Sometimes we forget what we have control over, but innovation is a choice

Justin Cutler is the Recreation Services Director for the city of Seattle. Previously, he founded RecRx, a company that manages referrals between medical providers and recreation services for evidence-based chronic disease management programs, and served as the Recreation Services Manager for Westminster, Colorado. We spoke with him about equity, data, and the future of the parks and recreation field.


You’ve been in parks and recreation for pretty much your whole career. What has kept you engaged with this work for so long?

Parks and rec people are determined. When you think about parks and recreation, it’s sort of like a smaller version of a city. For example, we think about water quality and infrastructure, and we manage a lot of different people in vulnerable states. We don’t back away from a challenge, either. The city of Seattle, when dealing with a big snowfall recently, designated two community centers as warming shelters for over 100 unhoused people. They operated for 264 consecutive hours. It’s impressive, and it’s the type of attitude that parks and recreation people have: they get things done.


One of the most impactful things that you did during your time at the Westminster, CO parks and rec department was the creation of Spanish language swim courses. Can you talk about how that program came to be?

In 2014, four members of a single family drowned at Hagg Lake in Oregon, and when I saw that they were Latinx, and didn’t have a chance to take swimming lessons, that imprinted on me the need to provide more equity within parks and recreation. So we started a Spanish language swim program, and immediately classes were full. We had people driving 45 minutes to take our class, and they were driving by five or six pools on the way to ours.


Did you have broader hopes for the program as well, beyond just teaching people how to swim?

Aquatics in parks and rec tends to be a white culture, with lifeguards and pool managers of the same ethnicity and social status. But when people go to the pool, they should be able to see people who look like them and are a part of their culture. We hoped that through these classes, we could diversify our aquatics division, so once we trained people to swim, we hired them as lifeguards, and promoted them, and then there was this cascade effect. You need to find the barrier that first inhibits people from applying for jobs, and then you need to figure out how to eliminate those barriers to create more equity in your organization. It takes leadership saying this is important and this is what we’re doing. We need to be intentional about hiring a workforce that is reflective of the community. It’s not about lowering the bar, it’s about diversifying the candidate pool.


What advice would you give others in local government who have new ideas but don’t know how to make them happen?

You could try to get the mayor, or the city council, or the city manager to prioritize things. But a lot of the projects I have worked on are things nobody asked me to do. Sometimes we forget what we have control over. Even as a recreation coordinator, I could be innovative, because I didn’t ask for permission, I just executed in the areas I could control. Innovation is a choice.


Where do you get ideas for new projects, if they aren’t things people are asking of you?

Conversations with neighbors inspire me. In local government, we often think that we know best. But you have to understand the problems that people are facing in their lives that parks and recreation is uniquely positioned to address. In Westminster, for example, we used to ask people to bring in utility bills, because we had this really strict resident/non-resident policy for usage of our resources. But someone pointed out to us that this was institutional racism at work, because our Latinx community in particular might not feel comfortable being labeled “non-residents” in this political climate. So we adapted our language to just be “Do you live or work in Westminster?” as opposed to “Prove your residency.” It did cost us about $40,000 because we typically charged non-residents a higher fee. But our facilities are more diverse, and people are more comfortable and excited to be a part of the community.


Even though you were having a lot of success in Westminster, you left local government to start your own parks and rec business. Why?

In 2008, the Affordable Care Act adopted a funding model for Medicaid and Medicare which necessitated that insurance companies find alternative means for managing cost of healthcare. I really saw that as an opportunity for parks and recreation, because we promote health every day. We reduce the threat of diabetes and chronic pain with our programming—so how do we manage that in a proactive, data-driven way? My company, RecRx, was a way for insurance companies to save money while giving recreation providers more resources to put on the services they do every day.

We partnered with medical providers in and around Westminster to screen electronic health records and identify patients that could benefit from our health programs that dealt with arthritis pain management and diabetes prevention. Together, we built a database of evidence-based programs that were actually helping people with chronic conditions.


Now you’re back in local government working in Seattle. How has your experience with RecRx informed what you’re going to do next?

RecRx has been an opportunity to help parks and recreation professionals understand that we need to focus more on data than we currently do. If I can show that for every patient that goes through a health program, they save the Medicaid company $3,400 and it only costs them $300 to provide that service, that’s a really good value. We’re hesitant to use those numbers and do more chronic disease management programs, because it’s something that hasn’t been part of parks and rec culture. But we need that data conversation. If you look at how the education field has evolved over the past decades, there are all sorts of new standards for teachers—parks and recreation is lagging behind in terms of being able to show outcomes of our programs and services.

The future of parks and recreation needs to focus on communicating our outcomes and making sure that we’re aligned with policymakers and city councils. Data will help us ensure we’re matching up on goals, needs, and desires. I think oftentimes, we get stuck in what we’ve always done, but we need to adapt and change. If we focus on what we have control over, we can do that.