Our series on Outdoor Allies profiles rad outdoor advocates and their approaches to protecting public lands. We're starting with Kirsten Blackburn, who is Advocacy Manager at The Conservation Alliance and formerly worked at KEEN in Portland as Corporate Communications & Advocacy Manager. She was also one of the brains behind the (very successful) Live Monumental campaign to protect important places. We're stoked on how Kirsten has been a leader for outdoor businesses getting into the fray of policy, while making sure that advocacy stays accessible. Here, Kirsten shares the inside scoop about the Live Monumental road trip, taking the leap into advocacy, and her best tips for talking with legislators.
Tell us a little bit about what you like to do outside and some of your favorite places to go.
Solo adventures are my meditation. I love letting my legs take me deep into high alpine meadows or deeply saturated forests, letting my mind water to wherever it wants to go, resetting, recalibrating, and reengaging with myself.
I do like people too though… and love trail running with faster-than-me friends, bagging peaks, rock climbing, attempting to fly fish, and sleeping under the stars with campfire smell in my hair. Who doesn’t love that camping glow?!
I was fortunate enough to grow up with Glacier National Park as my backyard, so I would be remiss not to list it as one of my favorite places on this earth. The great state of Montana has my whole heart, though. One could never full explore all that the high and wide state has to offer. From dramatic vistas and glacial carved valleys to truly wild and geothermal landscapes, clean, free flowing water full of trout, big skies (this is not just a tagline), and to next-to-no crowds - Montana is pure magic.
I also love the high desert and have thoroughly enjoyed being outside of my comfort zone for the past 5.5 years in Oregon. Being based out of Portland means weekend getaways to the desert during the rainy months. There’s something about a high desert sunrise, the smell of sage and juniper, and the temperature change from day to night.
What was your introduction to advocacy work, and how did you first decide that it mattered to you?
I believe I’ve always had the religion, I just wasn’t a regular church-goer. Despite the fact that outdoor adventures weren’t at the top of my folks’ parenting agenda, growing up in northwest Montana absolutely instilled in me a deep appreciation for the beauty of the natural world. I was the explorer in the family, and have always had a deep connection to wild, open spaces. It wasn’t until my boss and mentor – Kirk Richardson – encouraged me to find my voice, and use it for good that I understood why our special places needed people to stand up for them. He challenged me to think bigger, and to “actually get shit done.”
Our public lands aren’t an unalienable right, they need advocates and defenders. Our protected outdoor places are what us make us most rich and most fulfilled. I literally cannot imagine my life without solo adventures, without mountains I can freely ascend to the top of, deciduous trees I can admire, or clean streams I can try to pluck fish from. Once you realize you can’t live without something, you do what you need to make sure you never have to.
What are the big issues you care about that you’re working on right now, either independently or through work?
Education and open communication are keys to success. I try and have thoughtful conversations free of assumption or judgment with close friends and family. I try to understand why people have different opinions, and decipher how I may be able to offer them an alternative viewpoint.
KEEN’s Live Monumental campaign has been absolutely incredible, too, and something I’m extremely passionate about. Not only has it been a true testament of a for-profit business taking a leap of faith for something much larger than a bottom line, it’s forced us to dive into grassroots campaigns, gain knowledge and insight into all opinions, and realize that we’re all in the same fight. We all want places to remain the way they are – our definitions of “the way they are” just might be different.
When you first conceived of the idea of Live Monumental, how were you hoping people would respond? Has anything surprised you?
The overwhelming support for our public lands has surprised me. If so many people across the country feel strongly that our public lands are one of our country’s best ideas, why do threats against them still exist?
Your work with KEEN is an incredible example of making advocacy accessible. Do you have any tips for people who want to get started advocating for an issue or place they care about?
If you have the passion you don’t need much of anything else, just maybe a little nudge. The idea of reaching out to an elected or appointed decision maker can seem daunting. When I was getting started, it was important for me to remember that PEOPLE had to elect this important person I was about to speak to. Also, elected officials are human: they put their pants on one leg at a time, has a family, and at the end of the day eats dinner and goes to sleep just like I do. Odds are, they’ll be really, really nice. Take some time to learn what makes them tick, and chat about something fun - something OTHER than the topic you’re there to discuss.
People are people and you can’t fault someone for speaking up on behalf of something they love.
If you’re really nervous – start small. Writing a letter, calling on the phone, or sharing something through social media is a good first step.
What have you learned from the Live Monumental campaign?
Three main things:
1) The BUSINESS VOICE IS A POWERFUL VOICE FOR CHANGE. Let’s use it!
2) It’s our responsibility – as the next generation of public land stewards – to make conservation and preservation FUN. We were given the reins from some impressive leaders, let’s do this!
3) Road trips are effective (and fun) for team building.
Current favorite piece of gear: Patagonia Houdini Jacket – always and forever. EVERYONE should have one.
Favorite social media tool: I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by social media these days (when will the election be over?!). I’d like to kindly decline this question and encourage folks to read a book.
Your favorite public figure doing advocacy: Terry Tempest Williams. What an amazing spirit and a calming – yet fiercely inspiring human. Holy shit, she’s amazing. I’m currently reading her newest book, The Hour of Land. I’m moving slowly through it because I keep rereading chapters to make sure I get every morsel.
Thank you, Kirsten! Learn more about Live Monumental and what KEEN is doing to protect public lands.