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Pathway to Success: AU Alum Erin Finicane

By Domanique Jordan

Erin Finicane & Sarah Gulick

Erin Finicane (left) worked with fellow SOC alumna Sarah Gulick to develop a web series for the National Parks Service.

Alumna Erin Finicane is an Audiovisual Production Specialist & Film Producer working with the National Parks Service. SOC graduate student Domanique Jordan had the opportunity to talk to Finicane about her work and how American University provided an essential platform for her job with the National Park Service.

DJ: Can you tell me about the America's Wilderness web series, and how you became involved with the project?

EF: The web series, America's Wilderness, celebrates the beauty and value of National Park Service (NPS) wilderness through mini stories that showcase the richness and range of wilderness experiences available in this country. Wilderness is the highest level of land protection in this country, and yet some of our most iconic national parks - Yellowstone, Smoky Mountains, Grand Canyon, etc. -- do not have the added level of protection granted by that wilderness designation. The goal of this series is to reintroduce the public to the idea of wilderness so that we can build a support base for future wilderness designation and ensure that these natural landscapes are protected for generations to come.I personally became involved with the project when I became an SOC film fellow with the NPS Harpers Ferry Center. Along with my colleague and fellow SOC alum, Sarah Gulick, I have been able to produce, direct, shoot and edit many of the films in the series. Together, with input from the Harpers Ferry Center and the Wilderness Stewardship Division, Sarah and I have developed a vision and direction for the series that we believe will resonate with viewers and will strengthen the bond these people form with their surrounding landscapes.

DJ: What SOC connections helped make the project possible?  

EF: The series was launched as a collaboration between American University's Center for Environmental Filmmaking, the National Park Service's Harpers Ferry Center, and the NPS Wilderness Stewardship Division to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. As we began research for the series, talking with both people in the field and average folks, we realized that people value wilderness for a variety of different reasons. Athletes, scientists, families, artists - they all have their own emotional connections to these wilderness areas that are dependent on the unique experiences, memories, and personal associations they attribute to these natural places. So with these videos, we wanted to highlight that range and diversity. We want to explore the relevance these wild places have to communities and interest groups beyond the typical outdoors audience, because in order to expand that support base for future wilderness designations, we need to engage groups that are not already engaged on the issue.

DJ: What is the format? Is it a weekly production? Or did the pieces make up a larger film?

EF: The videos were released as "webisodes", every other week on what we called "Wilderness Wednesday."Each video is a stand-alone piece, tailored to a particular interest group (musicians, runners, parents, vets, etc.) and is designed to pull those communities into the wilderness messaging through stories that they personally can relate to. We try not to be too preachy or advocacy-driven with these videos. We are simply trying to paint an experience of these places that might appeal to someone within a particular social niche. We want to provide a digital wilderness experience to people who have either never had the opportunity to visit a wilderness site before or have simply lacked the interest in doing so. And by presenting them with a story they can relate to, we hope that they begin to understand how wilderness might be of value to them and are inspired to explore that even further.

DJ: What challenges did you endure working in 115 degree heat in the Sonoran Desert?

EF: It was crazy hot while we were filming in the Sonoran Desert! At one point it was so hot my camera flashed a thermometer at me and shut down for an hour. I didn't even know it could do that! So we had to be pretty careful about the heat while filming our Saguaro shows. In addition to keeping hydrated, we simply tried to avoid filming in the heat of the day. We would wake up super early (sometimes as early as 3:45AM) to catch sunrise and the early golden hour light. We would nap in the middle of the day and then go out again when it got cooler and to catch sunset (5PM - 10PM).

DJ: As an alum, how do you feel American University prepared you for your internship - which became your job?

EF: I would never have had the opportunity to work on this series or later have a job with the National Park Service, had I not been an AU SOC student. AU provided the foundations on which my career is being built. It was there that I learned the filmmaking skills and storytelling skills that have made this series such a success and that ultimately led to my current position in the park service. Traveling to different parks, filming stories that matter is my dream job, and I would never have gotten here without AU.

DJ: Do you have any advice for future environmental reporters/filmmakers?

EF: Environmental communication is such an interesting field to be in right now because there's so much opportunity to expand and innovate here. How do we get the public so interested and so engaged that they actually care enough to take action? That's the challenge facing all environmental communicators today. And of course with challenge comes opportunity.I think that the conservation movement hasn't quite figured out how to utilize some of the technology or platforms or strategies that have proven successful in other spaces. But moving forward, precisely because of that deficit, I think that there will be a lot of demand for people who have developed an expertise in environmental outreach, communication and marketing. So my advice would be to start developing those skills and start thinking outside the box. We can't just stop at making a film or writing an article anymore. We have to work across multiple platforms. We have to continue thinking up creative and interactive ways to engage the public, utilizing the new and robust communication tools that are at our disposal. If you can become an expert in this kind of cross platform communication/outreach, you will be such an asset to your team and immensely valuable to your cause. 

Center Scholars for 2014/2015 are Vanina Harel, Jamey Warner, and Nick Zachar. They will each receive $2,000. For more information on CEF's Center Scholar program, visit here.