Saturday, February 21, 2015

Paid in Sunsets, Sort of.

I am going to be up front here. Once upon a time, while I still worked for the National Park Service, I wrote a post on this very blog. The next day, (on my day off) I received a call from my supervisor because she had received a call from the superintendent because she had received a call from somebody in the Washington Office. Do you know the level of stress that smothered me? The one activity where I found solace (blogging) in a tough place put me on a hot plate. I was doing nothing wrong (I only wrote on my days off and my bio stated that my opinions were my own). I was told, however, I needed to do a better job of making it clear that what I was writing did not reflect the opinions of the National Park Service and that writing could get me into trouble. It was bullshit then, it is bullshit now. If anything, my supervisor should have been happy to know one of her employees loved what she did so much, she continued to explore these ideas even in her off time. If anything, the National Park Service should have been happy to have somebody willing to share how some of the program development (even the criticism part) operates. I was a lowly GS-05 park guide. What harm could I do?

Now, I don't work for the National Park Service. I advocate for parks, I research for parks. Sometimes, I even visit parks just to visit them. I don't worry about getting a call about what I write. I don't worry about getting reprimanded for work that ultimately also earned me an award (true story). I don't worry that what I write here might impede my getting hired later. This is my space. I can ramble on all I want and you don't have to read it. I can delete everything and you don't have to care. In my past, I remained incredibly vague about the struggles I had while working with the park service. It got to the point where I had more shitty days than good ones and nothing is worth the mental or emotional drain; even a "dream" job. With all that being said, here come some reflections that I have kept inside for many years.

Yesterday, somebody tagged me about a Call for Papers issued by the National Park Traveler Publication. Yes, two and a half years after my official "good-bye," the green and grey identity follows me. It got me thinking. If I were to write something, there is so much I could address: poor hiring practices, "do less with less," even how this publication clearly understands "parks" as natural sites when there are far more historic resources managed by the service. After the brief moment of "coulds," I went about my day as I usually do: chores, work, more chores, more work. While I am still intrigued about the National Park Service (one does not study the history of the National Park Service and then work for the National Park Service without still feeling a little connection to the National Park Service), it did not consume my day. Later in the evening, however, I saw Abbi on twitter make mention of being a "recovering park ranger." I am that! I am one of those! I have never met Abbi, I just follow her on the Twitterverse and replied to one of her tweets last night. Little did I know her comment would open a flood of conversation on Twitter by a series of current and former folks associated with the National Park Service.

First, it made me sad to see others experiencing the same struggles I did when I worked for the National Park Service. There is a disparate understanding of the National Park Service depending on the viewer. The average visitor sees a friendly park ranger and fields or historic homes or forests or rivers and says "wow, this is a great job with great benefits." However, the National Park Service ranks 213th in employee satisfaction out of the 314 comparable federal government agencies. That's not good. How employees feel, are even told how to feel, and what the public's perception are very different things.

Yes, when I worked for the National Park Service, I was told about our "benefits." Early in my career, with my bells on my toes and stars in my eyes, I was entirely ok with working hard to earn my way up the career ladder. I did work well above my pay-grade and ultimately, it paid off. Through the "SCEP" program, I eventually got a permanent job. It was a GS-05 park guide job, but it was permanent. That's the dream, right? Be a permanent park ranger? Oh, except I was a "guide" and was reminded more than once that there is a difference. Oh, and I was runner up to several jobs; in several cases the candidate hired knew the supervisor (or supervisor knew the candidate). That's ok, I thought. It just means keep trying harder. Even if you drive yourself into the ground because the system is not built to encourage and cultivate innovative or quality work. It is still a bureaucracy. It just happens to be a cultish bureaucracy that "pays in sunsets."

From my first season, a friend of mine captured the
quintessential park ranger (not pointing at things).

The cult of the National Park Service starts with identity. Wearing the green and grey is your honor, your duty, your identity. We come from a long line of park rangers! It is a noble job! The mountains are calling yadda, yadda, yadda! This cult also cultivates a sense that the National Park Service is all there is. I know many people and parks within the agency who have a hard time with being true partners because they believe the NPS is the only way. No other agency, organization, or group can do it better than the NPS. This notion ultimately bleeds back into the identity. If there is no National Park Service, then what is there?! People thinking of leaving the National Park Service must be crazy and what else is there?!

I know where this question was coming from, but I was recently asked if I was happy after leaving the National Park Service. Yes. Yes, it is possible to exist outside the National Park Service and be happy. In fact, it is possible to exist outside the National Park Service AND be happy AND still advocate for parks. Weird, right?

 It also took me a while to figure out I could also do other things. I dedicated several years and much energy (and invested a great deal of money into a degree) for what I wanted to be my end goal. Ultimately, my wants and goals changed the more I worked for the National Park Service. It did not work out the way I originally intended, but I am at peace with it. It saddens me that the struggle is real for others, though. You have to give yourself permission to live life on your own terms. If that means stepping away from the National Park Service, then step away. If it means finding another federal agency, find another agency. If it means an entire career switch, switch careers. I knew I would encounter questions and even some resistance when I left. One person even told me "aren't you like 'Miss NPS,' how can you just leave?" teasing about my complete passion for what I did. I knew I would struggle after leaving, but I also knew my identity was not tied to the green and grey.

Some people who work for the NPS might read this now and think "that doesn't sound like me, I love my job/co-workers/park/resources/uniformed mom pants." That's ok, too. But may I suggest you appreciate that because it is not service-wide. And maybe some who work for the NPS right now will read this and not want to think about how the agency you love has also systematically screwed over countless quality workers. There is still a lot that needs to be said. There is a lot that the NPS needs to hear.

While sometimes I feel like the relationship I have with the National Park Service
is like that of one with a bad ex-boyfriend, it does not stop me from reminiscing.

I still have more to say about why people struggle. I still have my thoughts on the hiring practices that are not always effective. I still have thoughts about how the National Park Service works as a machine, assuming that people are likes cogs and wheels and easily interchangeable. I still have thoughts about how the service that I hold dear to my heart has burned so many good workers. Maybe I will write an essay for that call of papers. Maybe I will write those thoughts here. Or maybe not. Just know this: recovering park rangers are never alone.

 *Hells to the yes, I am adding an additional disclaimer about how I am NOT an employee of the National Park Service and these thoughts are MINE all MINE. Why would I break that over-three-year-old trend?

**I am still trying to figure out how to use Storify to capture the essence of the conversation that happened on the Twitters. It was a good one. If I get around to it, I will share it here. If I don't, you should be able to roughly follow along via my feed and the shared tweets.

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