Interview: Chris Fanning on “Outdoor Nation”

This June, thousands of young people will descend upon New York City's Central Park to participate in the first ever Outdoor Nation Festival and Summit. Along with some rock climbing, kayaking and fishing in the world's iconic urban park, more than 500 young leaders from across the country will engage in some heated policy discussion - setting a national agenda for a new youth-led outdoor movement.

When organizers of the event reached out to HeadCount to alert our volunteers about this opportunity — offering travel scholarships and hotel accommodations to qualified young leaders — we wanted to learn a little more about the event and the people behind it. So we sat down with Chris Fanning, the executive director of The Outdoor Foundation to get the scoop

HeadCount: Why don’t you tell us a little about Outdoor Nation?

Chris Fanning: Outdoor Nation is a youth-led inspired movement that is meant to empower young people to champion the outdoors as athletes, artists, as advocates and even ambassadors. It started a few months ago when, despite the growing movement to reconnect children and nature and address this so called “nature-deficit disorder,” no young people were seen much less heard. So the Outdoor Foundation, at the urging of many young leaders, decided to provide support and infrastructure for something called Outdoor Nation which is growing both online — where young people are connecting and getting together for outdoor outings — and also on land to think about how they can come together as a community and redefine, rediscover and reclaim the outdoors.

Tell us about the event you have coming up.

It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been a part of. It’s in New York City’s Central Park, the world’s iconic park. It’s not an accident, we definitely all believe that all communities should have a central park with the accessibility and amenities that New York City offers its citizens. It’s on June 19th-20th. We’ll be bringing 500 young people in from all fifty states to come together and essentially start a movement where they are going to set the agenda and lead the conversation and think about some of the top priorities that range from diversity, to media, to jobs, to recreation and education. They’ll be sharing their best ideas with one another. The foundation and some of its partners will be providing financial support to invest in these young people and their ideas.

How do people attend?

They should visit We are encouraging people from all walks of life to attend. One of the goals and visions of ours is young people from all backgrounds and interests should feel comfortable joining the so called “outsider community.” It’s not just for those world class athletes that are super passionate about their extreme sports. It really is an opportunity for all people to participate. We’re offering partial scholarships which typically would include a one night hotel accommodation, as well as partial travel scholarship. And so we’re trying to make it as easy as possible for many people to attend. We hope that your audience will visit that website and fill out the simple form and join us.

What is the outcome that you hope for from this event?

There’s so many. We’ve got about 25 outdoor ambassadors and just had a call with them the other night to think about what are their hopes for this event coming up. It was really inspirational to hear directly from the young people what they believe the power of the summit will be. One of them is that these young people will begin to speak with one voice and truly influence policies and programs that thus far have not even bothered to ask them what they want. The power of one is something we’re hoping to come out of this summit. Also to give young people the opportunity to come up with ideas and to think about what are ways in which they in the millennial generation can actually champion change on campuses and communities. And again, young people haven’t really been asked. So we’re excited that we’re giving young people two days to really brainstorm around ways in which they can lead the charge locally, regionally as well as nationally. One of the things that struck me on the call was that young people wanted this community to know that the individuals are not alone and that there is a growing group of young people who feel it’s cooler to be an "outsider" than an "insider" using little more than your fingers and thumbs on a keypad. So I think it’s really creating community, creating networks, sparking ideas, and of course, investing in those ideas, and monitoring them, and evaluating them and hopefully providing ideas to Washington and other sectors of society.

Tell me a little bit about what the experience will be like. What exactly would people do if they attend this event?

It’s two days. The first day will mainly be a celebration of the outdoor style. The outdoors offers some of the most fun activities on the planet. The first four hours will be paddling in the pond, fishing, bird watching, music and art and photography, yoga, Cesar the Dog Whisperer is coming out. We really want it to be as many fun activities that young people get involved in as possible. We’re also having a career fair of sorts, after all, the talk of the nation is jobs and it’s not different for Outdoor Nation. So we’re having a career paths to the outdoors. It’s often very difficult, if not confusing, for people to understand how they can turn a passion for the outdoors into a career. We’re having about 25 different organizations from non-profits to public sector to private sector helping out on both Saturday and Sunday to let people know what a career path to the outdoors might look like. I think that will be very relevant to young people of all ages, really. Later on Saturday, we’ll roll up our sleeves and talk about the disconnect between this generation and the younger generation and the outdoors and begin to brainstorm around how young people can begin to champion change. On Sunday young people will be spending the majority of the day voting on one another’s ideas. We actually have interactive keypad technology where everyone — all 500 participants — will have a voice in a vote to determine what are the best ideas and what we should all be investing in going forward. Then we’ll have a select group of ambassadors and other young leaders come together Sunday night and draft out an outdoor nation declaration which will be the framing document for this community going forward, outlining statements of intent as well as ideas that will, I hope, create a cultural shift in this country.

You mentioned two words that mean a lot to us, voting and music. How is music going to be integrated into this event?

Being true to the mission and vision of Outdoor Foundation and the Outdoor Nation, we are inviting young musicians from the New York area, as well as from across the country, to come and play different kinds of music. Again, diversity and variety are so important to Outdoor Nation so we want that to be reflected in music. You’ll have to stay tuned; we’re still sort of in negotiations with these young talented people. You’ll be the first to know as soon as we have our line-up but it should be pretty fun and eclectic. If you get any listeners or audiences out there who think they want to play at Central Park they should definitely shoot an email to [email protected] and we’ll reach out to you and think about whether there’s an opportunity.