Engagement in a New Form

May 23, 2024, Department, by Arnold Randall

0624 advocacy 410

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What it means to serve as chair of the advocacy committee

As a lifelong Chicagoan, I fell in love with the outdoors and public lands on the back of a horse — and while mucking out stalls, polishing tack and rubbing down mounts.

Both of my parents were accomplished competitive equestrians, and passing down that knowledge and love to their children involved many family trips from our Chicago home to the lands and natural areas that surround the city. Those lessons taught me the value of hard work, balancing play with responsibility and seeing a job through. It also showed me rolling prairies, undulating dunes, and the importance of everyone having access to the outdoors and recreation.

From those formative experiences, I built a career in public service and in the park and recreation space after earning my degree at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I spent 13 years as the general superintendent of the Forest Preserves of Cook County, one of the oldest and the largest forest preserve systems of its kind in the country. Before that, I took on various public service roles, including multiple leadership positions with the Chicago Park District, where I served as director of legislative and community affairs. In January 2024, I assumed the role of executive director of the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. This family foundation supports land conservation, artistic vitality and cultural collections in the Chicago region and the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

I have served on the NRPA Board of Directors since 2021, and I am excited to take on the role of chair of the advocacy committee and build on its excellent work so far, as well as deep partnerships inside and outside of NRPA. Some of my key goals and priorities are:

  • Promoting the growth and value of parks and recreation, especially natural areas and conservation in both urban and rural areas
  • Working to make sure these invaluable spaces are welcoming and available to people of all backgrounds and abilities
  • Advocating for an equitable distribution of resources to support these essential spaces

Advocacy is certainly something I know a lot about. I’ve gained insights and learned from my fellow members during my tenure on the NRPA Board of Directors. I also have many professional experiences and accomplishments.

First and foremost, I have helped shepherd a tax levy referendum that provided additional resources to the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Voters cast their ballots overwhelmingly in favor of the measure. I also worked to roll back a long-standing moratorium on prescribed burns and increased the number of acres under active conservation management tenfold. What’s more, I have lived my values of ensuring that everybody could access and enjoy the preserves. In addition to increasing the amount of land under conservation tenfold, I have helped to grow the number of visitors by more than 60 percent, making the preserves welcoming places of recreation and discovery for people of all backgrounds.

Engagement represents a watchword for me — working with people, talking, learning and, most importantly, listening. Those early lessons learned on the horse and in the stable are still relevant today: my transformative successes at the forest preserves did not come overnight, but as a result, I built trust and relationships and showed up to do the work. Take it from me: effective advocacy can take place anywhere, whether it’s walleye fishing in the morning to attending a council meeting in a suit later that evening. It is about having clear goals, understanding your audience and being willing to roll up your sleeves — or put on the waders! Most importantly, engagement can take many forms and anyone can be an advocate. NRPA makes it easy by providing timely calls to action to contact federal lawmakers on the issues that matter. Sign up for action alerts today.

Arnold Randall is Executive Director at Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation.