The CEO of Pease Park Conservancy shares why helping preserve Pease Park holds value for the community.
By Mikaila Rushing, Photo by Caitlin Candelari
A born-and-raised Austinite, Kristen Brown, 37, has lived an adventurous life. In the fall of her senior year of college, she interned at the White House during the tragedy of September 11, 2001. After graduating from the University of Texas, Brown decided to move back to Washington, D.C., where she worked for the Secretary of Health and Human Services before getting a job in the West Wing of the White House during the George W. Bush administration, where she and other staff members put together Bush’s debriefing files in the morning.
But after four years in Washington, D.C., Brown found herself wanting to work in the nonprofit sector.
“What I really loved about working for government was really helping people,” Brown says. “And so, I thought, ‘How can I take this further?’ ”
Brown decided to return to Austin. She received her graduate degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at UT, and became the executive director of Austin Smiles. She led that nonprofit for several years before accepting the opportunity to work as the chief executive officer of Pease Park Conservancy this summer.
For those unfamiliar, Pease Park is Austin’s most central park, a skinny 84-acre strip of protected greenery that runs along Shoal Creek. The park is often called a hidden gem of Austin, Brown says.
Here, Brown explains why Pease Park is so important to Austin and its culture.
Pease Park is one of the oldest parks in Texas. Governor Elisha Pease originally gifted it to Austin in 1875.
“It’s really a part of the cultural, historical landscape of Austin,” Brown says.
In 2008, several Austinites noticed the park falling into disrepair and began a friends group to help restore Pease Park to its former glory. Five years later, the movement had grown into the Pease Park Conservancy, which was formally recognized as a nonprofit organization in 2013.
Brown is quick to emphasize the importance of not taking open spaces for granted.
“You realize that there’s a lot of work that goes into having a free space like that for everybody—anybody—to enjoy,” she says. “I’ve been all over the world, but I’ve come back home, basically, and really home, in the sense of working for an organization that is working hard to protect and preserve a green space that I used as a child.”
Given its long history as a part of Austin’s physical landscape, it only makes sense that Pease Park also holds quite a bit of history in the heart of Austin’s past residents and current community members.
When Brown and her associates asked those attending the Pease Park Conservancy fall fundraiser to write down their favorite memories from Pease Park, they received more than 100 replies. These memories told stories that dated back to the 1950s, stories about fun times at Eeyore’s Birthday, about finding the love of one’s life and, in one woman’s case, about the last walk she ever took with her father.
Be it casual walks, parties or life-changing moments, Pease Park has been there for many people, Brown says, including herself.
“I grew up going to Pease Park,” Brown says. “To see how dense and populated Austin is becoming as an adult now, with my own kids, it makes me realize…the space is important and it should be protected so that we all have this place of respite that we know is there.”
“We have more volunteers than we know what to do with,” Brown says of Pease Park Conservancy, “because everyone wants to get out there and help and spread mulch and clear invasive species and help plant trees, and water and make the park pretty.”
Conservation of spaces such as Pease Park can be a great way for communities to come together and understand one another. Pease Park Conservancy often hosts volunteer days and it’s had no shortage of volunteers, as Brown notes, particularly from student organizations from UT, with many signing up to help keep the park clean.
“I think being concerned about our environment and where we live cuts across cultures,” Brown says. “We’re all invested and caring about where we work, play, eat, live. And I think that the increased amount of conservation efforts you’re seeing, especially in Austin these days, is a direct commentary on that.”
One of Brown’s most prominent projects since taking the CEO seat has been coordinating the creation of Stickwork, a nature-based, interactive sculpture project created by internationally renowned artist Patrick Dougherty. The sculptures, set to debut in the park this month, are made from harvested saplings of invasive species that grow in the park. Dougherty will work on the sculptures for three weeks, along with more than 300 community volunteers who have signed up to help. The end goal of the project is to create towering structures of twigs adults and kids can marvel at and walk through when they visit the park.
“When I saw these [sculptures,] I immediately thought Where the Wild Things Are,” Brown says. “It’s so whimsical.”
To learn more about Pease Park Conservancy and Stickwork, visit peasepark.org/art-at-the-park.