For an enhanced digital experience, read this story in the ezine.
Park and recreation programs have played a historic role in our country’s struggle toward social equality and civil rights. At the turn of the 20th century, leaders, such as Jane Adams and others, were at the forefront of embracing the importance of the recreation and playground movement. The establishment of parks and recreation facilities in communities have had a significant impact on the health, vitality and well-being of communities.
However, as a field, parks and recreation is not exempt from the troublesome and adverse effects of discrimination. In the struggle for equal and civil rights, we saw access to public amenities placed front and center. The adoption of the 1964 Civil Rights Act eliminated segregated swimming pools, recreation amenities and drinking fountains, to mention a few.
While this historic law has had a profound impact on the nation and ended the exclusion of African Americans receiving the rightful benefits and fundamental rights afforded in the U.S. Constitution, racist attitudes and practices persist. Considerable segments of society still remain economically and socially disconnected. Today, more than two-dozen social indices of well-being — from housing, employment, education, criminal justice, healthcare and other facets of society — show a significant disparity by race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
One painfully stark example is a study on African American inequality in America. Conducted by Harvard University, the study outlines the wealth disparity between white families and Black and Hispanic families. Data from 2016 reveals that the median wealth among white families was 10 times greater than Black and Hispanic families. The report further shows that in some regions, the wealth disparity is far more vast. Another 2015 study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston reveals that in Boston, Massachusetts, the median net worth of white households was $247,000 versus $8 for Black households.
Such inequality provides the considerable challenge we must overcome. Within a park and recreation context, studies have identified a racial and social disparity in the distribution and benefit of park and recreation services. Across the United States, the availability, type, condition and usage of recreational resources and programs show a disparity between communities of color compared to white communities.
The Racial Economic and Social Divide
I believe park and recreation departments play a crucial part in racial and social justice. Park and recreation agencies must examine how their programs are bridging this racial economic and social divide. An effective equity, inclusion and social justice approach requires that the agency examine its impact on the community, review its policies and practices, and determine who has and has not benefitted from its services. Are we passive or active in addressing social inequality in our community? How does race and class play a role in our decision making? Do we engage, involve and empower all voices in the community? How are we perceived and are we trusted by historically marginalized communities?
These are just a few questions, but integrating equity, social justice and inclusion practices within park and recreation agencies requires intentional focus, review and development of new habits of thinking and operating. This also entails a commitment to explore and remove harmful policies and practices that have had an adverse effect on historically marginalized communities. Park leaders will need to truly adopt practices of inclusion and belonging and foster strong and authentic relationships across racial and class divides.
Legislation alone will not end injustice, bias and discrimination. However, helping individuals within an organization and in communities form meaningful relations grounded in empathy and mutual respect is needed to eliminate the harmful effects of bias, bigotry and discrimination.
I serve as the equity, inclusion and social justice manager for the King County Department of Natural Resources and Parks; I also served in a similar role with Portland Parks and Recreation, supporting the implementation of the bureau’s five-year racial equity plan. In this role, I was engaged with almost every facet of the organization and I worked with colleagues to apply equity, inclusion and social justice practices within their discipline. This requires a commitment from the entire organization. I often say that you cannot microwave equity, inclusion and social justice. The adoption of anti-racist policies and practices involves creating systems that ensure equitable hiring, promotion and retention practices, and the design of culturally responsive services; fostering effective community partnerships with historically marginalized communities; and providing meaningful participation of minority business that might lead to potential contracting opportunities.
Ultimately, my role is to help park and recreation agencies lead by example regardless of a community’s race or socioeconomic status, to make sure that community members receive the benefits of park and recreation services and to continue the tradition of park and recreation programs advocating for social justice and ensuring that every community is healthy, vibrant and racially just.
Arthur (Art) Hendricks (he,him,his) is Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Manager for the Department of Natural Resources and Parks in King County, Washington.