The State Department brought John Matel out of retirement to manage public diplomacy activities in São Paulo for 42 days in August and September, 2018, as “while actually employed.” Before his retirement from the Foreign Service he was Country Public Affairs Officer for Brazil from 2011 to 2014.
It was gratifying to meet Jeremy Buzzell, Chief for the Accessibility Management Program at the National Park Service, maybe more a vindication of old school people-to-people diplomacy. Please indulge my deviation from the main narrative.
The Complexity and Power of Networks
I connected Jeremy Buzzell with Juarez Michelotti, from SESC São Paulo at the request of then former State Department colleagues, former since this was 2016 and I had just retired from FS. For me it was a simple matter of looking up on the internet making a few calls. USG is USG no matter the branch. I did not know the particular people at the Park Service, but I know how the system works generally. It was harder for Brazilian friends. Imagine how it would be to find similar Brazilian officials for someone outside the structure. Anyway, I called Mr. Buzzell, made the connection and mostly forgot about it. I did keep in sporadic contact with Juarez, however, because of my personal interest in his work of ecological restoration of Brazil’s Atlantic forests and when I came on my sojourn to São Paulo, I got in touch to with him to meet him in person and maybe see the forests. So, my colleague Joyce Costa and I arranged to go. With the date set Juarez gave me the good news that coincidentally Mr. Buzzell would also be there. Back to the main narrative.
Making Nature Accessible to All
Mr. Buzzell was helping SESC Bertioga make their nature preserve accessible. The accessible trail will be a boardwalk, wheelchair friendly, with stations that allow participants to enjoy and understand using a variety of the senses. The trail will feature experience of sight, smell, touch. We tried out some of the features to give access to people with no or low vision. I tried it out blindfolded. They feature boxes with various natural items to be identified. The SESC folks assured us that none of the boxes harbored spiders or snakes. They also featured 3-D (but flat) animals and plants. I managed to get correct only a fish and a bird, as I found a fin and a beak. It is hard to identify even familiar objects by touch alone. You need someone to guide you and someone to help with the narrative, but I imagine that you would get more adept with experience.
The trail features places to stop and to turn around, so that participants can get a little or get a lot. It has secure rails and gentle slopes. Besides the boardwalk, there will also be dirt trails. A large percentage will be graded to allow for easier walking and wheelchair use. The preserve is divided by a highway and there will be a footbridge connecting the sections. This is also accessible, with gently sloping entrances.
It seemed to me that the SESC folks were doing everything right, but I am not an expert. Mr. Buzzell, who is an expert, shared the opinion, so I think it must be right.
John Matel is president of the Virginia Tree Farm Foundation. Previously he was president of the Fulbright Commission in Brazil, senior International advisor at Smithsonian Institution, and a State Department fellow at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. With over 16 years of experience at the State Department, Matel has worked to understand societies, information and behaviors, and shape strategies to engage networked publics.