This past weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to the great city of Austin, Texas for a weekend of collaboration, inspiration, and most of all, fun. What brought me there? The groundbreaking new conference series, Outdoor Nation. This series of nine summits throughout the summer and fall of 2012 brings youth from throughout the country together to identify outdoor issues, overcome barriers to outdoor participation, and propose projects to increase youth engagement in their outdoors.
Following an early morning flight out of DC, I arrived at the University of Texas campus just in time to participate in a great service project with the Student Conservation Association. Fifteen volunteers and one hour of hard work in the Texas heat, and we had picked up over forty pounds of trash and five pounds of recycled goods from Waller Creek, running through the heart of the UT Austin campus. We were rewarded for our hard work with a delicious lunch at UT’s Jester Center Dining, where we met with the director of campus housing and dining, who spoke with us about the university’s sustainability initiatives. One fun fact from the conversation: by eliminating food trays in dining halls, the University of Texas was able to reduce its food waste by 48%, from 112 tons/year to approximately 48 tons/year. What a great example of an exercise in both sustainability and food economics!
Following an evening of exploration in Austin, including stops at the Blanton Museum of Art and the Texas State Capitol, I was up bright and early to participate in my first ever Outdoor Nation Signature Summit. Arriving at UT’s Thompson Conference Center, I joined 160 eager young adults (ages 16-28) for a welcome breakfast and an engaging discussion on the rights and responsibilities of our generation in relation to our great outdoors.
Video courtesy of Outdoor Nation.
Throughout the morning, we were kept engaged with challenging quizzes, photo contests, and democratic decision making, all run by our technologically-savvy facilitator, Chris Bui. Chris is a Social and Civic Entrepreneur, whose primary work area is in fostering democratic movements to solve modern challenges. Thanks to the Outdoor Nation team for bringing in such an engaging leader for our summit!
After lunch, we began work on the projects that would shape our weekend. As part of each Outdoor Nation summit, participants create projects that serve to get more youth outdoors. By the end of the weekend, the very best of those projects receive a seed grant of $1000-2500 to get working on their initiative. It is a wonderful opportunity for all those involved, and every single participant became an active discussant, leader, and collaborator within their group.
Outdoor Nation project groups hard at work.
It just doesn’t seem right to participate in a conference about getting youth outdoors, and spending the entire weekend inside. Thankfully for us, the leadership team of Outdoor Nation recognized that. As a part of each summit, Saturday night is spent camping out in a park close to the city. For example, the New York group had the opportunity to set up their tents in Central Park, and the Boston participants spent the night on George’s Island in the Boston Harbor.
In Austin, we were treated to a night out at McKinney Falls State Park, an urban respite within the city limits of the Texan capital. Upon arrival, we relished in a smoked southern barbeque that indulged everyone’s taste buds. Following, we had the opportunity to meet The North Face athletes Ryan Hudson and Lucas Debari, who gave us inspirational speeches about the power of the outdoors in changing lives. Ryan is involved in Outdoor Outreach, a phenomenal organization whose mission is “to empower at-risk and underprivileged youth to make positive lasting changes in their lives through comprehensive outdoor programming.” As professional snowboarders, Ryan and Lucas devote their spare time to inspiring young people to take their passions outdoors. They certainly had that effect on us Saturday evening.
The Outdoor Nation crew listening attentively to Ryan and Lucas.
Saturday night at McKinney Falls brought about torrential rains sweeping across the Texas landscape. Following a quick dip into Onion Creek, we scurried back to our campsites for a night spent warm and dry under the trusty cover of our Coleman tents. Some of us, however, were not as lucky, having gotten soaked from running in the rain, incorrectly set up tents, and all sorts of different issues!
We all awoke bright and early Sunday morning to get started on our project presentations. Back at the Thompson Conference Center, we enjoyed a warm breakfast of eggs, bacon, hash browns, and delicious pastries, after which we immediately set to work on finalizing our project presentations.
Three hours, nineteen projects, and thousands of votes ensued. This was by far the toughest part of the summit, in which all 160 of us were judging each other’s projects, rating them on the bases of their effectiveness, efficacy, and possibility, among other things. Dozens of students presented on the projects they were truly passionate about. Their enthusiasm came out in the form of song, video, dance, lecture, and even theater. In the end, however, only eight of the nineteen projects would receive funding, and the voting could not have been closer.
Even the LNT monster joined us in Austin.
I am proud to say that my team’s idea “Build a Bike for Conservation,” placed second in voting, and was awarded a $1500 seed grant. Our mission is to empower youth to get outdoors through cycling. Hence, we are partnering with a DC bicycle co-op to have ten students build bikes with local cyclists. Upon finishing, they will be rewarded with a biking trip from Pittsburgh to DC, which will take place next June along the Great Allegheny Passage and the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal National Historical Park. Our seven team members, composed of a diverse group of high school students, college students, interns, and young professionals, is extremely passionate about the project, and looking forward to implementing it throughout the year.
Masterminds behind “Build a Bike for Conservation”.
Not only did Outdoor Nation provide us with the location, funding, and opportunity at which to delve into our passions, it also re-instilled my passion for outdoor advocacy. The work of the Outdoor Foundation and the Outdoor Industry Association is the perfect complement to a comprehensive geography education: teaching people how to care for the planet, its resources, and all of its inhabitants through the Great Outdoors.
The great work done by Outdoor Nation and its sponsors was recently featured in Beyond the Edge: National Geographic Adventure Blog.
Discussion: Have you attended an Outdoor Nation? If so, what were your impressions? If not, do you plan on attending?
— Justin Fisch for National Geographic Education
All photos credited to the author.