At a Glance: Program Liaison for National Wildlife Refuges in Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology.
Q. Program Liaison for . . . OK, what do you do?
A. (Laughing) Actually, if you want to be technical about it, I’m the “National Wildlife Refuge System Visitor Services Program Liaison.” I know! Let me explain: One of the things the Lab of Ornithology does is to work with nature-based organizations, like wildlife refuges, to help educate the public about birds, nature, and conservation. My job is to help these organizations reach audiences who don’t have many opportunities to connect with nature—especially young people living in urban and underserved communities.
Q. Why do you think it’s important for urban kids to experience nature?
A. There are so many reasons. For one thing, when access to nature is limited, people can forget that it supports our lives. You need clean water, clean air, and clean food to live. I see experiences with nature as a way to foster an ethic of thoughtful decision-making, so we can make decisions that support vital and sustainable communities and a clean environment.
I’m also fascinated by research that’s coming out showing the need for a connection to nature for our own wellbeing. It’s about much more than having nice landscapes to look at. The research suggests that the natural world is important to us even on a physiological level. So being concerned about the planet isn’t just about environmental policies; it’s also about saving ourselves.
Q. How do you help the groups you work with create a connection to the natural world?
A. One way is through Citizen Science projects. They’re a great way for people in any setting to contribute to scientific knowledge. Project FeederWatch and Celebrate Urban Birds are two examples of CS projects run through the Lab of Ornithology. They’re both great for urban kids because birds are everywhere, even in the heart of the city. Participants record data about the birds they see and submit it to the Lab. The information helps scientists learn about birds’ movements and populations.
I really love Citizen Science because everyone’s contribution matters! You don’t have to be an expert for your input to be valuable. You’re involved in something larger than yourself, and you can participate no matter what your socio-economic or educational level is. It’s very empowering. And Citizen Science projects can be a great way for people to get involved in their own community.
Q. Can you point to any experiences in nature from your own childhood that had an impact on you?
A. One thing that made a big impression is the fact that we lived in Alaska when I was growing up. Nature was right there—a moose might show up in your yard! In school, we went out for recess in the snow. There was none of this, “Oh, it’s too cold.” We just put on our mittens and went outside and played every day.
I also spent a lot of time looking at stars as a kid. I think my interest in the night sky was partly based on a fascination with something much larger than myself.
Q. What do you like to do outdoors these days?
A. I love hiking and kayaking. I’m a contemplative person, so I’m not really interested in moving fast. I like to slow down and take things in; absorb the place that I’m experiencing.
Q. You started out studying journalism. How did you find your way to environmental education?
A. I was at a conference where I heard a speaker named Wes Jackson. It was an epiphany for me. His talk was based on a book of essays he wrote called Becoming Native to This Place. The book has to do with agriculture, but he talked about how, in order to solve problems on a global scale, you need to work at the community level. Value your community; start from where you are—and look to nature as a model. After hearing that talk, I decided to go back to graduate school and work in environmental education.
Q. Is being a birder part of your job description at the Lab of Ornithology?
A. Ha! I do enjoy watching birds. But I’m not one of those uber birders with a life list. I’m the type of person who gets excited seeing gulls at the Target parking lot, or turkey vultures on the light poles along the freeway. I just think they’re fun to watch, and I’m fascinated with how clever they are and how they’ve adapted to the urban environment.
Q. So if you could come back in another life as an animal, would it be as a bird?
A. Actually, you know what? I’d come back as an elephant. I feel a connection with them, and I perceive them as being very sensitive and intuitive. It just seems like they know so much.
Q. Your interest in nature ties in with an interest in health and wellness. Talk a little about the intersection of the two.
A. I’m very interested in nature as a means of helping to maintain health. We have so many health problems in our culture; issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity. Getting outside and hiking or bird watching or whatever gets you moving. You’re burning calories, but you’re also being restored by different aspects of nature—the sounds, the smells, etc.
I’m excited about being involved in some programs that inform people about the value of nature to their health and well-being. We get kids and families outside together, to hike or camp or whatever. For some of them, it’s a brand new experience.
Q. As an African American working to help underserved youth, do you see yourself as a role model?
A. Yes. And I think some of the young people I’ve encountered look at me as a role model because I’m doing what I love, and I’m really interested in helping people become empowered and transformed. I think the most valuable skill I have is as a communicator who helps engage people in solving problems.
Flisa is an at-large member of NAAEE’s Board of Directors.
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