John Petrillo

Executive Director – Project U.S.E.

What inspires you about the history and legacy of Project U.S.E.?

In the 1970s, outdoor experiential education was really new. Project U.S.E. was one of the first to popularize it and make it available to thousands of schoolchildren and adults. In the 50 years since, the ground has shifted under our feet. For a lot of kids, there’s no option to go out and play anymore. People react like, “I can’t let my kid go out in the woods! There’s ticks!” Even to spend a quiet couple of hours walking down a path—kids don’t get to do this. The fact that we have to be strategic about creating these opportunities breaks my heart. Every kid should be able to access these experiences. 

Tell us about your own education outdoors?

I grew up sailing. My dad was a recreational sailor. I spent my summers racing small sailboats. It was an important part of my life. But I was never a motivated student until I did a semester-at-sea on an oceanographic vessel and had this epiphany. Suddenly, I didn’t want to stop going to school, I wanted to go back. I went from Carnegie Mellon, where I got my bachelor’s, to Brown and Rutgers, where I earned two master’s degrees. I taught high school, then college. It all came from that pivotal moment when I understood the world better because I was in it. I’ve dedicated my professional life to making sure kids have that experience even earlier.

What do kids learn from being encouraged and safe to explore outside?

 

Sailing is a good metaphor and microcosm of how you can look at and navigate the world. But it’s no different when you put 25 kids on a trail and you all have to make it over that mountain, set up camp, cook, clean, make it safe, and know that if you don’t fulfill your role, it affects people. You’re depending on others and they are counting on you. Whether on boats or in the wilderness, the worst trips are the ones kids like to talk about. The storms and conditions that made it uncomfortable remind them of how they rose to the occasion.

What does your role at Project U.S.E. ask of you that you especially enjoy being able to give?

This is the first time I’ve been an Executive Director. I’ve been on board since August 2018. This job calls on me to bring all my personal and professional experiences to bear as a leader. This is an organization that has a rich history and needs a reboot. With the support of the board, I get to embrace this history and give it that change it needs. I know what draws people close to this work and how important it is to fund these programs. I’m passionate to do what it takes to make sure it succeeds.

Why is this work vital now?

Kids are entrenched in their digital world and it’s familiar. What’s unfamiliar is going out and being able to rely on people physically and emotionally, in a social setting and in a natural environment. That’s the challenge. Riding a bike! My memory of being able to ride my bike as a child is something that is mind blowing to a lot of kids. Riding a bike in Newark is daunting. Our Pedal Farmers program gets kids on bikes so they can bring the produce they grew in community gardens to the farmer’s markets. It transforms the entire experience.  

Talk about how Project U.S.E. cultivates justice.

I want our programs to offer a place where kids can make mistakes, be challenged, and grow within a supportive community. I want to meet kids at 12 and stay with them so we can support them in their challenges all the way through high school. I want to create pathways for our participants of color to become staff and lead younger kids. Outdoor recreation space is not diverse, especially when it comes to leadership. Clients from Newark would enjoy learning from instructors who look like them. It’s also important for private school kids to see more diverse leadership. It serves everyone.  

 

Who else would you like to see interviewed in this segment?

I’d like to see Newark mayor Ras Baraka profiled.

 

What’s the best way for you to take a break and restore your energy?

I’ve got three kids under three and don’t get much respite these days! But for me, it’s still going outside for a nice hike or a bike ride. That’s what grounds me.