The Allotrope Interview with Annie Hanrahan

Today’s interview is with Annie Hanrahan, who is one of the most thoughtful people I know. Annie is the ultimate Allotrope; she’s a parks and recreation Program Coordinator, non-profit founder, bookworm, marathoner, and activist. Check out how she turned her summer gig into a fulfilling career, her favorite local businesses, and more:

What are your multitudes?

Program Coordinator, Counselor, Project Manager, Policy Developer, Curriculum Designer/Instructor, Type B, former Girl Scout, runner, athlete, environmentalist, friend, daughter, sister, aunt, helper

I am pulled into that counselor role in both my relationships with family + friends and professionally. Sometimes you fear that you’re not doing enough or you’re doing too much, and I never feel that way when I’m helping someone; there’s no self consciousness around that being the right move – there’s no flaw in trying to help someone. 

Tell us about your current role:

I’m in the parks and rec field. The easiest way to explain it is: I’m the Leslie Knope. I work directly under the director. As the Program Coordinator, I’m the doer. I create the shift in direction in what we’re doing; I write policy, set and adjust budgets, and act as the leader and trainer of our staff. I create new events, classes, and programs to serve the community that are approachable and accessible. I supervise full time, part time, and seasonal staff as well as act as a liaison to different committees and coordinate volunteers. 

If we took a snapshot out of your workday, what would that look like?

I probably have four emails open on my screen at the same time while I’m working on a project and having a conversation with a colleague simultaneously. I like to prepare for everything at least 6 months in advance, and in public service I never know exactly what I’m going to do tomorrow. Within our department over the past couple years, a lot kept growing and changing, and then COVID happened. We were on the brink to essentially double our revenue in March of 2020 due to program expansion and relationship building. Then programming shut down and lay offs began, and there were different mindsets in our department as to how to move forward in an unprecedented era. With COVID came challenges and sadness of course.

What’s unique to public servants is we’re deemed essential and we’re a service people rely on. Our number one priority was figuring out a safe space where kids can safely and socially engage so parents and guardians can work. Then we focused on ensuring our residents felt elements of normalcy around the holidays and getting a farmers’ market to run so people can have food and vendors can keep jobs. I started researching health code, liability insurance, and PPE way more than I ever thought I would. I’ve learned so much. There’s a lot to be grateful for. 

How did you get into parks and recs?

I became a summer camp counselor when I was 18 years old after attending a party with the Recreation Supervisor and other friends that worked at the Park District. It was the perfect role for me. I have always loved to play, be outside, and I am a successful communicator with people of all ages. As a camp counselor you have to entertain a four year old, reason with a pre teen, work well with your diverse team of coworkers, and communicate difficult topics with parents and guardians of all ages and backgrounds. In this role, I built upon existing strengths and learned a lot in problem solving, coordination, safety, and empathy. In the summers, I’d play outside, meet many wonderful people, and learn how to be a more patient and kind person. I tell my counselors in training seminars today, “You have the ability to shape a child’s life and alter the direction of their path as a counselor. Use that power carefully and respectfully. Shape with kindness, curiosity, and safety.”

In school I took a course that helped me understand what profession would bring me the most joy – and my top three were Parks & Recreation, Public Relations, and Leadership. So I pursued environmental science and business. I wanted to be outdoors, help people, help the earth, and provide quality of life opportunities for all.     

My first internship was one week after I graduated as a Global Leadership Intern in Nicaragua. I worked on the Atlantic Coast of Nicuaragua installing solar panels in a jungle, building water filtration systems, living in a house with people from all over the world, and learning a whole bunch. I absolutely loved it, and while I currently volunteer and donate to environmental causes, working in environmental policy is still a dream of mine.  

The day after I came home from Nicaragua, I started my internship with the Park District where I was a camp counselor. Two weeks after I started as the Recreation Intern, my Superintendent quit. Summer is a tremendously busy season with many events, aquatics, sports leagues, and camps, so I was entrusted with several of her responsibilities to evenly divvy up the work. I had great leaders and mentors along the way. Because of this, I was able to quickly build my resume with the varied experience of working in an understaffed small community district and land my first (and current) full time position by the time I was 22. 

As the trend continued, the Superintendent in my new position resigned the day I started. Nervously, I applied for her position, and I was promoted within the month. Parks & Recreation has felt like the path of least resistance; I have a passion for public service. I plan on continuing my career in public service or the nonprofit sector; I want to do everything I can to make the world a better place.

How did studying environmental science and business in college contribute to your path?

Coming from an Environmental Science background, my education all stems from the importance of conservation. That led me to different environmental research projects and non-profits such as the Thirst Project and my internship with blueEnergy in Bluefields, Nicaragua. It also gave me the knowledge and confidence to participate in global climate change activism. 

Whether in my business or environmental science classes, I was frequently the manager and facilitator. Management and leadership felt like a natural path for me. Business courses and ISOM classes absolutely helped strengthen these skills and I utilize them frequently today. Sociology courses helped build my understanding of our society structure and an imperative need to advocate for change and equity.

What advice would you give someone interested in park and recs?

Parks & Recreation is a stellar field, especially for those that do not want to sit in a desk all day. There’s so much diversity in the day to day, and you are constantly playing a part in providing opportunities that bring joy to your residents and neighbors. There are many upsides, but in public service, you must enter it knowing that you’re more than likely going to hear from frustrated residents and participants, and it can be one of those thankless jobs. How you perceive a situation is based on what you were expecting and not the experience itself. Sometimes, you have to shift your perspective, consider what is actually happening, and constantly work towards the goal. Perhaps an angry resident is having a bad day; perhaps you actually did something wrong; maybe the resident is misinformed or has unfair expectations. I always tell staff, “When someone is speaking aggressively with you, be glad you’re not the person that thinks it’s ok to talk to someone like that. Alter your perspective, and adjust your expectations. You’re a good person, and we can find a solution together.”

Some quotes I like to share with staff and repeat to myself are: “If attitude is contagious, would you want someone to catch yours?” Derrick Brooks said this in a diversity course I’m taking, I’m not sure if he was the first. “Be curious, not judgemental.” – Walt Whitman. “Be cognizant of how you treat people.” “The ability to learn is the most important quality a leader can have.” – Padmasree Warrior

If you’re not sure if your summer job or camp counselor position can turn into a full-time job, it can! If that motivates you, there are so many ways to monetize it. It’s all about relationship building and embracing what you enjoy doing; if you’re naturally good at something, see what kind of career that could bring. If it’s not for you, it’s not for you. I think people need to know they have the freedom to change.

Conversely, there is no shame in maintaining an occupation, even if it doesn’t bring you joy, because it brings you the freedoms of an expected paycheck, insurance if you’re lucky, and the certainty of being able to pay your bills of necessity and of personal interest. The lower the class you are in America, there’s less chance for risk taking with income opportunities and less chance for upward mobility. (“Lower class” – isn’t that a kind name?) I am surrounded and was raised by tremendously hard workers that are exceptionally talented in their careers and outside of them. Their jobs didn’t necessarily bring them the most joy, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t always give the most to their jobs, knowing how important their work was, and that it brought opportunity and safety for them and their families.

We as a society need to bridge the gaps and highlight paths to get people where they want to go. We need to offer educational resources, opportunities to explain personal experience, make applications physical versus only electronic. The suspensions to create a stronger bridge need to be created by the people in power. We have to recognize the roadblocks stopping people and create pathways for emotional intelligence, accessibility, and building awareness to build equity. We need to bring people who look and think and love differently to the decision making table. There’s friction, but we can get there.

I also want to stress that, especially with COVID, there are so many people who aren’t working right now; it doesn’t mean you’re a failure or less than. You are a part of society. Who you are is not defined by what you do or your paycheck. I want the world to be more empathetic. Judging another person’s life or comparing your life to theirs is an unfair choice; it’s not the right perspective.

Tell us about the exciting non-profit you’re launching:

The Ember Alliance’s mission is to promote social, emotional, and physical health through community activities, and increase equitable opportunities by reducing financial barriers of participation. We aim to elevate to equity because there are vast disadvantages that threaten a healthy and secure existence in middle-lower class families.

There are families who applied for scholarships in the summer camps I worked at and I wanted to give everyone a scholarship, but that would have resulted in a deficit for the program and overall budget, which impacts the community. With COVID occurring, it’s only getting harder, so we want to make these programs accessible because everyone is in financial duress right now.

The state will provide subsidies to tremendously low-income families, but single parents are often left out because they have just enough money to surpass the threshold. That’s only $21k annually with a child in their family, paying rent in a community with a school district and not being able to afford participating in events to build community and relationships! I believe you strengthen a community by increasing participation in health and wellness opportunities. We are absolutely in the beginning stages, and we have yet to officially launch to the public. I am fortunate enough to have a diverse and super smart executive board, a tremendously helpful advisory board, and we are hopeful for a public launch in late spring!

You’re also a big reader, and I’ve loved your book recommendations. Can you share some?

I have five million book recommendations, starting with The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. When I finished that book, I was like ok, I can do more, I am ready to save the world. Anything by Lucy Foley, a history and mystery writer. I was really into escapism this year, so fantasy, mystery, Jenny Colgan (who writes about beautiful people falling in love in beautiful landscapes, like Scotland or France). You need to alternate between that kind of brain candy and books that present different perspectives, like The Vanishing Half, which featured perspectives I hadn’t read before in fiction.

What are the best podcasts you listened to this month?

I’d recommend Hot Take, which highlights environmentalism in the last four years. They put words to the emotions I feel and offer research to reinforce my understanding of climate change. Shout out to Sing It Sister, a super fun podcast by intelligent women discussing movie versions of musicals. 

I know you really enjoy being active and running. Did you have a favorite workout from this month?

Amber (@papi.training) is a personal trainer who figured out a way to work through the pandemic on Zoom. She’s North Carolina based and offers affordable classes on Saturday mornings. She also highlights a charity that she donates to every other week!

Are there any charities, organizations, or resources you’d like to highlight?

There are so many good charities and it gives me hope that people are working hard to address the needs of our communities. It’s easy to donate and/or give your time if you can; I also want to encourage people to shop local and support women-owned, Black-owned, and minority-owned businesses.

  • Opportunity Knocks: I’m running the marathon for them (hopefully it’s safe enough to!) in support of their mission to help adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities thrive.
  • New Moms: New Moms, young moms, 24 and under, take powerful first steps toward economic mobility and family well-being. Our 2-Generation approach puts families experiencing poverty in control of their goals and unleashes their potential.
  • Housing Forward: Our mission is to transition people from housing crisis to housing stability.  We offer a full range of programs and services that are 1) participant-centered, 2) integrated, 3) modeled using best practices and 4) designed to reduce the length of time and impact of trauma associated with homelessness and housing instability.
  • Beyond Hunger: Formerly the Oak Park River Forest Food Pantry, they support those facing hunger.
  • My Block, My Hood, My City: a Chicago organization doing great work and starting local on a community level.
  • The Innocence Project: they’re doing such important and relevant work.The prison system is unbelievably flawed and racially motivated. At what point, do we say lock that child in a dark room and he’ll change his behavior for the better? The Stanford Prison Experiment and many others explain the cruelty of the power dynamic. Environmentally, the prison system is draining our resources and psychologically, it’s survival mode for prisoners. We need a better rehabilitation system. I believe many issues come from either fear or arrogance; if we can figure out how to address fear and arrogance, we can find a better way.

You’re really great at shopping local. What are some of your favorite local businesses?

We’ve talked about a lot of important, serious topics, so let’s end on something frivolous, which can also be important! What’s a recent favorite product of yours?

Neutrogena Hydrating Face Masks – they’re thicker than your typical sheet mask. I’m a big fan; they help me relax.

The biggest thanks to Annie for sharing her perspective and insight with us and for being so thoughtful and generous with her time!

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