Behind the scenes with PLA award winner Susan Sachs

Behind the scenes with PLA award winner Susan Sachs

By Frances Figart

If you have followed GSMA news this year, the name Susan Sachs will be familiar. We nominated her for an Agency Leadership award through the Public Lands Alliance—and she won!

Promoted last year to education branch chief, Sachs is currently acting chief of resource education. Her award recognizes a public land management agency employee for outstanding accomplishments by championing, cultivating and leading partnerships. We asked her to tell us some of the background that led up to this outstanding recognition.

How did you begin forming partnerships in the Smokies?

I learned early on that when you involve others, projects will go places you never imagined. When I became the education coordinator of the Appalachian Highlands Science Learning Center, I really wanted it to be a place that hosted student groups, but I had no staff or budget.

The only way I was able to grow that program was through partnerships. Not only did the partners provide me with funds, but I was also able to link up with other educators who were low on staff to combine our efforts so we could collaborate to host groups.

What is a good example of a successful partnership with an organization outside of the park?

Both the Smokies and Asheville Greenworks offer high school internships. AG focuses on the urban areas of Asheville; in the park, we serve mostly rural students. I was interested in including more youth of color in our intern program but was having trouble recruiting. AG was interested in giving their interns opportunities to enter conservations careers.

For the past three summers, our two programs have worked together and both organizations are better for it. We both feel we are successfully creating a pipeline into NPS careers for youth of color and are exposing our rural students to the environmental issues in urban areas.

How would you advise or coach others who want to create and cultivate partnerships, whether for public lands work or other kinds of endeavors?

Use your network. Look around you at the other organizations with similar missions or work and have a discussion with them about how both of you might benefit if you worked together.

Susan Sachs - PLA Group

What is your earliest memory of thinking collaboratively or forming a partnership of some kind?

Early in my career, I worked at the Hard Bargain Farm, a residential Environmental Education Center in Accokeek, MD. I was in charge of an annual Potomac River cleanup as a collateral duty that when I started consisted of three sites in our local area. I thought it would be good to include some upriver locations since all of the trash we were cleaning up was coming from upstream. I reached out to all of my contacts at other education centers and schools in Maryland, DC and Virginia to get them to sponsor cleanups at their sites. When I left that job after 4 years, there were 115 sites and we had changed the name to the Potomac River Watershed Cleanup. It is still going on today with a person who is now a full time employee coordinating the events.

What is an example of a partnership that started small, reached a tipping point and took flight?

One example is our ozone biomonitoring garden citizen science project. I have trained several other organizations how to start their own gardens and now two of those organizations, Clean Air Carolina and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, are hosting trainings on a national level. I have largely stepped out of that realm and just do local trainings.

How has working on partnerships changed for you in your new role as education branch chief?

In my new role, I am stepping back and training my staff to be the collaborators and networkers. I might make some of the initial contacts but then I let my field education rangers manage the day-to-day. Some of them do a great job on their own of collaborating so I don’t need to do anything other than support their efforts. I was lucky to have a great supervisor in our previous Education Branch Chief, Karen Ballentine. She let me do my thing and I try to do that for my staff.

What are the most challenging and satisfying aspects of partnership work?

Most challenging is budgeting my time to do the background work that is needed to pull off a successful project. Most satisfying is watching programs or events as they take place and seeing the participants enjoying themselves, learning and leaving better than when they came to us.

SPECIAL NOTE: This story, along with a dozen others, originated in our Bearpaw newsletter, printed publication exclusively designed with our members in mind. Click HERE to become a member and receive the complete Bearpaw each summer and fall

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