By Brian Powell
Diana Rhoades has long been an advocate on behalf of parks and wildlands—whether it’s a large national forest or a small neighborhood park—through a career spent crafting public policy and strategic messaging.
So it seems fitting that during the National Park Service’s centennial, being celebrated this month, the Flinn-Brown Fellow is serving as a NPS Urban Fellow for Tucson and Saguaro National Park.
As one of only 10 Urban Fellows around the country, Rhoades’ mission during her two-year term is to introduce people who may have never visited a national park to new outdoor experiences, promote a national park’s health benefits to city dwellers, and reach out specifically to Latino and other minority communities.
“We need to make sure everyone feels welcome when they come to the park, and this is an opportunity to meet the mission and get more people engaged so the parks are relevant to all,” Rhoades says.
In March, Rhoades helped organize a celebration of the 83rd anniversary of the founding of Saguaro National Park, which is on the east and west sides of Tucson. A month later, she organized a local event to promote the National ParkRx Initiative. She is also seeking grants for Tucson parks and trails and working collaboratively to develop new partnerships to increase park use.
When Rhoades participated in the Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy seminar series in 2013, she was working as the chief of staff for Tucson Council member Regina Romero, the first and only Latina city council member in Tucson’s history.
One asset of Flinn-Brown, which was created by the Flinn Foundation in 2010 to develop state-level civic leaders, and is also supported by the Tucson-based Thomas R. Brown Foundations, is an annual summer retreat where the Fellows from all the cohorts gather for a weekend to reconnect.
During a past retreat, the Fellows were asked to think about one main issue they were most passionate about.
For Rhoades, that issue was parks.
After the retreat, she started thinking about the state parks in Arizona and began meeting and talking with people.
“That’s the beauty of Flinn-Brown: They introduce you to people and projects you may never have thought about,” Rhoades says.
This eventually led to her two-year contract with the NPS through Strategies 360, a public-policy advocacy agency that Rhoades joined in December 2014 after leaving Romero’s office. Rhoades serves as southern Arizona director for the agency that has offices in 11 western states and Washington D.C.
Rhoades was the campaign manager for Romero’s 2007 Tucson city-council election campaign and then served as her chief of staff for nearly seven years. She advocated on behalf of downtown revitalization, new city parks, the planting of trees, and the Cesar Chavez Holiday Coalition and other diversity-related issues. She worked on the modern streetcar project that links the University of Arizona with downtown Tucson and promoted development along the transit system. She also helped to re-establish the Tucson Mexico Trade Coalition.
“It was very rewarding and very challenging, but I was ready to get back into nature—less meetings and more nature,” Rhoades says.
In Arizona, she was a lobbyist for the Sonoran Institute and also worked as an independent campaign consultant.
Rhoades grew up in a small town in Washington state before moving to Alaska with her family. After graduating from the University of Alaska at Anchorage, Rhoades spent about a decade as a legislative aide in the Alaska State Legislature, working in the capital, Juneau, as well as Anchorage and on the Kenai Peninsula. She also was appointed to and served as executive director of the Governor’s Tolerance Commission, a six-month task force that created a Teach Tolerance publication for the state.
She worked for two years in Washington D.C. during the 1990s lobbying to improve national forests in Alaska. In 2002, she made the move from Anchorage to Tucson, and has been an advocate for the Sonoran Desert ever since.
“When we get into nature, we improve our mind and body,” Rhoades says. “I’m excited to promote the national parks and public lands as places to improve Arizonans’ health.”