Coyote's Corner

Field Lessons and Games, Insights and Resources

Growing an IDEA

by Sara Hinck

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A year of AmeriCorps VISTA service with CFI

Running a river represents a journey that goes beyond rowing from put-in to takeout. As CFI turns 40, we are gearing up to raft the waters of organizational change toward being a more inclusive, accessible outdoor education outfitter. During my year as a AmeriCorps VISTA working as the DEI Marketing & Fundraising Coordinator, I noticed intrinsic parallels between the process of running a river, and the process of making lasting changes in CFI’s approach to inclusivity.

As someone deeply connected to nature, the great outdoors has always felt like my soul’s wild and free backyard, allowing me to explore, learn, and connect with my authentic self. However, as an outdoor enthusiast, I also recognize the historical marginalization of many communities within the sector. These historically excluded groups include and are not limited to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, the LGBTQIA+ community, people with disabilities, as well as those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

My VISTA-ship with CFI delved into the realm of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility, or “IDEA.” During my time as an AmeriCorps VISTA serving as the DEI Marketing & Fundraising Coordinator, I discovered a confluence of commonalities between the process of running a river and the journey of implementing IDEA initiatives within CFI. Please join me as I explore these connections and share the invaluable lessons learned throughout my service year.

Strap on your helmet, tighten your PFD, grab a paddle, and let’s begin this journey together.

Navigating new waters requires teamwork.

Creating an effective knowledge base through training and education

River guiding and IDEA work are dynamic, requiring continual education and a growth mindset. I noticed how CFI seamlessly integrates technical river skills training with a strong commitment to organizational IDEA education. At CFI, new guides are exposed to professional growth through their Wilderness First Responder Certification before they start running rivers. This technical skills course combined with the knowledge gained form UC Berkeley’s “Working Towards Racial Equity” workshop, provides a diverse knowledge base for their staff.

As someone deeply connected to nature, the great outdoors has always felt like my soul’s wild and free background, allowing me to explore, learn, and connect with my authentic self.

The true beauty of education lies in its diversity, and each individual who engages in these environments brings perspective, experience, and knowledge so that each CFI participant feels spoken to in a unique way.

When equipped with these interconnected educational tools, staff can create a rich tapestry of outdoor programming where participants have impactful learning experiences, feel truly seen, heard, and build valuable connections to the river, each other, and themselves.

Similarly to the new First Year Naturalist Educator Guides, I underwent my own professional development course, delving into research and learning from expert practitioners on IDEA application strategies within the outdoor education sector. As all the guides completed their training and began planning for their first river trip of the season, I too reached a point where I was ready to propose and implement IDEA-related changes at CFI.

From planning to packing, to navigating rapids and eddies, to eventually reaching takeout, there are many steps to executing a successful river trip. Navigating the organizational waters of IDEA at a small nonprofit like CFI is no different.

Planning your river trip: Listen to the Stories of the Riverways

youth river skills campers eating dinner onion beach
A moment of calm to experience the story of the river

“This river has a story to tell, and every time you run it, it lets you in on a little bit more,” said Alex de Moor, CFI’s Education Director. Just as a river has its own story, so does an organization. Understanding the historical and cultural context of CFI is a crucial step to implementing change.

When working with a new group, guides often ask themselves important questions. How much river experience do my participants have? Is this stretch of river the right choice? What are they hoping to get out of the river trip?

By approaching these spaces with an open mind, meaningful dialogue, and a listening ear, we can adapt our strategies to meet the needs and interests of our audiences, both on the river and within our organizational IDEA initiatives. Through these efforts we lay the groundwork for providing high-quality services and experiences that resonate deeply with participants. 

Packing your equipment: To row or to paddle?

On rig day, guides decide which boats to bring down the river. Paddle boating offers a chance for participants to work together and contribute to a successful rapid run, while an oar rig allows a guide to operate autonomously, carry gear, and steadily move downriver. Under the guidance of my former boss, Brennan Patrick Gillis, CFI’s Marketing & Communications Director, I honed the skill of knowing when to collaborate or work independently.

Much like a river guide selecting between an oar rig or a paddle raft based on the crew’s capacity and experience, I was faced with the decision to choose the best resources to enact change at CFI. Throughout my service year, I learned to recognize when to paddle together, hop on the oars alone, or create the space to let someone else take the helm. CFI’s river trips serve as a prime example of how high-quality experiences stem from balancing these styles, whether navigating the San Juan River or the waters of IDEA within your organization. It’s a delicate dance, but always an adventure.

Understanding the historical and cultural context of CFI is a crucial step to implementing change

NTGIT knot tying practice
Learning new skills is an important aspect of river running.

Navigating the River Pt I: Harnessing the Power Around You

If you spend time on the river, you may hear the saying, “a good raft guide is a lazy raft guide.” Reading and utilizing the river’s flow allows the guide to conserve energy, move efficiently, and spend less time eddied out. Generally speaking, this mantra underscores the importance of knowing how to use the resources around you wisely.

In IDEA work, discovering your leadership voice is vital to advocate for others and create change.

As an AmeriCorps VISTA, I embraced this mindset by cultivating relationships with my colleagues, uplifting their talents, knowledge, and passions to achieve our organizational IDEA goals. By tapping into the strengths of our community, we can propel forward, foster interconnectedness, and recognize that we are stronger together.

Navigating the River Pt II: Finding Your Captain’s Voice

Any river guide will agree that a strong captain’s voice is a necessary skill set when navigating challenging waters. Similarly, in IDEA work, discovering your leadership voice is vital to advocate for others and create change. The beauty is that everyone can define their own captain’s voice, as it is often shaped by their personal journey.

Finding your captain’s voice means learning how to take charge.

CFI’s student-centered expeditions empower participants to uncover their captain’s voice. Through this process, even the most shy individual can learn how to confidently captain a boat through a class 2 rapid by trip’s end. Whether your captain’s voice focuses on addressing inequities, uplifting others, fostering community, captaining your raft, or shaping future generations of steward and guides, each voice can play a vital role in creating an inclusive and accessible environment for everyone, on and off the river. So, let’s paddle together: “All Forward!”

Navigating the River Pt III: Hitting Rough Waters

“So, this one time….”

How many of us have hair raising river stories? With unexpected weather, fluctuating water levels, and monstrous rapids, river trips are prone to various rough waters that require skilled navigation.

Navigating the rapids of IDEA can also feel nerve-wracking and intimidating. Mistakes are inevitable as we journey through unfamiliar terrain. Evolving terminology, challenging dialogues, and new processes can pose as hidden rocks and swirling rapids. In these moments, it’s important to utilize our personal toolbox, recall our training, and seek the support from our captains and IDEA leaders to guide us through the rough waters. Whether they are tossing the throw bag or offering feedback for reflection, their guidance is invaluable.

Each voice can play a vital role in creating an inclusive and accessible environment.

And, while it might feel daunting to flip your raft back over, jump onto the oars, and continue your adventure, the challenges you face provide an opportunity to grow, leaving you stronger and more equipped to tackle the next rapid that comes your way.

Navigating the River Pt IV: Don’t Miss the Eddy

River guiding and IDEA work both require safe and supportive spaces for rest and recharge. On the river, this refuge can be found in an eddy. Depending on the water level, an eddy is a calm pool of slackwater on the side of the river where rafters can rest, scout ahead, or regroup before continuing down river.

As someone who continually seeks ways to strive forward, I deeply appreciated Michele Johnson’s approach. Michele understood the importance of finding your eddy within the waters of IDEA work, and emphasized the necessity of pausing during our monthly Critical Conversations. She encouraged us to process, acknowledge our progress, and prioritize self care.

So, remember to look for your eddy and take a moment to rest. Take a deep breath. Stretch. Adjust your grip, and ready yourself before rowing back into the current. In order to keep moving, you must sustain your momentum for the journey ahead.

Eddying out is an essential part of the process.

Takeout: Unpacking and Debriefing

As we reach takeout, we unpack and reflect on the lessons learned, ready to let them ripple into life beyond the river. From the journey’s beginning to end, I learned that boating and IDEA have stark similarities, and the confluence of these two rivers form the cornerstone of CFI’s evolving cultural ecosystem.

ntgit 2021 loading boats mexican hat
The work doesn’t end when you hit that boat ramp…

I am grateful to have been a part of a chapter within the CFI story, and I look forward to what lies around the bend as CFI continues to build outdoor education programming where youth from diverse backgrounds can connect with the beauty and transformative power of nature. As we work towards creating a more inclusive, diverse, equitable, and accessible outdoor education sector, we recognize that, just like how no two rivers are the same, no two pathways in achieving this vision will be identical.

Building toward inclusivity is an ongoing process, filled with both beauty and challenges, and by committing ourselves to this vision through sustained care and investment, an IDEA can grow.

You can support inclusivity in the outdoors by contributing to the Youth Desert Access Program, or the Native Teen Guide in Training Program

About the Author: Sara Hinck

Growing up in the Bay Area of Northern California, the outdoors were an integral part of Sara’s upbringing, and through her personal experience, she has seen the transformative and educational power of engaging with nature. While looking to interweave her passion for the outdoors, health equity, youth development, and service, she found she was called back to Moab. Sara served as the DEI Marketing & Fundraising Coordinator AmeriCorps Vista with CFI from January 2022 – 23. Her vision is to aid in developing more accessible pathways for diverse populations to find belonging and connectivity in natural spaces within the Colorado Plateau on their own terms.