When our interns are finished with their season/internship, we ask them to write reflection pieces about their experience with In My Backyard and the National Park Service. Their reflections are always thought-provoking and insightful glimpses into how IMBY impacts their professional and personal spheres.
By Victor DeSimone
In late May of this year, I sat down for the first time with three students from the University of Washington, one park ranger from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, and one National Park Service Student Conservation Association Centennial Volunteer Ambassador intern. We had come together to prepare for a summer that was to be spent all over Washington, throughout Seattle and across a total of six different National Parks Service sites, working to develop a program for urban youth outreach. At the time, I was mentally preparing myself to write lesson plans, meet with educators, and try to devise transportation logistics; all of the things you would expect to go into planning an urban outreach program. These were the kinds of things I had imagined when I first accepted the internship back in May.
In reality, my time with In My Backyard this summer was spent rather differently than I had expected. I quickly learned that, before I could even begin to educate youth about the National Park Service, I had to first educate myself. The result was that, for three months, I became a sponge, soaking up all the knowledge that I could, while immersed in the culture of an organization that I soon discovered I knew very little about. Each time I came into the office at Klondike, or stepped out into a new, unfamiliar park, I discovered a new element of the NPS that I had never considered before.
Before accepting this internship, I had never worked in a government setting before, and I’ll admit that it was a bit of a culture shock at first. Working in a bureaucracy meant witnessing different challenges than those I had experienced before, whether that be in my own education or in the private workplace. And while certain elements of the organizational structure (the distinct hierarchy and strict chain of command etiquette) were frustrating to me, the NPS exposed me some truly inspiring people and stories. One thing that struck me as quite unique to the park service was the fact that every person I met, from park superintendent to seasonal hire, was working for the NPS because they were truly passionate about the parks they represented. There is a sense, in the National Parks Service, that everyone is there because they believe that the work they are doing, and indeed the work that the organization as a whole is doing, contributes to making the world a better place, or at least protecting it from getting any worse. And that, I think, is a quality that every organization, government, non-profit, or private enterprise, should aspire to.
But it wasn’t just the staff of the NPS that had a profound effect on me. I believe that the most valuable experiences that I had as an intern this summer came from my interactions with folks who had stories of their own to add to that of the National Parks. One salient example of this was when our team got the chance to speak with SCA youth volunteers at local parks. This experience imbued me with hope that, in communities of color, which environmentalists often discount, there are many passionate young people with incredible dedication to protecting their local ecosystems.
Additionally, while I have always been drawn to the outdoors, and that was what primarily drew me to this internship, it was not the great sweeping landscapes of North Cascades or the Olympic Mountains that impacted me the most this summer. Rather, again it was the people we met, and the stories they shared with us.
The most powerful memory that I have to take away from this internship is of our visit to the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial and our subsequent interview with Japanese Internment survivor, Lilly Kodama. Hearing her speak about her own lived experience of events that I had only ever read about before, personalized that piece of history for me, and, I think, demonstrated the value of the National Park system better in that moment than any sweeping vista or towering summit ever could. And it is because of experiences like this that I will continue to value the time I have spent as an In My Backyard intern, long after my time with the NPS is finished.