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The Importance Of Education, Partnerships & Identity.

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Partnerships & Identity: Fran P. Mainella

Former Florida State Park & NPS Director Discusses Importance Of Education & Maintaining Open Communication

Fran P. Mainella. [Courtesy: Fran P. Mainella]

Fran P. Mainella is a woman of firsts but above all she is an impassioned thinker and activist. She sets goals and gets them done but also distinctively understands the importance of listening and learning from others. Because of these traits and many others, Maniella rose through the ranks and became Florida State Park Director in the late 80s and supervised the recovery from Hurricane Andrew in 1992, which is no small feat. In 2001, she was appointed Director of the National Park Service [NPS] by President Bush becoming the first woman to take that position. After retiring from that position in 2006, she has subsequently continued her efforts to fascilliate the importance of the outdoors as a visiting scholar at Clemson University where is Co-Chair of the US Play Coalition. Maniella sat down with The Buzz at the NASPD Annual Conference to discuss goals, evolution and partnerships.

The Buzz: I’ve heard you say that partnerships are so important and making sure partnerships work. Can you talk about the importance of that but what you have to know in order to traverse this sort arena?

Fran Maniella: I've always believed in partnerships. When I think about it, even when I was a summer playground counselor in the local park and recreation, you couldn't do things alone. You always needed to work with others if you were going to succeed in life. And that is a thought that I carried forth when I was Florida State Park Director. In fact, I believe, it is one of the key elements that resulted in us winning the gold medal award as the best state park system in the country because we were not --- we have wonderful staff in our parks, but we needed to work with our volunteers. We also needed to develop a “friends’ group”, not only for each park but for the state-wide system. And they also were the people that could go to the state legislature and talk about things. They were a great partner because it really -- they were getting paid zero to do their work, and they were out there still caring. So partnership is important, but also [it was making sure] you were using a tax payer's dollar to the best way possible and getting as much leverage as you could financially as well. I think, in personal success and abilities, when I went in to become National Park Service Director in 2001, one of the key points that President [Bush] and I talked about when I met him [in terms of] what our goals were going to be-- partnership was one of the key efforts. Maintenance backlog and interpretation were others, but the partnership was key if we were going to be successful in dealing with maintenance, and when dealing with all the other areas. And so he wanted more of that partnership, meaning that our national parks are so wonderful. They're just the jewel --  I think, in the United States. And they draw people internationally. [However] national parks need to work along with state parks. It needs to work with local parks, needs to work with our business partners, our concessionaires. They weren't the enemy. They actually are part of our partnership if we all work together, [as well as] how we work with the media, how we work with others. It's all about working together. What I found, though, and I think it's critical in partnership -- I created a partnership office that reported all the way up to the directorship in the National Park Service. That was an important piece because it requires coordination…just like working, you need volunteers. You need volunteer coordinators to work in partnership inside the parks, particularly in some of the bigger parks. But with that partnership aspect, you needed to clarify what was theirs and the normal rules [no matter how much] we'd like to be able to shake hands and say, "Hey, we're going to be partners." You can start there but you need to always follow up by email even if it's going to be an informal partnership in that way. [It needs to be] something that captures the verbage of what you understand. A lot of partnerships go on for many years but the people change who are overseeing that and [sometimes] if it's not clear what the expectations are, as well as the responsibilities, then that partnerships run into challenges.

The Buzz: Has communication evolved in that way in how minute and detailed it has to be?

FM: I encouraged, and my experience is that certainly a partnership can start with just initially a handshake and as I said, following up with an email. But I recommend going into [it] more. It doesn't have to be full contract but it has to be where the expectations are clear and --- are the responsibilities clear? Then there needs to be a review of that partnership usually on an annual basis. And, minimally, certainly, every five years to decide “Is this partnership still a valid one? Do need to tweak it?” -- you know, times change --- “Do we make some changes? Have we accomplished all our goals?” You always need to have clarity of, what are our goals going to be together and who's going to be responsible for what? Because a lot of times, we assume and that's always a bad thing to do, that we understand that. But that's why I always follow up with some kind of written understanding, so no one is surprised. One of the things through my life and particularly working with partnerships is that I go by the no-surprise rule. And it's important that you are clear, as clear as you can be, not just in a verbal but probably in some type of document so everybody's understanding what is expected. It just works so much better. But I would never have been successful in all the different areas that I've been. And, certainly, again, the gold medal with state parks or being directed of the national parks without those partnerships. And the partnerships include your congressional members. Sometimes, you have to work more aggressively to make sure they understand what benefits we provide for them as well as they're providing for us. But I certainly never walked into a congressional office without saying thank you for something, minimally, hopefully that they've voted for my budget. But maybe they did more. But those are all part of that partnership. So the partnership is in many different directions.

Fran P. Mainella speaking on the importance of play. [Courtesy: US Play Coalition]

The Buzz: But the thing is, also, going into these rooms, you have to have a very clear identity of yourself, of what you want, what you want to accomplish but also your passions and what you want to do personally as well as professionally. Can you talk about the balance there?

FM: Well, I think the most important part of partnership is, again, to understand what the goals are, and I think in partnership, it's important to be not just about yourself. The organizations need to understand, that are coming together in partnership or the individuals, of what they bring to the table, and you have a commitment to do that. But it has to be-- for a partnership to work, you have common goals. It has to be better. The partnership, to be effective, has to be greater than the entities at the table. In other words --let's say national parks and Florida state parks are doing a partnership. Okay. It's got to be greater than just those two entities unto themselves. It's got to be what can we do better to serve those that are in, let's say, the state of Florida, that are visiting park units, so that they're having good enjoyment but also doing resource protection, or [maybe] what are we doing together? Or are we saving dollars by sharing equipment? I buy a piece of equipment that's going to be beneficial for prescribed fire, for example, and, in fact, we did this a lot, and then -- on a national park service basis, we'd help out with the state parks, and they would provide us back maybe some equipment that we didn't have. [That way] we didn't always have to own everything in ourselves. It was a better use of our dollars. But again, it's really important that we are in there understanding our obligations but also "What are our common goals?" Hopefully, everyone looks better as a result of it. But it has to be a little bit more than just staying focused on your one entity. It has to be focused on the joint common goals.

The Buzz: But it also has to be about education, and education's a big thing. Obviously, the Play Coalition is a big thing because it's all about the play. I mean having grown up in Florida, going to the national monuments or marine sanctuaries, that's all part of the play because it's memories.

FM: It is. And memories are just so important. But the US Play Coalition-- when I left being a National Park Service director, I went to Clemson University. And at Clemson, I knew they're very well-known for their park recreation and tourism program. And I also knew the leaders so I knew that they would work with me on some of the things I wanted to work on. And what I had seen in national parks was actually a decrease in visitation. And actually, if you look back, national park visitation would decrease going all the way back to '80s. But many of us didn't pay attention to that. At least for me…when I grew up, I used to come home from school and my Mom said, "Go out and play and come back in time for dinner."

The Buzz: And this was in Connecticut?

FM: This was in Connecticut where I grew up. And most of the people that are today 30 years of age and older will all probably remember those kinds of stories. But what I was seeing as National Parks Service Director, and when I got to Clemson again, I saw that there was actually a play deprivation crisis underway because we weren't doing that anymore. When kids were coming home from school, they weren't going out to play so much because of fears of "stranger danger", fears of getting dirty or not studying hard enough. By "play", I'm meaning what you do kind of in your volunteer time. It's not necessarily sports. It can be but it's more likely being where you might go for a little hike or you even go out looking at the clouds or standing by a lake or whatever. Those are all parts of "the play". But for me growing up, I used to try to have to figure out how I could cross a stream and things like that. That was all part of my actual development. But I realized that we did have a play deprivation crisis going underway. One of the ways that Clemson allowed us to work on that, we brought a group of people internationally together to form a standing committee for the US Play Coalition to understand that we had to better educate people about play and its importance and that it wasn't a waste of time. In fact, if you're going to succeed academically, you're going to have to be healthy [while] the cognitive and emotional skills are being developed as well. You need to have play back in your life. It's innate. When you're born, you play. When you're in that crib, you're playing. But we've been teaching people for the last 30 years not to play. And so we need to allow that play to take place in order for us to better visit our parks. Because the visitation was down and I've been very appreciative of our current director and the centennial of national parks going on with "Find Your Park", which is, in essence, "Go find a place to play!" Because it wasn't just about finding a national park, it was about finding a local, state, or your backyard.

Go To Part II Of Interview


Tim Wassberg

A graduate of New York University's Tisch School Of The Arts with degrees in Film/TV Production & Film Criticism, Tim has written for magazines such as Moviemaker, Moving Pictures, Conde Nast Traveler UK and Casino Player. He enjoys traveling and distinct craft beers among other things.

The US Play Coalition

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The US Play Coalition, which is a partnership to promote the value of play throughout life. They fulfill their mission through education, research and communication.

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