Jan 30, 2020
Connecting Practice to Policy: An Interview with Annie Schmidt
By: Annie Schmidt
Editor’s Note: Annie Schmidt is one of FAC Net’s newest staff members, returning to the FAC family after two years of planning and policy work in her home state of Washington. After leaving WAFAC in 2018, Annie helped facilitate both the completion of Washington’s new wildfire strategic plan and a report to Washington’s legislature. We sat down to learn more about Annie and the work she’s been doing in Washington.
Q: What is the Washington State Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan and what can we learn from it?
Annie: The 10-Year Washington State Wildland Fire Protection Strategic Plan (Strategic Plan) is an all-hands, all-lands document that takes a comprehensive look at wildfire in the state and charts a course for all of Washington to better live with fire. Modeled on the National Wildland Fire Cohesive Strategy, the Washington Strategic Plan incorporated input from almost 1,000 people. Feedback from practitioners throughout the fire cycle (people working before, during, and after fire) shaped the Strategic Plan’s holistic approach to fire.
Washington’s Strategic Plan is built on the vision of “All Washington—safely managing and living with wildland fire.” The concept of “all Washington” was important to the planning team and the section where we outline what that means is one of my favorite pieces of the document. I’d like to think the Strategic Plan’s inclusivity and cohesive approach could serve as a model for other planning efforts across the nation.
On a personal note, I learned how hard it can be to change jobs! It was definitely uncomfortable to leave fire adaptation work and move into strategic planning. It took me a little while to figure out that I hadn’t “hopped” from one path to another; rather, I created a connection between paths. In hindsight, I feel like my simple willingness to make that change and create that link between practitioners and the Strategic Plan was my largest contribution to the effort. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses though! In joining the planning team, I did have to trade-in my voice as a stakeholder. While I lost my individual voice, as a facilitator I was able to make as much space as possible for as many voices as possible—and that was worth it.
Q: Why should practitioners care about strategic plans and legislative reports?
Annie: It can be hard to connect to a policy document. It is so easy to ignore the requests for input in favor of getting work done in your own place. But effective engagement with the planning process is incredibly important to work on the ground. Strategic plans and documents like the recently released Washington State Wildland Fire Advisory Committee Report on Substitute House Bill 2561 have the ability to create space on the playing field—they can help open up room for our programs and initiatives to run or steer us away from areas on the field that will only lead to blocks and fumbles. Even if we don’t realize it, planning and policy work is the foundation that our local work is built upon.
Q: How do you approach policy and planning work?
Annie: I try to combine my urge to innovate with the need to be practical. The most unique plan in the world won’t do any good sitting on a shelf. Strategies have to be implementable to be effective. This is one of the reasons I believe the connection between practitioners and policy-makers is vital; we each need to be informed by the other to reach our potential. Policy-makers and plan writers need to know what is working, and what isn’t working, in order to build systems that actually work. However, some policy-makers tend to hold fast to current approaches. The best of all worlds is when you get to combine a little innovation with a little practicality. We have complex, wicked problems and our existing strategies have not always worked. We need to be willing to try, and even fail occasionally, in order to make progress.
Q: What three things can practitioners do to more effectively engage with planning and policy work?
Annie: Three things practitioners can do to more effectively engage are:
- Invest in relationships
During my tenure with the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition and Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, I developed relationships with local staff members for many of our elected officials and agencies as well as practitioners and researchers. These relationships provided an important conduit for information and were already in place when the Washington State fires in 2014 and 2015 created sense of urgency surrounding wildfire policy. Investing time and energy into sustaining relationships, even when it doesn’t feel like you are getting anywhere, is worth it. You never know when a window of opportunity will open to create change.
- Show up
Some say the world is won by those who show up. That is certainly true when it comes to policy work! Take the time to fill out the survey forms, write comments, go to workshops, give an interview, or sit on a panel. While participation is an investment of time (one of our most precious resources), it is one with significant returns. If you can’t make a meeting, reach out to partners to see if someone with similar interests is attending. The best plans and policies are informed by what is happening on the ground—and those actually working on the ground are in the best position to tell that story. If you aren’t participating, you can’t contribute to the future you need.
- Learn to tell your story (in a brief but compelling way)
A lot of people struggle with policy and planning work because they aren’t sure how to engage in the conversation. It is easy to feel like it isn’t worth your time if you don’t know what strategies to advance or what policies to craft. It is important to remember that you don’t have to know the answers when you engage in the process. There are almost certainly people on the facilitation or planning team who are skilled at taking the stories they hear from people like you and turning them into a strategic document. Your job is to tell your story. Talk about what is working and what isn’t working. Explain what is in your way and why it matters. Your story is best when it is brief, personal, and has key barriers or critical opportunities.
Q: Share a little of your background with us:
Annie: It feels like fire has been part of my life forever! Whether I am working as an EMT with our local fire district, helping communities prepare for wildfire, working on strategic plans, or connecting practitioners to resources, fire has always been a common thread.
My first introduction to wildfire was in 1994. I was a teenager when the Rat and Hatchery Creek fires surrounded my hometown. I can remember standing in my front yard watching fire roar from the canyon and claim Wedge Mountain; that fire remains one of the most powerful things I have ever seen. As a result of that experience, I was drawn to work in the woods. I spent my summers working for the US Forest Service and as soon as I graduated, I accepted a full-time position on a neighboring Ranger District. A wildfire even led me to my first date with my husband!
However, it wasn’t until I took a position with the Chumstick Wildfire Stewardship Coalition that I really found my place in fire. The Chumstick Coalition taught me the value of work on the ground, grassroots passion, and relentless persistence. As one of the initial members of the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network, the Chumstick Coalition also taught me that the pathway to resilience doesn’t have to be walked alone. We learned that lesson well in Washington—we stood up the Washington State Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network in 2014. I served as the Director of Policy and Partnerships for WAFAC until 2018 when I started work on the Strategic Plan.
I am looking forward to working with FAC Net to create connections and move our collective work forward.
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