Let’s Be Honest: A Time for Transparency in Parks and Recreation

Now is the time to have honest conversations with ourselves, our communities, and our agencies.

Written By: 

Marissa Moravec, CPRP

One blessing the COVID-19 pandemic has given the field of Parks and Recreation is opening the door to new ideas and ways of thinking.

COVID-19 has allowed us to the ability to be more honest than we ever have been with ourselves, our communities, and our agencies. COVID-19 has not only made us re-create the way that we work, but it has impacted our work culture. Honesty is now more important now than ever.

Being Honest With Yourself

I’ll be the first to admit that this pandemic increased my stress level tremendously. I went from working 40 hours a week to 60 hours a week, just trying to juggle and figure out how my position looked. I had to ask myself “Am I stressed? Am I overwhelmed?”

The first two weeks alone, I spent just trying to learn how to work from home. I also had to figure out how to change the way that I serve my participants. I work with seniors and that’s traditionally not a group that does very well with technology; offering them virtual programs via zoom was a challenge.

I think this is a point where we need to take a look at how our agencies are supporting us during this time. I was sad when we had reached the point in the pandemic that I was furloughed – at around the six-week mark. However, I was relieved that I could finally breathe three days a week and focus on my family. I’m fortunate that I work for a park district that takes its employees’ needs into consideration when making these kinds of decisions.

I have friends in the field that have reached the end of their rope and don’t know how to communicate that to their supervisors or their leadership team. This is a great time to ask yourself:

  • “Is my agency supporting me?”
  • “Am I too afraid to ask them for help or to be honest with them?”
  • “Does this agency fit my personal mission statement?”

This may be the best time to see that you’ve outgrown your agency or the community that you work in. You might be better suited for a different position entirely.

Being Honest With Your Communities

The second area we can start being honest with is our communities. During the stay-at-home orders here in Illinois, I was very fortunate that our state agency – Illinois Park and Recreation Association – made a great series available to us called “Call to Action.” The biggest takeaway that I learned about was sacred cows. A Sacred Cow is a figure of speech for something that is “immune from critique or criticism.” This is a term that I had never heard about before in the field of Parks and Recreation.  Sacred Cows are programs with limited supporters but may require significant staff time.

At one of my previous senior centers, we were in a tough position of taking over a program that had been run by a supervisor that the seniors absolutely loved for 30 years. While she was there, she started a wonderful lunch program. People signed up because they enjoyed doing it with her. Once a new team was brought in when she retired, enrollment in these lunches dropped significantly. At one point, I approached our leadership team and recommended reducing the number of lunches that we offered to every other week. This was denied because these were programs that our seniors had enjoyed for such a long time. We continued to offer these programs with minimal participation that not only barely broke even, but required a lot of my time — valuable time that could have been spent focusing on our other programs like senior trips or membership recruitment.

There are so many examples like this in the field of parks and recreation; we offer programs, events, facilities, and parks because of a long-standing relationship. Now is our opportunity to explain to our community why we can no longer continue the programs that aren’t working anymore.

We rely on registration and other streams of revenue, now more than ever. I think it’s important to communicate that need to our communities.

I was at my current Senior Center for approximately six months when the pandemic hit. I had written a very personal and emotional email to all of my senior center members when we were informed that our facility needed to close for an unknown period of time. Over several weeks, I sent them daily emails, updating them on what was going on not only with our programs but my family. When the time came to start charging a fee for our virtual exercise classes, I received pushback from several of my seniors. Why couldn’t we just offer the videos for free?

I let them know that the park district had been generous, and continued to pay our instructor the entire time, which had already been about six weeks. We could no longer pay her. The virtual classes would be canceled if we didn’t receive enough registrations. We went from 15 registrations to 55 in a matter of two weeks. About 10 of them didn’t even sign up because they wanted to take the exercise classes, but because they wanted to support me, our exercise instructor, and those that wish to continue taking the class. This is another great example of the importance of educating our communities.

Being Honest With Your Agency – And Your Employees

Finally, now is the time to be honest with your agency and your employees. Your supervisors and managers need to be involved in decision making. They know their department the best; they are the experts. It is very understandable, from a logistics perspective, to not ask for feedback from 20 plus supervisors. It’s going to slow down the decision-making process.

Asking them for their input, and truly taking their feedback into consideration, not only makes the employee feel valued, but it keeps them updated on where the agency is at. There are no surprises. They can reassure their frontline staff much more effectively and sincerely. If they know what is going on, and they trust that the leadership team is being open and honest with them, the work culture will improve. This isn’t to say that there won’t be exceptions; there will always be sensitive situations that have to be kept quiet because of the nature of the situation.

Honesty and trust are a two-way street.

Employees should be individuals that can trust and be honest with you, and if you have a team that you don’t trust and can be honest with, your agency likely needs to resolve that issue instead of withholding information. In turn, employees will be much more honest with their agency and a higher level of trust and productivity can be built.

The current circumstances provide an opportunity to change several processes in our field. My hope is that going forward, honesty will be at the top of that list. It is one of the pillars of workplace culture and can make or break an employee’s experience at any given agency. We all know how important it is to keep our star employees at our agency, which means developing trust on a deeper level. It can also make or break how our community views our services. The more that our community can trust us, and feels that we’re being transparent, the more support we will see from our communities. They will know we have their best interests at heart if we communicate early and often. This saying has always been true, and continues to be true today:

Honesty will always be the best policy.

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Marissa Moravec, CPRP
Marissa Moravec, CPRP