2023 NRPA Annual Conference Highlights

November 30, 2023, Feature, by Chris Brummett, Lindsay Collins and Alexandra Reynolds

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For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.

A look back at this year’s gathering of park and recreation professionals

On October 10-12, nearly 9,000 park and recreation professionals and advocates came together in Dallas to learn, network and celebrate at the 2023 NRPA Annual Conference. As we approach the end of the year and look back on some of our favorite moments, we also reflect on lessons learned and memories made at this year’s conference.

Opening General Sessions

To kick off the conference, attendees filled the ballroom at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center the morning of Tuesday, October 10, to hear keynote speaker Vernā Myers — an inclusion strategist, cultural innovator, thought leader and social commentator — talk about diversity, equity, inclusion, and what she believes to be “one of the biggest barriers to growing,” unconscious bias. “Part of creating a community that can thrive and grow is about asking the question and listening. It’s about inviting conversation; it’s about thinking through — because you’re not going to know everybody’s needs and realities,” said Myers. “The only way that you understand what is necessary is by inviting their voices in and actually examining what is possible.”

Other speakers featured during the Tuesday Opening General Session included John D. Jenkins, director of Dallas Park and Recreation; Eric Johnson, mayor of Dallas; Kristine Stratton, NRPA president and CEO; and Jesús Aguirre, CEO of Waterloo Greenway and chair of the NRPA Board of Directors.

During her remarks, Stratton stated that the theme of this year’s conference, “Where Community Grows,” was “the perfect platform for sharing stories and uplifting the ways that parks and recreation builds communities that thrive.”

This sentiment was reflected in the remarks of Aguirre, who, in acknowledgement of Hispanic Heritage Month, shared stories of Latino culture being integrated into parks and recreation. He also shared a personal story, stating, “Some of you may know that I’m an immigrant to this country. I was born in Mexico, and when I was 5 years old, my parents risked everything to bring us to the United States…. I’m absolutely convinced that my ability to succeed really hinged on the people in our community — people like...y’all — people who took interest in my success and worked hard to help me succeed. Without...y’all, millions of folks like me would not succeed.”

Wednesday’s Day 2 General Session began by recognizing some of the best in the field of parks and recreation via the National Gold Medal Awards, which are presented by the American Academy for Park and Recreation Administration along with its partners, NRPA and Musco Lighting. Winners of this year’s Grand Plaque awards include:

  • Class I (population 400,001 and over): Virginia Beach Parks and Recreation, Virginia Beach, Virginia
  • Class II (population 150,001 -400,000): City of Plano Parks and Recreation Department, Plano, Texas
  • Class III (population 75,001-150,000): Champaign Park District, Champaign, Illinois
  • Class IV (population 30,001 -75,000): Hoffman Estates Park District, Hoffman Estates, Illinois
  • Class V (population less than 30,000): Cullman Parks, Recreation and Sports Tourism, Cullman, Alabama
  • Armed Forces Recreation: Naval Air Facility Atsugi, Kanagawa, Japan
  • State Parks: Texas State Parks, Austin, Texas

Stratton congratulated the winners and introduced tennis legend Billie Jean King, who shared a special video message with attendees. “The park and recreation profession’s commitment to building vibrant communities and health and well-being is more critical than ever,” said King. “As you embark on your activities today, remember the vision and purpose that brings us together. It is a vision of inclusivity where parks and recreation serve as equalizers bridging gaps in society and bringing people of all backgrounds and abilities together.”

Aguirre addressed attendees and remarked on the power and breadth of the conference before introducing keynote speaker Katrina Adams. “One thing that’s clear as I go around this gigantic conference center is that the power of parks and recreation is real…,” he said. Aguirre welcomed Adams to the stage and shared that she is the first African American to lead the United States Tennis Association, the first two-term chairman and president, and the first former player to hold that honor.

Adams shared her story of growing up in Chicago’s West Side and playing a variety of sports in her local parks. There, she developed athletic skills that would support her professional tennis career years later. “This is what the parks offer to communities — opportunities for kids to be active and develop and own their athletic skills at an early age,” Adams said. What’s more, she found a powerful mentor in her coach once she discovered her interest in tennis. Adams emphasized the importance of youth sports in developing important life, social and emotional skills, like discipline, time management, and handling both wins and losses. She praised park and recreation professionals for diligently serving their communities and facilitating youth sports. “The work you are doing in your local communities — it is so important. If you didn’t do what you do, serving your local community in rec centers and parks, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today.”

The session wrapped up with an informative and wide-ranging panel discussion, titled “The Ball Is in Our Court: Leveraging the Power of Parks and Recreation to Advance Youth Sports Equity,” featuring Anthony Paul “AP” Diaz as the moderator and Cal Dobbs, Kari Miller, Jason Sacks and Lily Sunarjardi as speakers. The panel discussed the immense benefits of youth sports, what children are looking for when it comes to park development, and what park and recreation professionals can do to create more inclusive programs and spaces for young people.

The conversation featured some great lines from Sunarjardi, a youth athlete who emphasized the importance of youth sports and their ability to help young people escape the drama and stress of childhood. Dobbs, a queer transgender ultramarathoner and long-distance hiker, made clear that everyone in the audience was already prepared to help and guide transgender kids in their programs because “trans kids are just kids. You already know everything you need to know when it comes to helping them because you’ve already done it with other kids. Just making sure they can trust you and feel comfortable and knowing that you’re in their corner is enough.”

The panelists reminisced about some of their own experiences with youth sports as they were growing up and made it clear, especially in a post-COVID-19 world, just how important youth sports are for building connection, community and self-confidence.

Exploring the Exhibit Hall

Excitement grew as attendees eagerly awaited the opening of the exhibit hall on Tuesday morning. Nearly 500 vendors filled the hall during the first two days of the conference. Park and recreation professionals spoke with experts on services, equipment and products, finding opportunities to enhance their agencies’ operations, facilities, programming and services. Playground structures and challenge courses brought out the inner child in attendees as they sampled slides, scaled ropes and swung from monkey bars. From door prizes to cash giveaways, the exhibit hall generated buzz, excitement and even tail-wagging fun with the help of service dogs from Patriot PAWS, an organization that provides service dogs to veterans and people with disabilities. Another lively area was the NRPA Sports Demo Zone, where attendees experienced sports and equipment from USA Pickleball, Quickball, Soccer 5 USA and Move United. Attendees embraced discovery, new experiences and curiosity as they listened to speed sessions, attended poster presentations, visited the NRPA member booth, and networked with vendors, organizations and colleagues from across the country.

Learning and Engaging Through Education Sessions

From hour-long Talks to interactive Sandboxes and 20-minute speed sessions, education was offered in a variety of formats and on topics spanning from NRPA’s Three Pillars to operations, research, career development and more.

One example of the education provided included the session “Local Food Access: Justice, Wellness and Community in Parks,” during which speakers discussed the Urban Food Forest at Browns Mill in Atlanta, the largest public food forest in the United States at 7.1 acres in size. The speakers represented community partners that collaborate to sustain the forest, including j. olu baiyewu, urban agriculture director, and Amina Robinson, community outreach and engagement fellow, from the City of Atlanta Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and Resilience, as well as Christian Joy Clark, HABESHA, Inc. garden manager, and Charles Greenlea, West Atlanta Watershed Alliance agroforestry manager. “A food forest is an assortment of edible trees, shrubs and plants designed to replicate the ecosystems found in nature,” explained Robinson. Located in a food desert, the urban food forest increases food access and supports equity by growing healthy foods for community members and serving as a space for nutrition education. As Atlanta has the highest level of income inequality of the major U.S. cities, the food forest provides a local resource to help address food insecurity. The speakers emphasized the importance of forming partnerships when pursuing similar projects and initiatives, as well as the broader mission to foster justice, wellness and community in parks.

Speakers Tyler Harrison, Carlos Lopez and Alejandro Zizold presented their process and findings regarding several park access interventions they attempted at three parks in Miami-Dade County (Florida) during the session “Increasing Park Access to Enhance Health.” One of the more well-received interventions by the audience was the team’s decision to put up signage near bus stops that indicated how far away the nearest park was with a QR code that provided directions to pedestrians, as well as invaluable data to the county. Other interventions included opening various access points around parks, planting more trees and even working with local homeowners associations to help connect property points.

Honoring the Best of the Best

On Wednesday, October 11, guests gathered to recognize and celebrate the field’s most inspirational people and programs during the Best of the Best ceremony, sponsored by ACTIVE Network. Carolyn McKnight Fredd, past chair of the NRPA Board of Directors, served as the evening’s emcee and assisted in recognizing this year’s scholarship and fellowship recipients, as well as the following award winners:

2023 Hall of Fame Inductee

  • Dr. H. Douglas “Doug” Sessoms

Spotlight Awards

  • Robert M. Artz Advocate Award – Jeffrey Budnitz; Lake Roland Nature Council, Baltimore
  • Robert W. Crawford Young Professional Award – Laura Schulz Mortier, CPRP; Canton Leisure Services, Canton, Michigan
  • Dirk Richwine Professional Mentoring Award – Christopher M. Nunes, CPRE; The Woodlands Township, Woodlands, Texas
  • National Distinguished Professional Award – Janet M. Bartnik, M.S., CPRP; Prince William County Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Prince William, Virginia

Innovation Awards

  • Innovation in Conservation Award – Meadowdale Beach Park and Estuary Restoration Project; Snohomish County Parks and Recreation; Snohomish, Washington
  • Innovation in Equity Award – SootheSpace; Fox Valley Special Recreation Association; Aurora, Illinois
  • Innovation in Health Award – Reducing Violence in Columbus, VOICE; Columbus Recreation and Parks Department; Columbus, Ohio
  • Innovation in Park Design Award – Unity Park; City of Greenville Parks, Recreation and Tourism; Greenville, South Carolina
  • Best in Innovation – Unity Park; City of Greenville Parks, Recreation and Tourism; Greenville, South Carolina

Following the awards, guests stayed to recognize this year’s newly CAPRA-accredited and reaccredited park and recreation agencies and certified professionals.

Networking Fun

One of the most highly-attended events at the conference was the opening reception, which was held at Gilley’s, a large event venue featuring an iconic mechanical bull that gave lots of rides throughout the night to conference attendees. Live bands played throughout the vast bar areas, and depending on which room one popped into, you could hear the sounds of air hockey, billiards and line dancing. The venue provided a great way to unwind and get settled in Dallas, as well as connect with other park and recreation professionals outside of the walls of the convention center.

In addition to the opening reception, NRPA offered myriad opportunities for networking and fun, including pre-conference workshops and local host off-site institutes and leisure tours. From a tour of Dallas recreation centers to tree planting, goat yoga and a golf tournament, there were activities for everyone.

We are already well into planning for the 2024 NRPA Annual Conference. We look forward to seeing you in Atlanta!

Chris Brummett is Production Coordinator at NRPA. Lindsay Collins is Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine. Alexandra Reynolds is Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.