Our problems need not define us

I'm Chris Lee and I do not approve this message…

Going outdoors makes you healthier, happier, smarter, and probably better looking. But we simply don’t invest enough in our outdoor resources. When I’m elected, I will fix that. The opposition clearly wants you to be sick, fat, and miserable. Don't let that happen. Vote for me.

Sound familiar? Minus the focus on outdoor resource funding. Nobody does that. Though I think they should. But no, I’m not running for any office. I’m content to just write about how I think others should.

Somebody get me a soap box.

All too often these days it seems like candidates are running against each other and not necessarily for the communities in which they serve, or for the people within them. Frankly, it’s exhausting.

How refreshing would it be to have candidates that ran on a platform of positivity and improvement? How great would it be to have people that, through merit of their candidacy alone, improve the self-image of the community which they are looking to serve? How great would it be if someone sought to rally us around our similarities, rather that divide us by our differences?

I feel like we are facing an identity crisis. We're so fixated on everything that's wrong and that's all we talk about. And when solutions are proposed, it’s done in such a way that it’s “MY solution,” which of course is better than YOUR solution. So voters, pick which side you dislike the least.

Meanwhile, those of us out here in the masses have more in common than not. But you’d never know it by watching the political discourse. We all just want better lives for ourselves and our families and for future generations. We all want to be happy and healthy, and if the opportunity presents itself, better looking too. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we all have a need for connection and for many, when that connection could not happen indoors, we took to finding it outdoors on the trails, in the parks, and in the natural world that allows us to distance but still be together.

So why couldn't we focus on things like that? Why can't we prioritize the things that unite us more so than those which divide us?

I personally feel the role of elected leaders is to lead a community. I feel they should be setting a vision for the community's future, that they should be the community's greatest cheerleaders, its greatest ambassadors. They should generate enthusiasm for a better, brighter tomorrow that the community can rally behind.

Of course, they need to address the challenges their community faces, but not fixate on them. And they should do so with the broader vision in mind. Every decision they make should be weighed against how that decision moves the community closer to that vision. I feel that when you fixate on problems, you send the message that our problems are our identity. But when you view the problems through the lens of a brighter future, the dynamic changes. Those issues become challenges in the way of achieving that vision and I think it’s a lot easier to rally support around removing those barriers.

In my world, all too often we talk about parks and conservation in terms of lack of funding and poor water quality and decaying infrastructure and all the other issues and challenges facing our industry. I'm infinitely guilty of this, as you've no doubt noticed if you've read much of this blog in the past. But that paints the wrong picture. Instead, I think our messaging should be more focused on the great things that the current funding levels have accomplished, or are accomplishing now, and then steer the conversation toward how much greater things would be if funding was increased. It's the same argument but painted with different colors.

For the parent that just wants to take her kids to great parks, the goal is the same: better parks. But the process of getting there – focusing on problems versus aspiring to a better future – and the feeling it elicits along the way, is very different. The latter is exciting, the former is exhausting.

Plus, I think it's a lot easier to want to invest in a bright future than it is to dump resources into problems, hoping they’ll go away. But that’s just me.

Let’s look at a real-life example. In 1989, the Iowa Legislature created the Resource Enhancement and Protection (REAP) program which would support things like parks and trails and wildlife habitat as well as conservation education programs and preservation of the state’s many historic resources. It most certainly painted a bright future for the state. The landmark legislation passed with zero votes against it. Not one.

Could you imagine anything today passing with unanimous support from both sides? I can’t.

So here’s my challenge to existing and future elected leaders: paint with brighter colors. Work together to develop, communicate, and achieve a vision for the communities you serve. A vision focused on the people that are counting on you to create a better place for them to live. I believe that vision should include great places to enjoy the outdoors – more and better parks and trails and natural areas. What’s more, polls and past vote tallies tell me I’m not alone here.

What would a brighter future look like for you and your family, and what are you going to do to make that future a reality?