organization?’ That’s something that I’m excited about, too.

P&R: In looking into your background, I noticed that a lot of your work has been in environment and justice in the health and wellness area. What brought you to these passions? How did you figure out that this was where your passion lies?

Stratton: That’s such an interesting question. I’ve thought a lot about that, and it goes back to my childhood. I grew up in a small paper mill town in central-northern Maine. My mom worked in the mill, my dad worked for the local water company and also was a mechanic. I grew up in a household that was very rooted in a strong work ethic and very rooted in the idea that the work doesn’t stop just because you’re punching a clock 9 to 5. My mom was on the school board, volunteered, was involved in the Girl Scouts, and my dad worked constantly. I was trained to be work-identified and to be of service to others. That was a message I got from my parents very early on.

What drove my passion for the environment and public health is growing up in that mill town. Our house was maybe 500 feet from the mill gate and was across the street from a stream. But, we could not swim in that stream and were actually afraid to retrieve balls that accidentally fell in because there was so much effluent discharge from that mill that you could not use the water. The fish were not safe to catch, and it was not safe to paddle in it. So, it was this beautiful resource that was untouchable, really. Not only that, but because of a lack of proper air pollution controls, every morning we’d have soot on our cars — just a layer of it. And yet, I would leave that town and go to my local state park, which is this gorgeous place called Baxter State Park — 210,000 acres of pristine wilderness — and escape into this beautiful, soul-filling natural environment. It was not lost on me this disconnect between this wonderful natural resource and the fact that both of my parents were asthmatics, and Maine has a disproportionately high rate of asthma.

I felt very early on that there’s this false choice between economic viability and health. My parents, my family and my community did not have to suffer in order to support and operate that mill, which has since closed. They didn’t have to sacrifice their health in order to make a living is my point. So, that idea of who’s burdened and who’s benefiting from the structures we’ve created was an idea that surfaced for me early on. Then, going to school and, ultimately, going back to school for my master’s program and delving deeply into the environmental justice movement, historically disproportionate burdens on low-income and communities of color, and how dramatically the systems that we’ve created either support those historically inequitable systems or confront them, has driven certainly my focus and my personal passion for the past 15 to 20 years.

P&R: You’ve commented that this is your dream job. In what way?

Stratton: Well, at the heart of it, I’m a park and rec kid! I identify as a park and rec kid, and I’m still a park and rec kid today. I remember I started taking swimming lessons at the municipal pool. This is central-northern Maine, so it is cold, cold, cold, cold water. I will never forget sort of bracing and sticking a toe in the water and edging in. But parks have made a huge, positive difference in my life. They’ve made a huge positive difference in the life of my family. From the elder members of my family to the kids in my family, and I think about going to the local rec center in Brooklyn with my cousin and watching my little 7-year-old cousin take swimming lessons in the rec center. And, just what a point of pride it was for her to learn the strokes and get more confident over time. That, to me, is a testament to what park and rec programs can do for us as individuals, but also us as a community.

I talked earlier about how important it is for me to be of service, how important it is for me to be able to sink my teeth into hard work, and I look at this as a dream job because there’s so much opportunity for us to serve our membership, to expand our membership, to serve the communities across the country who care about parks. It’s a dream job for me because I’m helping to contribute to this virtuous cycle of making great programs, then seeing the benefit of those great programs to a kid like me, right? So, that’s why it’s a dream job.

P&R: How would you describe your leadership style?

Stratton: Well, for starters, I would say I’m highly motivated to set ambitious but achievable goals and supporting the team I’m working with in order to achieve them. It’s important to me to always be striving for continuous improvement. I love to ask questions. I love to support and reinforce the opportunity for our team members to push themselves to be creative…to strive for more. That’s a hallmark of my leadership style.

I will also say that over the past couple of years, I’ve deepened a practice in mindful leadership, which really helps me stay grounded and helps me set a tone that is patient and supportive, clear and focused on what’s most important. I hold myself to a high standard. I always have a full plate and I’m trying to do a lot, and I’m also trying to do everything in a very thoughtful, patient, focused way, which, I think, is a benefit of practicing mindful leadership.

For me, mindful leadership is also rooted in doing a lot of listening. I just finished my first six weeks here, and I will say I’ve been doing lots and lots of listening and that’s something that will never stop for me. I want to continue to practice that. I want to continue learning and being aware and responding to what our organization needs, both internally and externally. I also would say mindful leadership, to put a plug in for that, emphasizes how important culture and culture building is to the health of an organization. So, that’s something that I want to model and that I want the leadership team at NRPA to be modeling, as well.

P&R: Who has been your biggest mentor or idol and why?

Stratton: An idol that I have is Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and mindfulness leader who is about as beautiful a soul and model as you can possibly imagine. He’s taught a lot and written a lot on meditation and meditation practices. One of the teachings he emphasizes is compassion for self and for others.

I have a lot of heroes. I’ve been extremely blessed to have mentors my whole life, and that’s one thing that I really deeply believe in, mentorship, and what I always tell younger professionals and kids that I have the honor to spend time with…that it’s OK to ask for help. It’s important to ask for help. Someone told me that early on in my career, that it’s OK to ask someone to be your mentor, to be that explicit. And I did it and they said ‘Yes,’ and that’s such a compliment. It is such a compliment to be asked to mentor someone…to be asked to provide guidance. That’s something I take really seriously. I couldn’t name for you all the people who have served as mentors in my life. I am standing on the shoulders of so many people. I’m so incredibly grateful for that.

P&R: We touched on this a bit, but what’s one of the most memorable moments from your childhood in relation to parks and/or recreation?

Stratton: Yeah, the pool example 100 percent…and both the fear of the cold and just the fear of learning that skill. Also, what I remember distinctly is how wonderful and supportive and encouraging the instructors were. They helped me get over that fear and to trust in my ability to learn how to swim. That’s what I keep coming back to when I think about parks and recreation. The fact is that [the pool] is just a pool without that person standing there and helping that kid muster up the courage to take that step.

P&R: Tell us about your favorite park and your favorite recreational activity. Would that be Baxter State Park?

Stratton: I have to go with Baxter because I grew up in that park. I mentioned it’s 210,000 acres...I may be off a little bit with that measurement, but I have not even explored all parts of it. I’m still exploring and learning that park.

P&R: What’s your favorite thing to do in the park?

Stratton: Baxter’s in my soul, no question about it, but every single city I’ve lived in, every city and town I’ve visited, parks are always part of that experience. I notice those communities that have invested in making green space, in making open space and public programs, it just completes that city or that town. It makes it so much richer and so much more accessible and inviting. When I think about my favorite recreation activity, it’s really walking and exploring parks. And, if I’m in a more rural or rustic setting, it’s hiking and camping. If it’s a more urban setting, it’s wandering about and exploring, seeing the plants, people watching and just getting a flavor for the local community and place — getting a sense of place.

P&R: What will be your areas of focus for the organization…your vision, and how will you work to bring the voice of the members into that vision?

Stratton: I mentioned that I just finished my first six weeks, I’ve spent that time in heavy listening mode. When I was interviewing, when I was hired, the board was clear that, first and foremost, it wanted to build on the strength and success of NRPA to date. Board members want to continue to strengthen programs across our three pillars. They want to make sure we are strengthening and broadening our partnerships. They want, certainly, to grow the voice of NRPA and the visibility of NRPA and, by extension, the reach and impact of our parks movement. So, how to keep the membership…the voice of the members in that vision is key.

I’m flying today to join the summer meeting of CSED, which is the Council of State Executive Directors. That is a critical organization and those are critical individuals in terms of having a pulse on park professionals around the country. That, to me, is a vital relationship I want to cultivate, foster and support. That’s one source of making sure that the voice of the membership is ever-present. The others, of course, are our board. It is populated by both professionals and advocates, so voices of the membership are serving on our board, which is also important. And, we have an array of work that we do to make sure we’re staying connected with, responding to and supporting our membership, including surveys and our annual conference. I mean, the annual conference alone, what an amazing opportunity to get a read on the pulse of the membership and what their concerns are right now.

Another terrific resource we have is NRPA Connect. I log in to that forum every single day and survey the conversations that are happening in the membership. There’s a lot of work to do, and I can’t imagine doing any of it without staying connected and making sure the voice of the membership is a deep and broad part of that.

P&R: Do you think it’s important for NRPA to take a stand on climate change from a public policy perspective?

Stratton: I do. Period. End of sentence. I do, absolutely! To elaborate, parks are among the most important infrastructure in communities and from a climate resiliency perspective, they are essential — parks are essential. From a structural perspective, things like green space, green stormwater infrastructure, supporting biodiversity and so on are essential. From a programming perspective, emergency preparedness, educational programs in the community — the services that parks and rec provide — all that feeds into a holistic effort to support climate resiliency. For us, from a policy perspective, it is essential that we are securing funding and support from our legislators. They must support all that work, from both an infrastructure and program perspective, in parks around the country. And, just as important, is making sure that park professionals have a seat at the table when plans are developed and decisions are being made around climate resiliency. That’s essential. I see a critical role for NRPA to play on both fronts to ensure that the role of parks in climate resiliency is recognized and that there’s support and funding that’s so desperately needed across the country around programs and infrastructure.

P&R: Six years ago, NRPA adopted its three pillars — Health and Wellness, Conservation Social Equity. What are your thoughts on those areas of focus?

Stratton: I think they’re wonderful centering tools for our work. I look at them as guiding principles, and I think the challenge for us is to translate them into our programs across the board and to always be asking ourselves: ‘Are we doing all we can to advance each of the three pillars?’

I think there’s a tendency in organizations to compartmentalize. I love the concept of the three pillars as both a lens that each of us who work here can look at our work through and as a tool to make sure we are all aligned with each of those three.

P&R: What does social equity mean to you?

Stratton: Social equity, to me, means that we are working to ensure everyone has access to a great park. To use our tagline, everyone deserves a great park. We know that historical structural and institutional racism created a current reality where benefits and burdens are not evenly shared and infrastructure and services, including park and rec programs, that aren’t universally great. Our job at NRPA is to work to change that and to realize that tagline, where not only does everyone deserve a great park, but everyone has a great park.

I mentioned before when talking about the three pillars, we need to apply that equity lens to all that we do. Both inside — how we are operating — and outside — how we launch and manage programs. For me, equity is an essential motivator. Advancing an equitable reality, especially in the context of services to a community like parks and rec, is essential to the work we are doing.

P&R: Is there anything else that you want NRPA members to know about you?

Stratton: I’m excited to be here and hope to see you in Baltimore!

Sonia Myrick is the Executive Editor for Parks & Recreation magazine.