Monthly Archives: November 2017

Breaking Down Barriers: Reflecting on NAI 2017

by Chris Smith

Falls on the Spokane River

The beautiful falls on the Spokane River was a great setting for this year’s national gathering.

The NAI National Conference in Spokane, Washington, was a profound experience. I always learn and recharge when surrounded by fellow interpreters, but this year was about challenges. It was about understanding more about what we – as frontline faces and voices – build for our many audiences. What are projecting into the audience? What expectations are we setting up through our words and actions for our audiences that supports or deters them from full participation? Are we asking ourselves hard questions, giving ourselves honest answers, being willing to take a risk, and using our skills and abilities to meet the needs of our audiences?

I was very excited to be at NAI this year, but I was also nervous. The conference program had a keynote speaker with a topic that promised to present tough historical issues and how to deal with them. I counted about 10 sessions in the schedule that planned to consider topics of diversity, inclusion, accessibility, and equity. Looking at the conference schedule, I could tell the theme of the year was going to be making space. Space in our programs, at our sites, in our language and approach to interpretation, and space in our minds. I knew I wanted to participate in these discussions, and I expected to be challenged by them. I even expected to experience guilt for failing to make the space in the past, but I found encouragement to learn and grow because it was obvious that interpreters all over the country wanted to have these conversations.

I volunteered each day of the conference, and my duties kept me running most of Wednesday so I’ll start my story with Thursday morning. The first Thursday session set the tone for me for the rest of the week. Thursday morning, Sarena Gill from the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation led a session entitled, “Let’s Talk About the Resource.” Her session was a discussion about the ways that language could lead our audiences down a less effective path to creating stewards. Specifically using the word “resource” to define our sites might invoke the idea that visitors make withdrawals, or take from, our sites without giving back or considering the wider community. Interpreters seek to turn visitors into stewards; we want the visitors to care about these resources like we do. Sarena used a game where each table had a communal fishing pond and a personal fishing pond from which each person could fish for the required number of fish to survive. We learned quickly that each of us tended to approach our personal resources more conservatively than the shared resources. This mentality toward our sites as shared resources might make a difference in how our audiences respond and how we build stewards. Even calling our sites a “resource” might miss the ways our audiences contribute and make deposits rather than withdrawals.

After thinking about how our language might be setting expectations for our visitors, I turned my mind to how language can include or exclude people from our programs. “From Diversity to Equity: Shifting the Way Interpreters Think,” led by Mac Buff and Julie Bowman, brought up the ways that interpreters can welcome diverse communities through mindful changes. The presenters emphasized that aiming for diversity and inclusion might still miss the mark if our programs lack equitable access for all. Language can make a difference in how we approach and respond to individuals. Replacing gendered language and avoiding making assumptions about individuals or groups can go a long way to making people feel comfortable in our programs. I especially appreciated when a suitable suggestion to replace “you guys” when addressing a group was “y’all.” Simple changes in the language we use to address others can create a comfortable, welcoming space for the many identities of the people we serve.

Japanese American children

Japanese American children on trains carrying them to concentration camps and away from their homes and communities following exclusion orders based in war hysteria, racism and prejudice.

Friday morning’s keynote session was an incredible example of the good that interpretation can do in the world when we consider the complexities of history and humankind. Clarence Moriwaki, President of the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community, shared the story of the first Japanese Americans to be taken from their communities during World War II and placed in concentration camps. Racism, war hysteria and fear led to injustices that haunt American history. The keynote provided us an example of addressing complicated, troubling histories and using interpretation to bring healing and hope. Moriwaki’s comparisons of World War II racist cartoons of Japanese Americans side-by-side with depictions of Muslims following the September 11 World Trade Center attacks sent audible gasps through the hall. For me, it was a reminder that we’re not so far removed from complicated histories in America, and that we still have much to learn. The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial is a space for sharing the history, calling out the fear and racism that persisted, and pointing towards a future free of those evils. The Memorial’s example shows us that interpretation – a powerful framework for changing hearts and minds – can be a force for good.

NAI Fun Run

Gathering with interpreters is always fun, and this year we had a fun run, the inaugural NAI 5K!

As I had expected, this year’s NAI National Conference challenged me to think beyond the boundaries of what I thought interpretation could be. Interpreters can use their skills of communication and connection to build even stronger bridges for more people and feel empowered to make positive, powerful changes in their communities. We just have to take a deep breath, listen, choose our words wisely, and act.

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“Thanks” An Interpretive (Plan) Approach

Blog- THanks

In the spirit of the upcoming holiday and coming off the national workshop I thought it fitting to interpret the power of “thanks”, in an interpretive plan format.

WHY? (What are the goals?)

It’s healthy to give thanks.

It’s healthy to receive thanks.

Teams that are positive and give thanks generally perform better.

Make their day.

It’s super easy!


WHO? (Who’s your target audience?)

An employee who’s been knocking it out.

A mentor.

Someone you haven’t contacted in a while but played a role in your development.

Someone who could use a “pick me up.”

An organization after a visit to their interpretive site/center. Its great to get feedback from outside your organization.

A visitor at your program or center.

A supervisor who supported you somehow.

Teachers that support your programs year after year.

Your volunteers!


WHAT? (What are your tangible resources?)

Written cards.

Post it notes.

Provide favorite treat or gift.

Verbally in person.

Verbally in front of peers.

Email to the persons supervisor.




Acts of gratitude can go a long way throughout the year. Giving thanks is a simple, efficient, cost effective way to build community and buy-in for those associated with your organization.

Simply put, it’s a good thing to do!

Go forth and THANK someone!




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The Art, and not so much Craft, of the Homemade Sign

DSC01024At the risk of wrath from commercial graphic designers and sign companies, this post is in strong support of the homemade sign. I’m not talking about the ones that you can generate on your pc with multiple font types and glossy paper options. I mean the ones that you see when you drive down the street that announce lost dogs, garage sales, and fresh produce. I developed a special interest in those, and it’s fair to say that I go out of my way to stop and photograph ones that catch my interest—which I’ve done from Santa Fe to Singapore. Every culture seems to hang up a quick temporary sign to say something at some point.



I’ve made those myself at a public park that I worked at some years ago. I developed temporary signage to give visitors the name of the mushroom colony that popped up overnight or information on the temporary flowering of some wildflower or shrub. Or just to tell them that a trail is closed due to a fallen tree. Sometimes you just can’t wait for a quote from the sign company.


But I love homemade signs because they are endearing. Some are painted with day-glo colors that I could never envision using together, to just outright spelling mistakes. All of these are perfectly okay because the main thing is getting your information across– such as there is a band playing TONIGHT at the Bistro. That’s what matters. I have a friend who once told me that the number of temporary posters that you see stapled to telephone poles usually matches the level of action and excitement that’s happening in that town. And despite how city crews may feel about those, I think he is right.


Even if there are city ordinances enacted against the use of temporary signs, or even the next level of rogue signage—graffiti; people just can’t help expressing themselves, which is well demonstrated by rampant political signs. I don’t really have a point to make here, other than from my own perspective that homemade signs are not only okay to use, but might even convey a bit to out-of-towners about the unique culture or fabric of the local community. So with that I leave you with this short homage to homemade signs that I have found across the Sunny Southeast, and a few other regions as well………







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You Matter (… in case you forgot)

I recently received a great reminder that we impact people in ways we often never see. Sometimes the job of an interpreter can get frustrating because it can feel like you do the same thing, present the same messages, keep trying to get across the same ideas, and nothing seems to change. Heck, we’ve been doing environmental education for decades, and we still have to worry that the government might dissolve the EPA.

BUT – this broad perception overlooks all of the individual impacts that we make every day. And we often don’t get the benefit of the positive reinforcement of these impacts because they happen after people leave our sites and go home.

So I wanted to share this story with you that happened to me recently:

An old acquaintance of mine from college (yes, old … I graduated in 1998) took a family vacation to my area this summer. While here, she brought her kids to the nature center I used to work at, the Woodlands Nature Station in Land Between the Lakes. (I had recently left for a new job, but I had helped her with her travel plans …) She went, had a good time, etc. etc. etc. Seemed like a standard “been there, checked the box” kind of vacation stop.

Except that last week I got this email from her:

When we visited the nature station, my middle son Ryan was fascinated with the bald eagle in residence. He started reading about bald eagles and decided this summer he wanted to be one for Halloween. I thought John and your friends who work there might find it cool that he was so inspired. The costume was a team effort and Ryan helped a lot. I wanted to just share with you. 

Thanks to all of you for caring for these birds and inspiring kids.

I hope you’re doing well! 


These are the kinds of things that happen every day after people have experiences at our sites. It’s easy to forget, or to get discouraged, or to feel like maybe your efforts don’t matter. But they do. Take this little guy’s experience and multiply it a thousand times, and this is one small portion of the impact of what we all do.

Just in case anyone forgot.

P.S. She also attached some photos:




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