Conservancy Director Takes Lessons to Brazil and Beyond


Parks Conservancy Director Sue Gardner presents at a plenary session of the Eighth Brazilian Congress on Protected Areas

Imagine you’re speaking before a standing-room-only hall packed with 1,500 people—mainly strangers—in a foreign country.

And now imagine you’re sitting on a three-person panel with Fernando Meirelles, the beloved filmmaker known for “City of God” and “The Constant Gardener”; and the legendary Dr. Russ Mittermeier, former Conservation International president and one of TIME magazine’s “heroes for the planet.”

That was the situation facing the Parks Conservancy’s Sue Gardner—an inspirational innovator in her own right, pioneering successful community and youth programs for a quarter-century.

Her wealth of experience and insight was what led her to appearance before a plenary session of the Eighth Brazilian Congress on Protected Areas, a conference sponsored by one of Brazil’s premier conservation nonprofits, the Boticário Group Foundation. Their vision, to make nature conservation “relevant to both society and public policies in Brazil,” speaks directly to Sue’s work in connecting the broader community with the parklands at Golden Gate.

Park E-ventures sat down recently with Sue, Director of the Conservancy’s Park Stewardship Program, to hear about her Brazilian adventure.

How did this opportunity come about?

There is a recognition among conservationist within Brazil that the citizens are disconnected from their protected areas—and that conservation is not relevant to their lives. So they wanted someone to specifically address that concern for them in a positive, productive, and inspirational way. And so they went out scouting around.

Leide Takahashi, the Foundation’s environmental projects manager, was at the George Wright conference, which was held in Oakland this past year, where I organized a workshop for youth. We were talking about how to connect this generation of youth to our parks and open space areas—and Leide wanted to take that message that back to Brazil. She saw that all of the work and progress this park has made in connecting people—particularly youth—could be used as an inspiration, because they have the same challenges. So that was how I got invited.

What did you hope to accomplish with your presentation?

My goal was to inspire the audience into action by showing them how community engagement programs, particularly those with youth, can connect individuals to protected areas in a very powerful way. In the first part of the talk, I broke down what I believe to be the key ingredients to building a successful program. I then stepped back and introduced several strategic considerations—from partnerships to funding to education—to weigh when building a larger infrastructure for these kinds of programs.

And my suggestion is to start with youth. Why? Because you can get the biggest impact, biggest transformation; they bring their family and friends, and many of them are almost at voting age. So they can make a huge difference and impact.

So what are those key ingredients to include in programming with young people?

The ones I spoke about included: 1) providing a purpose, which we do through service; 2) providing an economic incentive for participation, if possible; 3) creating community, because young adults in particular like to work as a team; 4) having some kind of learning element that’s more experiential and hands-on; 5) integrating play; and 6) providing a challenge and sense of adventure.

If you can mix one or more of the components together, you can maximize your impact. For example, if you combine service and doing it as a team, with learning, and then you add an element of play, you’ve just increased your impact. Like a recipe, if you put the ingredients together, it makes a richer meal.

How did the audience respond to your talk?

I got great feedback. People were feeling really inspired and wanting more information about the on-the-ground programmatic details, and the bigger philosophical questions, particularly around building and developing a volunteer and  service ethic.

One of the things that was surprising for me, which I discovered in talking to Brazilians, was that the concept of civic engagement—or volunteering—is not currently built into the Brazilian culture, and they were interested on how to bring that ethic of “giving back” into the milieu.

It gave me pause because I actually feel like we have a long way to go here in the U.S.! But the interesting thing for me was that we’re actually much further along than Brazil or other parts of the world. And it really made me reflect on the notion of: “How did we build that into our society?” and “What advice can we give to other countries or other cities?”

For me, the answer kept circling back to education. There is an opportunity to build this ethic early on by integrating it into our school systems. Not only can the importance of civic engagement be taught, but it can be modeled by engaging in volunteer projects with community partners. Some of the schools we work with here require a certain number of service hours for graduation, and this gives the students a chance to not only give back, but to also learn a lot about the needs in their local community.

Those new approaches represent the “thinking outside the box” mentality that was a central theme for your particular plenary session. What insights did your fellow panelists share?

The role of communication was on everyone’s mind. Fernando Meirelles was teasing the scientists, saying, “The problems we are having with climate change is all your fault. If you guys would learn how to communicate better and not just communicate to yourselves, people would have a better understanding and be more motivated to action!”

He did it in a fun way that made people laugh, but he really wanted to push that message. He noted that the best communication style is through storytelling, because it’s one of the oldest forms of communication, and as a result it resonates for people. Thankfully, I had developed my presentation in the form of a story, so he said “Do it like Sue!”—which was awesome.

What did you learn about the conservation movement at the conference, more broadly?

First of all, the Brazilians I met are unbelievably passionate, generous individuals with a big spirit. And they’re also bold in vision, which is refreshing. When we would talk about climate change, for example, it made me realize how timid our conversations are here in the United States—or, at least, the conversations I’ve had. Their conversations are quite advanced, and they are working on adaptations and solutions in a very proactive way.

In talking with speakers from other countries, I found great solace in realizing that we’re all really connected on these issues and not working in isolation. It doesn’t matter whether we’re from Brazil, Kenya, Canada, or the United States…we’re all struggling with essentially the same environmental challenges, particularly with climate change—which is such a big issue it transcends all boundaries and countries. It was comforting to know that all around the world, country to country, there are passionate and intelligent people who are working to address these significant challenges.

Another conservation legend—biologist George Schaller—was there, and he said, “Conservation without science is blind.” This statement resonated for me, and I would add a second part to the sentence. Conservation without science is blind, but conservation without public support will always be limited. And if conservation efforts do not spread, then the effort to instill our conservation efforts with science is wasted. So to me, generating public understanding, connection, and support is fundamental to the success of all our conservation efforts.

Which speaker was especially inspirational to you?

Marina Silva [a former Minister of the Environment and presidential candidate in Brazil]. I gained a lot from listening to her. She grew up in the rainforest; she was a rubber tapper’s daughter, she was illiterate until early adulthood and a colleague of Chico Mendes. She’s a really amazing person.

Her talk was both visionary and multi-layered. In her talk of protected areas, she wove in elements of policy, philosophy, ecology, ethics, and psychology. She noted that: “Being pragmatic paralyzes you. We must dream to keep moving forward and we need to be persistent” because the naysayers will be there in good times and in bad. It was the one of the most well-rounded and deepest conference talks I’ve ever sat in on.

I appreciated that the Boticário Foundation is committed to looking at these conservation challenges from a multitude of different perspectives, knowing that you can’t take any singular approach. As we look for solutions in this time of environmental challenge we all need to be working together in a very holistic approach—and that’s what was represented well at this conference. It was very inspiring for all of us who were there.

—Interview by Michael Hsu