Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: A Personal Journey

June 17, 2021, Feature, by Autumn Saxton-Ross

2021 July Feature Diversity Equity and Inclusion A Personal Journey 410

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Why NRPA released a host of diversity, equity and inclusion resources

To commemorate Park and Recreation Month in July, NRPA has encouraged agencies across the country to share their park and recreation stories. My own connection to the outdoors started in my backyard. I grew up in a duplex, with my paternal grandmother on one side, and my mom, dad, younger brother and I on the other (and a cousin my same age next door). Summers were spent with my cousins exploring our block and then graduating to time spent in Swope Park, located a little more than a mile away. I thought of Swope Park as our community’s Olmstead park. Acquired in 1896, this 1,805-acre green space remains the crown jewel of the Kansas City (Missouri) Parks system. As the city’s largest park, and one of the largest municipal parks in the United States, Swope Park features hiking trails, grassy meadows and soccer fields, golf courses and community gardens, the Starlight Theatre, the Kansas City Zoo and the Lakeside Nature Center (now expanded to house Missouri’s largest native species rehabilitation center), where I held my first owl pellet.

It was one of my favorite parks growing up and still is today. Over the years, I have used this place, and my relationship with it, to ground conversations on the Black experience and green spaces. Through my research, I discovered that the Swope Park pool (the one I learned to swim in) and its integration in the 1950s served as the practice litigation for the soon-to-follow Brown v. Board of Education case. During that time, Thurgood Marshall traveled to Kansas City as the lead National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lawyer.

Swope Park

During the Jim Crow Era in Kansas City, Watermelon Hill — officially known as Shelter No. 5 — was the only spot in Swope Park that Black residents could visit. It was built to accommodate 400 to 500 people, but on weekends and holidays, the place could be overcrowded with up to 1,000 smiling faces, many people coming from all over the city by streetcar.

My maternal grandmother also has a personal connection to this park. Watermelon Hill was the only part of the park she would take me to until the late 1980s. I had experienced those other places in the park through my parents. Nearly 30 years after the end of legal segregation, Watermelon Hill remained the only part of the park that my grandmother frequented. For me, it’s not just about addressing access, but considering the lived experience and connection of those who care for you, your community and what their experience has imprinted on them.

Harpers Ferry National Historic Park

This past April for my children’s spring break, I took a day off and we spent it exploring Harpers Ferry National Historic Park in West Virginia, another one of my favorite outdoor places. Located a little more than an hour from Washington, D.C., Harpers Ferry is nestled where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers meet. It’s full of natural and man-made wonder — the C&O Canal Towpath Trail and old rail bridges — all of the things you look for in a day trip to escape city living.

Another reason why I love this place is the park’s lesser-known history. In the early 1900s, William Edward Burghardt “W.E.B.” Du Bois, a historian, sociologist and civil rights activist, organized a meeting in Harpers Ferry that was the start of the Niagara Movement. The Niagara Movement was a Black civil rights organization named for the mighty current of change they wanted to create in opposition to racial segregation and support voting rights for Black men and women in 1905. The organization eventually changed its name to the NAACP.

The movement’s inaugural meeting took place in Harpers Ferry at Storer College, one of the first historically Black colleges/universities in the country. Harpers Ferry also was selected as the meeting site because it was the place of abolitionist John Brown’s raid in 1859. Sometimes referred to as the “first shot of the Civil War,” the building that housed Brown during the raid was a place that free and enslaved folks in the late 1800s referred to as a beacon of freedom to come. This area also is surrounded by Civil War history and battlegrounds. It’s a place full of national, state and local parks, and countless places for outdoor recreation.

Yosemite National Park

In 2016, I visited my first expansive western national park. I had just been hired as the mid-Atlantic director for NatureBridge, a nonprofit organization, and it was my third year as an Outdoor Afro leader. For many of my colleagues — all very outdoorsy — this was our first trip to Yosemite National Park in California. The park and staff greeted us with open arms, making sure we had what we needed to explore the park. And then comments from other park patrons appeared on social media, such as “Lots of black people.....” and “Outdoor Afro? Sounds about as racist as Outdoor Aryan. Can we keep racism out of our national parks and encourage everyone to enjoy the outdoors together instead of being so divisive?”

I share these experiences to show the full power of parks and recreation — how they can be used for good and bad. They can be inclusive and welcoming places we can see ourselves in, as well as places that have been and can still be used to otherize and exclude.

Reading the comments on social media, it’s easy to think, “Oh, I am so sorry that happened. Racism hurts [insert community of color here].” But I would like to offer something else for you to consider. Recently, an article by Natalie Burke, CEO of CommonHealth Action, came across my LinkedIn. It’s an opinion piece in the Daily News, titled “Want to be an anti-racist white ally? Here are six steps to follow,”. I encourage you to read the article, but what really stuck with me is that as she discusses our history of race and racism, she highlights an important point we forget to talk about. It’s easy to think about racism and be sad for those who we see as being the victim — in this instance, Black folks — but what we rarely talk about are the other victims — white folks. We don’t speak or reflect on the harm that racism has done across the spectrum.

Just think for a minute how harmful a system is when it normalizes typical “nice” people — those with families; those who volunteer in their communities; those who go to church; those who do all the things we believe that “good” people should do — who express themselves like this. It’s a system that fosters people to react this way to obvious expressions of nothing but joy, an emotion that so happens to be expressed by a group of Black people — in which most are experiencing this national park for the first time.

NRPA Focuses on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

As these experiences have shown, we can provide access, but that doesn’t guarantee that the space is now welcoming. To harness the full power of our parks for good, to be inclusive and welcoming, we must intentionally learn, and then work against, the ways in which they have been and can still be used to exclude. Perhaps Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood expressed it best: “There’s a world of difference between insisting on someone’s doing something and establishing an atmosphere in which that person can grow into wanting to do it.”

This is what NRPA’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work is about — creating a new atmosphere. Our work will provide opportunities or create a space ripe for continuous learning and change. And I acknowledge that this space may not be for everyone, but this space will support those willing to explore and examine how this system has impacted and harmed us all, and, most importantly, how as people we can disrupt, change and, maybe, co-create new systems. And while we explicitly lead with race while centering equity, the self-awareness, skills and competencies we look to build in the park and recreation profession will be applicable across all experiences, groups and identities.

This spring, NRPA released a host of DEI resources and a framework for action. Our Equity Action Plan connects our DEI work to our mission, vision, organizational values and strategic plan. NRPA’s DEI framework, Elevating Health Equity Through Parks and Recreation: A Framework for Action, details our focus on both systems and people. Our Park Access Story Map, Equity in Parks and Recreation: A Historical Perspective, explores how throughout the history of this land, parks have been used for both inclusion and exclusion. NRPA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Parks and Recreation Report takes inventory of the DEI activities, if any, agencies have established, the professional development opportunities provided to staff, and the challenges organizations face in their efforts to promote DEI practices. These resources document our commitment to DEI and provide a road map for preparing the profession for the future — a beautiful one with quality parks and recreation embedded in every community for everyone.

Autumn Saxton-Ross, Ph.D., is NRPA’s Vice President of Education and Chief Equity Officer.