The Time I Went Canoeing With A Republican Congressman

Priceless lessons learned while floating Little Rock's Fourche Creek.
HuffPost is hitting the road this fall to interview people about their hopes, dreams, fears ― and what it means to be American today.

My husband calls me an unlikely environmentalist. He says when he pictures what an environmentalist looks like, I’m not it. In his head, environmentalists are all Californian, granola-crunching hippie types who tie themselves to trees. Why is that? And no offense to those who do, but I freely admit that I don’t fit that bill.

Sometimes people are surprised when they meet me in person. With my cocoa-colored skin, salt-and-pepper curls and sensible corporate kitten heels, I don’t meet the stereotypical image of an environmentalist. As a mom, wife and member of a larger community of people ― who all need clean water, pollution-free air and nutrient-rich earth to grow food and shelter us ― why wouldn’t the issue of conserving our environment be important to me? Why have everyday Americans ― people of a diversity of values, backgrounds and ethnicities ― ceded the issue of the environment over to margins? The threat climate change poses to all of us is bigger than any political party squabbles, personal ideologies, race, religion or any one person or president. Caring for the environment is not a binary choice. We need all people, not just the edges, working on this issue. We must have balance. We can achieve success by rejecting old stereotypes of what it means to be an environmentalist and instead develop new relationships with others, from a diversity of backgrounds, based on trust. In doing so, we will gain new strength and begin building bridges to each other.

I have seen that bridge-building work firsthand. I work for Audubon Arkansas, a state office of the National Audubon Society, an organization that works to protect birds and their habitats.

For nearly a decade, Audubon Arkansas has spearheaded a collaborative effort to protect the Fourche Creek Watershed, arguably the most important urban watershed in the state of Arkansas. The 1,800-acre watershed drains and filters runoff from Arkansas’ capital city of Little Rock. One could easily characterize Fourche Creek as “the little watershed that could,” for despite years of abuse and neglect, Fourche Creek continues to support a highly diverse population of flora and fauna. And it was on that creek that I, pushed myself out of my personal comfort zone, and took a canoe ride with Republican Congressman French Hill.

The canoe trip was organized by The Friends of Fourche Creek, a coalition of concerned citizens, private businesses and nonprofits who are committed to saving the Fourche Creek Watershed. The morning of the creek tour, after a short presentation on the history of the watershed, our hardy group of Audubon staff, coalition partners, the congressman and his assistant set out for the creek.

Despite the differences in our backgrounds and political ideologies, we talked and truly began to hear each other.

What had started out as a stormy-looking morning cleared as soon as we made it to the water. After gearing up, I found myself in the lead canoe partnered by Congressman Hill. The congressman offered to be my partner after learning that I had never canoed before. Although the water on the creek that day was fairly smooth and still, I was still incredibly nervous that I would fall in. However, Congressman Hill assured me he was an experienced canoer and would keep me dry. So I put my fear aside and climbed inside.

Canoeing among the roots of the towering cypress trees that line the sides of the creek we talked of lots of things; our children, their interests, the importance of family, mutual acquaintances, love of nature, the beauty of the creek and scouting. I’m not sure if we would have ever talked that way outside of that canoe.

It was hard for me to climb into that canoe for the first time, but I am glad I pushed my comfort zone. On that day on the creek, we did some bridge building. Despite the differences in our backgrounds and world views, we talked and truly began to hear each other. What happened was along the way, we realized we were both in the same boat and that we would sink or swim together. Listening, finding trust and balance were all critical to our success. I don’t know if we made an ally in Congressman Hill that day. However, I do believe we all learned something new about each other and how we can begin to work together. Those lessons I carry every day ― listen, trust, find balance ― as we all have to find a way to work together if we are to leave this world better than we found it.