Being in a room with the staff at the District 4 office at Mill Pond Park in the Bronx, one can’t help but smile. Their energy and optimism is infectious. Ask them about their job, and instantly they’ll tell you about why they love their work, how they know it’s important to the community, and how their mutual respect for each other keeps them coming back year after year.
Clinton Johnson is a parks supervisor Level 2, and has been at the department since 1984; Kendra Thompson is a Parks Supervisor Level 1, with the department since 1998; and John Ogendengbe is a City Parks Worker, with the department since 2007. They all began as temporary seasonal employees and worked their way up through the ranks. They understand how entry-level employees, upper-level management, and everyone in-between work best together. Despite their different titles and levels of responsibility, a few basic but essential principles unite them: their understanding of the importance of their work, their commitment to success, and their respect for each other.
In the following transcript from our interview, you’ll learn why Clinton, Kendra, and John think parks are so important, how parks and parks employees bring communities together, and how this motivates them every day.
NY4P: “What is the role of parks in New York City?”
Clinton: “Parks play a very important role. They are expanding with the mayor’s plan to make parks more pleasing for the inner city, and to make them diverse, to give these neighborhoods open space and greenery. The city has done a great job of improving these parks, and now our biggest issue is sustainability. It can be difficult to maintain the quality of these parks. It’s a 365 days a year job. There’s never a time that they don’t need work, and it can be difficult to keep them up to the standard of quality that we all aim to achieve. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so it’s a matter of sustaining our parks to keep them running well now and in the future.
John has to clean ten to 20 sites by 11:30 every morning. That’s our goal every day, because there’s so much to do every day. We send out seven crews daily, with one CPW and one Parks Opportunity Program participant each, on a good day. The work often rolls into the next day, and we could put more permanent staff to good use. Our sites are subject to inspection every day, and our CPWs take a lot of pride in making sure they don’t fail. It’s always a race to get everything done. We have a lot of very dedicated staff that don’t always win every day, but we all know that we have to run the race no matter what.”
John: “It’s important to the health of our city to have great parks, and having great staff is key. You have to motivate the staff, and explain their role. When they know what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it, then they love it.
It really starts at the top. Mr. Johnson will come out and work with us and get his hands dirty. We really work together. Having managers that motivate and work with you makes it a great place to be. I tell the POP participants to not look at it as a temporary job – it’s a real job, and I encourage them to take advantage of the programs that the city offers. There are always opportunities to grow, and it could turn into something permanent.
This summer I’m going to a pool where I’m going to be a seasonal supervisor. So I’ll be gaining that experience, and eventually that will help me move another step up in the department. There are always opportunities to learn and achieve more if you just keep working at it.”
NY4P: “What’s your favorite part of the job?”
Kendra: “My favorite part is passing our site inspections. We don’t always get to enjoy the sites, because we’re there to inspect them and are always on the lookout for what needs to be done. But we do get to see the public’s response, and we know they appreciate what we do. They are delighted that their parks are looking up, and we get people coming up to us all the time and thanking us. And we let them know that we need them to help us, too. Because these parks are here for the community, and we all need to work together. In the Rec centers we have kids and seniors that really depend on them and love having the pools to go to. During the summer we have the lunch program in some parks. In this neighborhood we have folks that are less fortunate, and a lot of kids may not get enough to eat if it wasn’t for the lunch programs.”
John: “One of my favorite parts of this job is definitely seeing the lunch program and knowing that people can eat. Another part of this job that I love is just interacting with people in the parks. I always try to smile and talk to people if they look like they need it, because you never know what someone is going through. Just talking to someone can really change their day. And it helps me, too. This way we really get to know the community.”
Clinton: “We all love the community service projects we get. People are often surprised to see volunteers doing the work. They don’t realize how much we depend on volunteers to help us and our parks.”
Kendra: “We had 150 volunteers in one playground, and the work they did was indescribable. They filled 300 trash bags in one day.”
Clinton: “We try to tell the public how important community service is to our parks. That it took 150 volunteers to do all of that work, and normally we only have one staff person. Our full-time staff is 20, with seasonal staff it’s 40. What the volunteers can do in one day could take for months for us. These volunteers and community service projects have become an important part of how we get the work done. We simply cannot do it all, because we do not have the resources.
CC Sabathia, the Yankees pitcher, recently donated $2 million to renovate a baseball field in Claremont Park here in the Bronx. The park was in pretty bad shape. There was a lot of flooding in the field, and the irrigation system needed to be fixed. It looks great now. So the help we get from the community – whether it’s donating time or money – it really makes a difference.
Our staff needs to have a lot of training to do their jobs. They have to understand horticulture, tree maintenance, field maintenance and more. If I had 50 more Johns I wouldn’t need so many volunteers!”
John: “You see, you care because you want to do it. You love it, you love doing it, and you’re always trying to improve. Even on your days off you can’t stop looking at parks and thinking about what needs to be done.”
Clinton: “I was on vacation abroad and I caught myself inspecting a park without even realizing what I was doing. It becomes a part of you.”
NY4P: "Why are you still here, working in the Parks Department?"
Clinton: “I love it. I’ve been here a long time, and I’ve learned a lot. Now I get to enjoy teaching the newer folks in the Department so that they can love it, too.”
Kendra: “We teach each other; it’s a cycle. We have great temporary and seasonal workers, and we’d love to hire them full-time. They’re qualified and they have the passion, which is what we need to thrive. When you work with people like that, you can get a lot done. There are a lot of people that would love to have jobs with the Parks Department, and who would be really great at it.”
Clinton: “There are people that care, that have the hunger, and you wish you could hire them. You want to have them long-term because you see their potential, and you see what they could do if they had the chance.”
John: “I was always spending time in parks when I was a kid. Parks are better now – today we’re taking more pride in our parks. Parks are safer, and there aren’t as many physical problems. You can sit down and have a nice meal in a park. Kids learn a lot in parks, they gain social skills, and it gives them a place to be. You meet your best friends in parks, you meet parents and families. That’s how an area becomes a community. And that’s what keeps me motivated and excited to come to work every morning.”
Kendra: “People are using parks now more than ever. People have to interact with each other when they’re in a park, they have to get to know each other. You can’t stay strangers. Parents get to know us, and kids listen to us because they know who we are, and they know we’re watching out for them. We take a lot of pride in what we do. It’s not just work; it’s community building.
There’s a real learning curve in teaching the community what we’re doing and how to respect it, especially in areas where they don’t have a lot of other areas to play. For example, kids may be so excited to have a field to play ball on that they run around on it even when it’s muddy and we have it closed off, and they end up destroying the grass without meaning to. So we have to communicate with the community and with the kids and tell them why they need to wait until the field is dry. We need the community to understand what it is that we do and how it all works. But once we have that communication, and once the community understands, then we can really work together to make these into places where everyone can play and enjoy themselves.”
NY4P: “What do people need to know about NYC parks, how we can protect and improve them going forward, and what role staff plays in this?”
Clinton: “I would say that everything we create, there should be a system in place to maintain it. We need to be focused on planning for sustainability. With the rezoning in Jerome Avenue there will probably be a lot more people living there, which means that we’re going to need more parkland. But we’ll also need more staff to maintain the parks, because even the parks we have now are going to be much more heavily used.
We have to pool our resources across districts periodically, and we have to make tough decisions and prioritize what needs to get done. We don’t have enough people here to maintain things as well as we’d like to. Because we always aim for the best, and we always see the potential.”
Kendra: “We strive to do achieve our goals every day. The supervisors will get out there, help the CPWs and get dirty if we need to. But then we can’t do our own jobs as well. Our staff really wants to work and to make a difference. We’re all really happy to be here, even on the days when the work feels overwhelming, because we all know it’s important.”
John: “People see opportunity and they work their heart out. We need to make sure we nurture those people, and continue to give them opportunities to work, and to be engaged with their jobs and their parks.”