A quagmire of value

by Caroline Fazzio, central district crew leader/ AmeriCorps member – 7/4/2019

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I have written multiple blogs over the past two years describing many unique experiences I have encountered at the Conservation Corps. From snorkeling with the DNR’s aquatic invasive species team to planting thousands of trees with Three Rivers Parks District, there have been a multitude of interesting and exciting experiences to share. However, recently I have been pondering a different kind of experience—one that is not always sunshine and rainbows, but promotes the kind of skills not always acknowledged as necessary. They are far more abstract than the technical skills often associated with the Corps, so bear with me as I attempt to unwrap a deeper level of the Corps member experience.

For all the fun and engaging days at the Corps, there are just as many days where I leave work completely drained, and the idea of quitting is appealing compared to the thought of doing it all over again the next day. Sometimes it is the weather, sometimes it is the project, and sometimes it is a poor combination of the two, but at the end of the day everyone is exhausted, grouchy, and ready to be done. Who can blame us?—picking up sticks in a field in the pouring rain for multiple hours will frustrate anyone, regardless of their positive mental attitude (yes, that is a project we have done this year). Frustrations can hinge on anything—leaving a project half finished, the pace of the work, not enough crews in the field, too many crews in the field, lack of clear direction, too much direction, misunderstood sarcasm, not enough sarcasm, etc. That is just a short list of the frustration triggers I have noticed this year. Dealing with all these in addition to the arduous work and the unpredictable weather conditions is enough to physically, mentally, and emotionally tax anyone.

I bring this up to point out that CCMI terms are not always sunshine and rainbows. Regardless of what position you have, it can be physically demanding, mentally strenuous, emotionally draining, or all three. There are many days where it just does not seem worth it.

So is it worth it?

One could try to answer this question by comparing base level stats such as the technical training Corps members receive versus the stipend they earn, but I want to go a little deeper. Consider instead three broader traits: that we must work closely with others regardless of whether we like them or agree with them; that we work in foreign environments such as sub-freezing temperatures or imposing government offices; and that we get very little say in the work projects we are tasked with completing. All of these characteristics lend themselves well to work-place frustration, but they also promote a kind of growth that goes beyond mere technical experience.

Think about it: in every work place you will encounter coworkers you do not like or agree with, unexpected situations that you are unprepared for, and projects that drive you insane. To be successful, you need to know how to handle these situations without losing your sanity along the way. At the Corps we deal with all of these, but at their most extreme. Therefore, being successful at the Corps infers you are also gaining experience in these soft skills that are so often disregarded, but are incredibly invaluable for any future employment (or really life in general). Indeed, these skills are so useful, I would argue that dealing with all the aforementioned challenges of the Corps is well worth the payoff, even if that payoff is a skillset I cannot clearly define.

So is it worth it?

That is a question that everyone must answer for themselves, but before you do, remember that every challenge and struggle comes with an opportunity for growth or for learning. Only by accepting those challenges and working through them may you discover a payoff far greater than what you might have imagined. The value of each day may be lost in a quagmire of bad weather, boring work, or annoying coworkers, but I assure you, it is there. Learning to identify worth within the muck is perhaps the most valuable lesson the Corps has taught me, and I would not trade a single bad day in the field for it.

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An interpretive approach to outreach

By Kaia Bierman, urban outreach specialist/ AmeriCorps member with MN DNR Parks and Trails through Conservation Corps’ Individual Placement program – 7/2/2019

Kaia at the Trailhead

Kaia at the Trailhead

The Urban Outreach Specialist position is just in its second year of existence. Because it is still so new, trailblazing program development and implementation is a crucial component of my service term. I find myself constantly thinking: What impact am I making that sets the precedent for this position?

My specialty of outreach is making known the many benefits and amenities that Minnesota State Parks and Trails have to offer, which has given people more than enough inspiration to seek it out for themselves. Yet some are naturally inclined to give a person at a kiosk a wide berth, which means there are people we aren’t reaching. We won’t connect with every audience in the same way, which is why I am eager to integrate interpretive strategies into my outreach efforts.

In May I joined the DNR Naturalist Corps interns for the 2019 Spring Interpretive training in order to expand the ways I perform outreach. The content included the techniques Interpretive Naturalists use to facilitate connection between the meaning of resources and the individual’s interests. The DNR Interpretive Naturalist programs are crafted to point out the extraordinary features of the natural world while engaging their audience in creative and thought-provoking ways. Spouting out facts about natural resources generally doesn’t resonate with most people. How much you know doesn’t always translate to how much you care about conservation efforts. Interpretation is a mission-based communication process that provokes thought, interest, and action. There are many different approaches to take.

Baby Snapping Turtle from a Naturalist Program at the Interpretive Training

Baby Snapping Turtle from a Naturalist Program at the Interpretive Training

The Interpretive Naturalist for Gooseberry State Park, Carolyn Rock, has a program called Trouble for Turtles. As you hike along the Lower River View Trail, Carolyn describes the dangers that turtles face, from the predation pressures of an egg to traffic crossings as an adult, and how you can help protect them against these threats in simple ways. By learning about the struggles that the turtle population is facing in Minnesota, people can start to recognize the importance and need for intentional conservation efforts.

At Tettegouche State Park, Interpretive Naturalist Kurt Mead leads the program, “Antlers, and the Animals that Wear Them” which dives into moose ecology. However, each program is not identical. Kurt begins the program passing around a variety moose, deer, and elk antlers. You notice the different feel and weight, and he describes the purpose they serve to fit each animal’s behaviors. He may adjust the direction of the program if there is a large amount of questions surrounding deer, or some other topic. This speaks to the importance of knowing your audience in order to best connect with them, which requires listening.

I have noticed that outreach feels most fulfilling when there is an interactive component. While I am not a Naturalist, utilizing these interpretive approaches has contributed to expanding my reach. Not just with more numbers, but how it connects to people on an intellectual or emotional level.

At the Trailhead in Theodore Wirth Regional Park, I am attempting new ways to draw people in, with plant identification kits, animal track activities, and animal scat molds. I have been displaying these different items, and observing how people interact with them, the conversations and comments that come out of their presence, and noting where I can improve my own knowledge and talking points, and how to connect these conversations back to public lands.

Seeing what works and what doesn’t work has been helping me think about different ways to innovate and grow this program. I am very excited to continue to pilot my “Poop and Paws” hook. What is that? A secret, for now. You’ll just have to stay tuned to hear more about that!

Moose Skull from Antlers, and the Animals that Wear Them program at Tettegouche State Park

Moose Skull from Antlers, and the Animals that Wear Them program at Tettegouche State Park

A week of problem solving

by Kira Pollack, Youth Outdoors AmeriCorps member - 6-27-2019

When people ask me what I do in my service term, I usually summarize thusly: “youth engagement and chainsaws, but not at the same time.” The Youth Outdoors umbrella covers a wide swath of ecological restoration and youth development experiences and, until recently, included the School and Community Forest crew. Before their grant expired, I tagged along on SCF’s final project near Grygla, MN.

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The project seemed straightforward: make a dent in the construction of a picnic pavilion. The site host’s goal is to bring more youth out to the Goodridge School Forest and his plan includes creating a school bus-accessible road.

My crewmates and I hopped into the truck Monday morning full of nervous energy. Christian, Kristin, and I were excited to spend the week spiking together, but unsure how we would get the job done. A couple months into my term, I feel confident with a chainsaw, and I built two Little Free Libraries with my youth last term, but a pavilion is different ball game. This project proved an opportunity to think critically and apply what we’ve learned so far.

Our crew measured out the perimeter of the structure, dug out post holes, removed boulders, and prepared the posts. Over halfway through the work week we thought we were ready to set the corner posts with cement. Once those were done we could set the gable posts. Easy Peasy!

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But despite our double checking, only two corners were right. My uncle is a carpenter. “Measure twice, cut once” is drilled into me; but I would argue the saying should be “measure thrice, square twice, pour concrete once.” So we spent the rest of the day digging out the sides of the holes so the distances were exactly right and triple checking that the posts were coplanar and plumb before we set them.

I was discouraged by how little it felt like we had done. But my crew leader thanked us “for a week of problem solving.” She reminded us that starting from scratch is the hardest part, but the progress we made will set up the next crew for further success. In the Corps we practice Safety, Quality, Quantity, in that order. The work we completed is work I am proud of. This week another crew is heading out to take another crack at it.

I know they’ll do great work, but I’ll be happy to sleep in my own bed.

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Imposter syndrome

by David Minor, web and social media specialist/ AmeriCorps member with MN DNR Scientific and Natural Areas through Conservation Corps’ Individual Placement program – 6/24/2019

Me, taking photos and videos of a prescribed burn for a before/after project showing the benefits of prescribed burning.

Me, taking photos and videos of a prescribed burn for a before/after project showing the benefits of prescribed burning.

It is that feeling as if you don’t belong, don’t have the right qualifications, and don’t deserve the job. You feel like the people around are going to find out that you are, I hate to say it, a fraud.

I know that feeling. I’ve had it in classes at school, in other jobs, and more recently too. I have found myself in the Conservation Corps, placed at the Department of Natural Resources, serving as the Web and Social Media Specialist for the Scientific and Natural Areas Program, with very little conservation experience. Don’t get me wrong, I grew up camping with my family and doing projects as a Boyscout, so I have a great personal appreciation for nature. However, I studied journalism and art in school, which is not exactly ecology. Sure, I can take photos and write about stuff, but I felt like I knew very little about what I was trying to talk about! Did I even belong here?

I’m sure other people have this feeling sometimes too, even when they have the “right education and qualifications.” One survey in the 1980’s, by Dr. Pauline Rose Clance and Dr. Gail Matthews, estimated that 70% of people feel this way at some point.

When I first started as the Web and Social Media Specialist at the Scientific and Natural Areas Program in January, it was a lot. Everybody seemed to know everything about anything. This year is the Program’s 50th anniversary and I’m supposed to be able to talk about it! Walking through one of the Scientific and Natural Areas in winter, it seemed like everyone else could look around and identify every single plant poking out of the snow, and knew all of the jargon, lingo, and acronyms (so many acronyms).

I kept needing to remind myself that my site supervisor isn’t going to find out that I’m a “fraud” that doesn’t know plant identification or whatever. I’m pretty sure he may have guessed that from the interview and resume. Besides, he has even told me a few times that sometimes this position is filled by someone who is more science based, and sometimes by someone who is more communications based. I was chosen because I have more of a communications background and can bring things like video, which has not been used very much in the past.

Five months into my service term, I feel much less like an “imposter.” I have learned a lot, but I still have a lot more to learn. That is why I am in this position. I’m here to learn, and do what I know how to do. Which involves me asking a lot of other people, “Is this right? Did I get that accurate?”

Different people have different skillsets and knowledge. They are all important in the protection of, and education about some of Minnesota’s finest natural features.

My desk while I’m working on a video about the Scientific and Natural Areas.

My desk while I’m working on a video about the Scientific and Natural Areas.