How does outdoor recreation help communities increase capacity to help military service members and their families navigate transitions?

Recently, the MFLN Community Capacity building concentration area partnered with the Family Transitions concentration area to conduct a webinar focused on outdoor recreation and its usefulness to military service members and their families in transition. But what does outdoor recreation have to do with Community Capacity Building?  That’s a good question, and the one we will address today in this blog post.

It all starts with how you define community. A common definition is “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common,” or similarly, “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” But for conservationist Aldo Leopold, those definitions weren’t good enough. Leopold developed a philosophical perspective on the way humans interact with the rest of the natural world called the land ethic, and argued that we should enlarge the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land (Leopold, 1949).

So, if we enlarged the boundaries of the community to include the land, the landscapes and inhabitants within and beyond our traditionally defined communities, then perhaps we could envision that one measure of a community’s capacity to help military service members and their families navigate transitions is its ability to provide recreation, restoration, and conservation venues and activities.   It follows that perhaps a higher capacity community might have more to offer in this domain than a lower capacity community.

Now, let’s see how that compares to what experts in the field of community capacity in the military families context say. Community capacity for military service members and their families as a concept to order our concentration area’s work is understood to be composed of two essential elements. These elements are, first, shared responsibility for the general welfare of the community and its members, and second, collective competence, demonstrating an ability to take advantage of opportunities for addressing community needs and for confronting situations that threaten the safety and well-being of community members (Bowen, Martin, Mancini, & Nelson, 2000).

The first element, shared responsibility for the general welfare of the community, seems to be a natural fit with Aldo Leopold’s land ethic. Extending that shared responsibility to include stewardship of landscapes and creatures is a fundamental tenant of many conservation and recreation organizations (see for example Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, Sierra Club Outdoors, and others). And there is plenty of evidence that recreation opportunities are important to community well-being and public health.

The second element, collective competence, demonstrating an ability to take advantage of opportunities for addressing community needs and for confronting situations that threaten the safety and well-being of community members seems to link directly to the land ethic and its expanded community, and more so to recreation and conservation activities that are focused on improving or protecting the community. We have been inspired by programs that move military family members and veterans from an interest in fishing for trout to involvement in cold water fisheries restoration, or interest in scuba diving to becoming engaged in replanting coral fragments.

As the Community Capacity Building concentration area matures and develops, you can be sure we will continue to explore how expanding the community to include landscapes and other creatures helps communities strengthen their capacity to demonstrate “readiness and performance in the face of opportunity, adversity, and positive challenges” (Huebner, Mancini, Bowen, & Orthner 2009). And we are very interested in hearing about your experiences of how outdoor recreation and/or the natural environment have been a part of your community capacity building efforts with military service members and their families.  We invite you to please share with us those experiences here in the comments section below. For examples of outdoor recreation opportunities, go here, and get outside!

Additional Reading

Bowen, G. L., Martin, J. A., Mancini, J. A., & Nelson, J. P. (2000). Community capacity: Antecedents and consequences. Journal of Community Practice, 8(2), 1 – 21.

Bowen, G. L., Martin, J. A., Mancini, J. A., & Nelson, J. P. (2001). Civic engagement and sense of community in the military. Journal of Community Practice, 9(2), 71 – 93.

Leopold, Aldo. (1949). A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There. Oxford University Press, New York.

Huebner, A. L., Mancini, J. A., Bowen, G. L., & Orthner, D. K. (2009). Shadowed by War: Building Community Capacity to Support Military Families. Family Relations Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 58:216-228.

Suggested Additional reading about Aldo Leopold and the Land Ethic