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Passport Oregon And Its Bold Quest To Close The Urban-Rural Divide

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Kevin Frazier, the founder and ED of Passport Oregon, never met someone with a degree in ‘Problem Solving’ or a Masters in ‘Moving Past Ideation.’ But soon after he graduated from the University of Oregon with a B.S. in Economics an opportunity to build, refine, and hone those skills quickly appeared. Eleven months later, he is now the Executive Director of a growing nonprofit, Passport Oregon. We sat down with Kevin to learn more about his journey and the mission for Passport Oregon.

How did the concept for Passport Oregon come to be?

When I started Passport Oregon, I didn’t know the first thing about establishing a nonprofit. I didn’t let that stop me from taking action. Why? Because I knew that if I didn’t act, Omar and kids like him across our state would continue to spend their weekends inside, evenings online, and free time doing something familiar, regular, and all together un-outdoorsy.

That bugged me. It nagged me when I went hiking and only saw people that looked like me. It frustrated me when I perused my Facebook feed, full of people adventuring throughout the state. It filled my thoughts as ads about Oregon’s outdoors played on the TV. Omar showed me the Nature Gap in our state. I needed to figure out how to construct a bridge across this burgeoning divide.29951608324_de94e54d41_k

You mention Omar, who is he, and how did your interaction with him lead to an enhanced focus around the Passport concept?

Who is Omar? For two years, I mentored Omar at his school, Spencer Butte Middle School in Eugene. Our weekly gatherings over PB&Js usually sparked conversations about grades, girls, and the Giants – his favorite baseball team. Eventually, I started to ask him about his weekend plans. They didn’t vary much. He played Call of Duty, walked to the arcade seven blocks down the street, and saw the occasional movie. Week after week, I queried him. Week after week, only the titles of the games and names of the movies changed. Week after week, I grew more and more despondent.

I told my roommate, Kyle, about my concerns. Over a patio beer – a weekly ritual during which we drank one of Oregon’s fantastic brews on our patio – he told me to channel my curiosity. If I thought there was a problem, then I should find a solution or help someone who already has found an answer.

With Kyle’s wind at my sails and Basecamp S’more Stout inducing confidence, I embarked on a weekend assignment to study the Nature Gap Adhering to my collegiate habits, I treated this inquiry like a good student would – as a formal opportunity to implement the scientific method. This homework would soon become so much more.

The ‘Scientific Method’ does not sound like the typical entrepreneurial process, expand on how you followed this method to determine the need and opportunity

So, first, I outlined my questions: Is Omar’s indoor-intensive schedule and relatively small radius of exploration the exception or the norm? If the latter, why, and what strategies can be used to remedy the chasm between Oregonians and their outdoors?

The background research came next. I uncovered loads of literature on the Nature Gap, Nature Deficiency Disorder (NDD), and Vitamin N (short for nature). Authors such as Richard Louv introduced me to all of this jargon and more. Like an onion, each chapter read and term googled peeled off another layer of the larger puzzle, until I was left with facts and figures pertaining to Oregonians like Omar. Thankfully, people from across the nation and the Pacific Northwest were aware of NDD and shockingly low levels of Vitamin N in our communities and, even more, our schools.

But, I did not find any foundation, organization or individual addressing my largest qualm with Omar’s rare excursions: not only was he not getting outside, he was also not seeing all that Oregon has to offer. Ski trips to Mt. Hood, learning to surf at Seaside, wake boarding at Wallowa Lake, hiking Smith Rock, and gazing into the endless blue of Crater Lake had an indelible impression on me as a child. Each trip outside of my own Shire exposed me to an unfamiliar setting.30198783224_0d235a6268_k-1

How did your outdoor experiences affect you, and how did these experiences shape the initial Passport Oregon mission?

I encountered new people with views far different than my own and perspectives as varied as our state’s regions. I exercised my brain and body through learning new skills and failing and face planting regularly. Although I was pleased organizations were connecting students with the parks within their neighborhood, I wanted to go a step further and connect these youngsters with all of Oregon’s natural wonders – the coast, the Gorge, Mt. Hood, Smith Rock, the Painted Hills, Wallowa Lake, and Crater Lake – while also introducing them to the economic, cultural, and historic significance of these sites.

My love for Oregon and its people drove me to move to the next steps in the scientific method – developing 30198749844_2bfde8d435_za hypothesis and testing with an experiment. Here’s the hypothesis: if a nonprofit empowered students to travel across the state, meet its people, and learn its history, then they would later make nature a norm in their lives and, as a result of having a stronger sense of place and vastly expanded horizons, contribute to closing other gaps in our society such as the urban-rural divide.

Surely, no science professor would have accepted such a broad, open-ended hypothesis. Thankfully, I didn’t need any professor’s approval. Instead, I simply needed people to help me execute an experiment – start a nonprofit called Passport Oregon with a clear mission: Exploration for All. Passport Oregon would form cohorts of students that would embark on regular trips around the state. Trips would include a different parent on each trip, perspectives from all Oregonians, and facilitate exposure to the unknown and unbelievable. This experiment induced the trying times, chaos, and wicked problems I mentioned earlier.

Starting a nonprofit is similar to starting any business, so once the experiment was concluding, how did you go about the organizational formation?

For a chemistry question, you call chemists. When launching a rocket, you dial up rocket scientists. Who do you convene when you start a nonprofit or, more broadly, when trying to address any novel, complex, and entrenched problem? Earlier, I said that no book could completely ready you for inciting change. However, I have learned that one book is a necessary condition for a successful experiment – a phonebook or at least the 21st century equivalent, Siri. I called people in the public and private sectors, had coffee with educators and entrepreneurs, spoke to executive directors and volunteers, and skyped friends who share my affinity for a particular Robert F. Kennedy quote: “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

We jointly asked, “Why not break down the barriers to nature? Why not leverage the love so many hold for our environment to propel students out of Portland and across Oregon?” During each call, I listened intently. I listened, asked lots of questions and took notes. Each conversation shaped the settled-upon solution: a school principal told me about the importance of engaging and interactive content wherever we took the students; an elected official introduced me to members of Oregon’s Native American tribes that would happily introduce our students to their stories, culture, and challenges; other nonprofit leaders informed me of the dos and don’ts of the trade and connected me with others who ran organizations with overlapping aims; and, of course, my parents, family, and friends gave me tips and leads to follow.

Running an experiment requires the right equipment. Ideally, your tools and materials will be perfectly suited for the ensuing steps. In this ideal world, you could purchase the finest implements and not worry for a second about the cost. That’s not possible when starting a nonprofit, especially one that is all volunteer based. From my aforementioned chats, I started compiling a list of folks that would want to join me in closing this gap. If they indicated interest, my first question was, “If you could do anything for Passport Oregon, what would it be?” This question reflects my belief that people work best and work happiest when doing something they love, when they feel challenged, and “in the zone.” This was yet another example of listening – compiling as much information as possible so that those who did opt to volunteer their already limited free time would see their involvement with Passport not as draining, but as inspiring.30466512332_8cf3f9e1a2_k-1

How did you put together your team and organize the first official Passport Oregon trip?

Slowly, but surely, we built a team and readied our first trip. Our background research and extensive networking connected us with a principal of a school with a high rate of NDD. When we met with him and his leadership, we were open about the fact that we did not have all the answers, but would meticulously solicit feedback from them, the students, and their parents to refine and improve our efforts to make Oregon an even more wonderful place. In the same way, we prioritized meeting the parents and the students before we commenced with their cohort. We outlined our plans, answered a myriad of questions, and took the first steps toward making nature a habit in their homes. We did not shy away from labeling this initial group of explorers an experiment. Our honesty facilitated greater communication and shortened the time period between an issue being raised and a response being implemented.

A case in point: Our first trip (what could also be labeled as our first experiment) to Trillium Lake and Mt. Hood was a typical fall day in the Oregon Cascades: wet, windy, and with woefully limited visibility. Our video and photos attest to the misty conditions. Even from Timberline Lodge, we couldn’t see the cloud-enveloped peak. Outfitted in running shoes and winter sweaters, our students, like the paths we trekked on, absorbed quite a lot of water. In short, they were not dressed for the occasion. Although we had asked parents to ensure their explorer had gear for less than great weather, our team recognized that our assumption – that all Oregonians magically have Columbia Sportswear gear tucked in their closest – was ill advised. Thankfully, the wet weather only damped the cohort’s sweaters and not their spirits. We think the hot chocolates at Huckleberry Inn in Government Camp may have helped as well.

What did that first trip teach you?

Needless to say, our first trip/experiment revealed some errors, opportunities, and successes. Our proactive pursuit of finding these shortcomings meant that we started planning how we could do better on the drive back to Portland. With our next trip already on the horizon and more inclement conditions surely ahead, we knew that better preparing our students for Oregon’s notoriously surprising and significant showers meant quickly reaching out to that same web of kindred souls that helped the project get off the ground. By the next trip, each student donned a Tested Tough Columbia Sportswear jacket, which made the gusty conditions in the Gorge feel like a light Portland breeze.

How many trips have you done to this point?

Six trips (Mt. Hood, the Gorge, Cannon Beach, Mt. Pisgah, , and a service day in Portland), 210 hours of kids exploring nature, and 42 hot chocolates later, Passport Oregon has an initial answer to our hypothesis – it is correct. Per their teacher’s reports, the students look forward to each trip, fastidiously analyze the itinerary for the coming adventure as soon as it is available, and frequently share their stories with classmates.

30583150135_84ac3d8991_zLikewise, the parents that have joined us regularly ask to come along again as soon as possible. While we are pleased with these initial results, we are not yet satisfied.

Passport Oregon is looking forward to a 2017 filled with even more exploration, empowerment, and education. In March, we will launch two new cohorts that will embark on their tour of Oregon. Approximately three months later, another new set of cohorts will begin their time venturing around the state. These explorers will kickoff a new round of experiments. We will be ready, prepared to assess how we can do better, and continue to make exploration for all possible for all.

The organization is still young, but how has what you’ve done to this point helped to shape how you see it evolving?

We’ve already encountered new obstacles to Portlanders and Oregonians getting outside: parents and families commonly don’t have the time to plan for a day in the outdoors – mapping out locations, finding affordable meals, and determining the best gas and rest stops; and, the rising costs of going on an adventure – park fees, gas, food, and admission to places like museums. Accordingly, we are launching two additional experiments in 2017.

The first is simply making our trip itineraries publicly available on our website. To track their usage, we ask that those who use the sample trips as a foundation for their own hike, trek, or exploration send us a picture of their time in the wild. Second, in the coming year we will introduce our Adventure Fund. This resource will be available to all Passport Oregon families. The fund will enable families with financial difficulties to apply to have the cost of their excursion entirely covered, just as their child’s trips are covered currently through Passport Oregon. Again, all we ask is that those who utilize the fund send us a photo of their expedition. Stay tuned for more details on the Adventure Fund and how you can reinforce this essential effort to reduce disparities in access to nature.

Also,  we are still listening – if anyone has suggestions, ideas, or comments, please send me an email at kevin@passportoregon.org.  We are always looking for volunteers, and those  interested in Passport Oregon volunteer opportunities can shoot ariel@passportoregon.org an email to learn about the variety of volunteer roles we have available. Finally, please check out our website passportoregon.org and spread the word – Oregon’s outdoors must be available and accessible.

You can find Passport Oregon on its website, and on Facebook and Twitter.

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Mitch Daugherty