Oklahoma wildlife agency wins Diversity Award

NBA star Paul George poses with students from urban schools in the Oklahoma City area during a sponsored fishing event. Courtesy of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

Getting inner city children interested in fishing and the great outdoors sometimes just requires the right bait.

The Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation’s bait wasn’t worms or insects, but NBA star Paul George.

An avid fisher himself, George set up a foundation to help interest inner city schools in Oklahoma City in fishing when he played for the Oklahoma Thunder from 2017-2019. The state conservation agency (ODWC) partnered with George, seeing an opportunity to expand their Oklahoma Fishing in the Schools (OKFITS) program into urban areas. The program works to teach students about fishing, organize field trips and provide fishing equipment.

Since 2011, the program has worked with more than 400 schools, most of which were in rural areas, where students were usually already involved in nature. Urban schools were a bit tougher to work with. Class sizes were larger, and overworked teachers struggled to fit fishing education into their curriculum.

“It’s been a focus of ours in the last 5 to 6 years from a diversity standpoint, just to diversify our audience,” said Daniel Griffith, who was the communication and education specialist at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation at the time.

Students pose with a sunfish caught during an Oklahoma Fishing in the Schools program trip. Courtesy of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

But the Paul George Foundation stepped in to help fund field trips to fishing spots starting in 2018. They also provided free basketball game tickets to students that wrote good fishing essays as part of the OKFITS program.

“We took advantage of this opportunity that presented itself with us through George’s foundation,” said Griffith, now the webmaster at ODWC.

The agency managed to enroll 13 urban schools from Oklahoma City and the surrounding area, bringing an outdoors opportunity to a diverse group of children that don’t normally have as much exposure to nature.

“It changes the way these kids are in the classroom, how they behave and how they perceive the outside world,” Griffith said. He worked to find the best fishing spots near schools so the kids would have more of an ability to return by themselves in the future if they were still interested. “It’s opening up the door to them to opportunities they didn’t know they had.”

For their ongoing work in connecting these schools with fishing opportunities, the ODWC won the 2021 TWS Diversity Award.

Griffith said this type of award helps prove to the agency’s decision-makers that this kind of program is worthwhile. George was traded to the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019 and his foundation no longer provides support to OKFITS, but Griffith said the relationship with many of the teachers they worked with in the past remains strong.

“They still have those [fishing] kits, and the schools that are still active still use those kits,” he said.

Paul George at a fishing event with Oklahoma City schools.
Courtesy of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

The goal, he said, beyond diversifying the world of fishing in Oklahoma, is increasing knowledge in general about the activity.

“Ultimately we hope that they fish, but even if they don’t, we’ve at least provided them information about how sport fishing works in Oklahoma,” Griffith said.

Click here to see the complete list of award recipients.

Photo 1: NBA star Paul George poses with students from urban schools in the Oklahoma City area during a sponsored fishing event. Courtesy of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

Photo 2:  Students pose with a sunfish caught during an Oklahoma Fishing in the Schools program trip. Courtesy of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation

Photo 3: Paul George at a fishing event with Oklahoma City schools. Courtesy of Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation


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