In January, I went to a workshop on homelessness in parks hosted by the National Recreation and Park Association. After a rich panel discussion, one homeless advocate shared a bit of wisdom that is still sticking with me. He remarked that our communities have a lot more compassion for the homeless, and thankfully, it’s no longer socially acceptable to treat homeless folks with disdain. Yet many of us still haven’t developed a healthy approach or view of the homeless. Instead of disdain we disassociate, becoming quite skilled at distancing ourselves from our homeless neighbors. Now we avoid eye contact, ignore their greetings, and refuse to acknowledge their presence. Sitting in a conference room of 60 people, I felt a wave of heat go up my spine. He was talking about me. I ignore the homeless.
He went on to say that homeless folks often internalize being ignored. He argued that ignoring our homeless neighbors robs them of their dignity; of their humanity. Later on in the workshop, his point was validated by two women who were once homeless living in parks. They shared their story, and both of them told of being ignored and avoided, and then later becoming experts of hiding, of being unseen. For both women it took someone seeing them to jump start their journey out of homelessness. One woman, who struggled to manage her schizophrenia while homeless, remarked that it was the first person who talked to her that convinced her to seek support and services. It was a beautiful moment, witnessing two women who spent years being invisible in parks, now speaking in front of a room of park professionals from across the country – advocating so that other folks might be seen.
Now that I’ve had a little time to process all the information from the workshop, I’m wondering what cost parks pay for disassociating from the homeless. It might be robbing us of our agency. How can we attempt to solve, or at least improve, what we refuse to see? What if parks are more powerful, more skilled, and better advocates than we imagine? Considering that only a minority of homeless individuals are chronically homeless (15% by the latest estimates), what if the problem isn’t as scary and unsolvable as we dismiss it to be? To put it another way: if you knew there was an 85% chance that any homeless person would find housing within a year, would it change how you saw them?
I, too, was resigned that the homelessness crisis was hopeless, but now I feel empowered. What an exciting time to work with parks! I’m anxious for all the new solutions and partnerships that might come from really seeing our homeless neighbors. It feels much more honest and brave to tackle this head on. Who knows? Parks might really be powerful.
Photo/design courtesy of Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy
I’ve been a little weary about listening to the upcoming political debates. The ability to talk about complicated issues in a compassionate, nuanced way is a skill that seems to be atrophying within a political climate of catch-phrases and name-calling. I sometimes avoid tough conversations, not because these issues aren’t important to me, but because I don’t know how to argue against a sound-bite. And it’s not just me avoiding conflicting perspectives. , we’re becoming overly reliant on algorithms that feed us information and viewpoints similar to our own. We’re trapped in our own .
That’s why I’m excited about the new exhibit happening in a number of former military structures at the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. This free art exhibit explores complicated issues about home, national security, and borders. As a black woman, I have a lot of privilege around these issues – one particular privilege being that I frequently don’t have to think about them. I can go anywhere in the U.S., and no one questions my immigration status, or whether it’s safe to fly on a plane with me. Up until now, I haven’t spent much time reflecting on issues like immigration, but it’s time for that to change. I need to break free from my own echo-chamber. This exhibit is a timely opportunity to reflect on pressing national concerns like Syrian refugees and immigration reform. It’s a safe place for me to consider other perspectives while challenging my own beliefs.
Art is a powerful medium to explore place and the current issues of today. The art in Home Land Security seems particularly poignant, in that it’s housed within former military barracks on National Park land. What better place to talk about home, than in our National Parks – democratic spaces owned by all Americans?
Home Land Security features 18 artists from 11 different countries, and is open until December 18th. This exhibit is a collaboration between the FOR-SITE Foundation, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, the National Park Service, and the Presidio Trust.
This exhibit is also a part of the National Parks Service’s Art in the Parks programming. If you would like to learn how to utilize the power of art in green spaces, the Institute at Golden Gate will be co-hosting an upcoming Art in the Parks webinar on September 29, 2016 from 10:00 – 11:00 AM PDT. Click here to register.
Join me in learning more about national security, borders, and how these issues shape our identities and perceptions of home. Challenge yourself to have a more complicated (and courageous) conversation.
This summer, the National Park Service and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy have teamed up with San Francisco Public Libraries. It’s been a summer of reading, learning, and lots of park fun. Park rangers are visiting San Francisco libraries throughout the summer, and folks can become a “Reading Ranger” after reaching age-appropriate reading goals. Free community shuttles are taking nine communities from their local library to their national park, with many riders being introduced to national parks for the very first time. This summer has already been such a success with packed shuttles leaving libraries every Saturday; we’re all starting to wonder why we haven’t always done this. Libraries and parks are natural partners.
This past Saturday I saw this partnership in action as I joined San Francisco’s Mission District community on an adventure to Crissy Field. I was greeted at the Mission Library by Conservancy folks, librarians, and some of my favorite park rangers. There was a large group of families milling outside, and everyone was a little giddy – even the regular park goers. After a brief introduction in Spanish, English and Chinese, we all boarded the bus, and headed to Crissy Field. While there, we had story-time, a nice visit with a trusted steed from the park police, and, of course, a nature hike. All in all, I had a lot of fun, and I know the families enjoyed themselves too.
Afterwards, I kept thinking how genius this program is. The merits of libraries and parks co-crafting reading and outdoor experiences are undeniable, and I think everyone recognized that this was a good idea. What has been a surprise is how hungry our community was for this. Librarians are signing up families’ weeks in advance, and eagerly sourcing complementary reading materials for the school-age children. There is a set of seniors who, after attending the first community shuttle from the Chinatown library, have showed up for the 5 subsequent shuttles. We have kids reading, avoiding the dreaded summer slide, and spending time outdoors with their families. This program is a slam dunk in terms of positive community impact. No one could have asked for better outcomes, or better partners. And that might be the secret sauce to this genius idea: great partnership.
One of the important lessons that I keep re-learning in my professional life is that you don’t have to do it alone: working with friends can improve the quality of the work and the enjoyment of doing said work. This partnership with the National Park Service, the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and San Francisco Public Libraries showcases how collaboration makes bigger outcomes, and can create more dynamic programming.
Like many park professionals, I’ve been having the diversity conversation for a while now. We’ve been striving towards more inclusive green spaces my entire professional career, and, despite making great strides, we’ve still got a long way to go. This work is tireless, and I’m acutely aware of how frequently the finish-line keeps moving. I love this work, but sometimes even the strong have doubts.
I fantasize about no longer needing to have the diversity conversation. I fantasize about diversity being solved like I fantasize about winning the lottery; one fortuitous event, eliminating all my problems with no effort on my part. I know these fantasies are silly, but I also know I’m not the only one buying Powerball tickets.
So I was tired last week when I headed to Washington, DC to meet about the National Park Service Urban Agenda. I was not excited about yet another diversity conversation with my heart rubbed raw by the recent Orlando shooting. Doing equity work while also working through grief is an unfortunate, yet common, occurrence. But I was comforted to see all the altars, hand-made signs, and pride flags sprinkled across DC’s national parks. It was a powerful lesson of how parks can be places for healing. It was a needed reminder of the importance of telling a national history that’s as diverse as our country.
Photo courtesy of Nancy Goerisch-Hassanein, NPS
I got another powerful and timely lesson from our NPS Urban Fellows. It was a lesson about grit: about persevering in the face of mighty obstacles. As each Urban Fellow talked about their experience of building relationships with their communities and implementing the Urban Agenda, the challenges they mentioned were huge and complex. They were drawing upon large stores of determination and resilience. The Urban Fellows were carrying out the Urban Agenda one small success, one community partner, and one co-worker at a time. I needed to be reminded that this diversity conversation is going to continue to be hard, but, with a little grit, great things can be accomplished.
Now that I’m back in the Bay Area, I’m thankful for all the diversity conversations (both visual and verbal) that I had in DC. It was the pep talk I didn’t know I needed.
Lastly, I’m most thankful for our newest National Monument at Stonewall Inn. It’s what our nation needed and a shining example of what tireless work can accomplish. I’m grateful to all the folks and the LGBTQ community that, through determination and grit, caused this breakthrough to happen.
The Richmond Wellness Trail community kick-off event.
Living on the “wrong side of the tracks” frequently means living on the wrong side of the freeway. Minority communities are almost always on the wrong side of the freeway. Give me a map and I’ll find black/brown communities just by looking for neighborhoods choked up, fenced in, and torn apart by highways. This didn’t happen by coincidence; the American freeways were planned and largely built before our civil rights act. Minority communities lacked the political capital to fight off encroaching highway development. Anthony Foxx, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary, recently noted that minority neighborhoods were historically seen as “communities of least resistance”. For low-income communities in cities like Atlanta, Oakland, and Baltimore, highways were a system of disconnection, severing communities from resources and opportunity.
In Richmond, Interstate 580 cuts the community off from the bay and recreational resources such as the Rosie the Riveter National Historic Park. This is one of the many reasons why the City of Richmond and the National Park Service have joined forces to create the Richmond Wellness Trail. When completed, the trail will be a safe and enjoyable greenway connecting the city’s best parks, trails, and historical sites. This trail will link the BART station, downtown Richmond, Kaiser Hospital, schools, assisted-living facilities, and churches to a network of parks, Richmond’s National Park, bicycles routes, and natural beauty. The Richmond Wellness Trail is bringing nature to the community and creating the connective tissue to bolster a healthy and active lifestyle. By increasing assess to recreation, exercise, and jobs, this wellness trail is a true example of “Parks for all”.
Rosie the Riveter, like many of our national parks, inherited a road system largely outside of its control, but creating pathways into the health and economic benefits of our public lands is still our responsibility. The Richmond Wellness trail is one method of building equitable access to our National Parks, but mobile classrooms like the Roving Ranger (pictured above) is another pathway. Across the nation, parks are reaching beyond their borders to connect with communities across both physical and societal barriers.
Realizing that the built environment was not immune to the prejudices of its time, parks are now building bridges across this history of inequity. Except these bridges are built with native grasses and bike lanes and these pathways are internships traversing park boundaries.
If you live, work, or worship in Richmond, the National Parks Service is eager for your wisdom and input. Learn how to get involved with the Richmond Wellness Trail by visiting the City of Richmond’s website.
Lastly, the history of our freeway system and its impact on communities is fascinating. It’s a worthwhile topic of discussion for any park professional. The latest addition to our Book and Media Club is a recent 30-minute speech by Anthony Foxx, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary.
My office is just a short walk away from Fort Mason’s Great Meadow. This park has gentle, grassy hills and stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge. Every morning as I head into work, I’m greeted with the ocean, air, bees, and native plants. Luckily for me, I don’t have to sneak away to see this beautiful space. Here at the Institute, we have an organizational culture that values outdoor time; I am encouraged to spend time in nature.
View from where I meditate.
I take full advantage of this park perk. I enjoy walking meetings and impromptu botany lessons on the Great Meadow. But most of all, I cherish my daily mindfulness practice. It’s nothing fancy— lasting only 7 minutes— but it is the best perk my employer can ever give. Better than any sweet, salty or caffeinated snack, these 7 minutes help me refocus after a hectic morning, or calm my nerves before a big meeting. I’m more creative in my problem-solving, more patient with obstacles, and more present with my co-workers. In short, it makes me a better employee.
I don’t want to be one of those self-righteous hippies, pushing the latest crunchy granola health practices on my co-workers, but I can’t help it when it comes to mindfulness. I think mindfulness is a useful tool for all park professionals. I know from experience, but science supports it too. Mindfulness can bolster mental and physical health. It can even change our neural pathways –changing the physical structure of the brain. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, it builds up inner resilience. Mindfulness and meditation practices are linked to increasing compassion, mental flexibility, and attention.
Inner resilience is a crucial asset for park professionals right now. Urban parks are entering frontiers that require us to tap into our best attributes. Climate change, health disparities, and homelessness are all daunting challenges that parks must bravely face. These challenges deserve our creativity, patience, focus, and best interpersonal skills. In order to be better stewards of our parks and our communities, we need to invest in our own inner stewardship.
So, at the risk of sounding preachy, take advantage of your park perks. Prepare for a challenging, and exciting future. I’ll meet you at the Great Meadow.
This is my park. This is my park. This is my park.
The founder of Outdoor Afro, Rue Mapp, taught me this mantra. Outdoor Afro often has first-time hikers or nervous campers chant “this is my park” before new wilderness experiences. Claiming belonging is a powerful tool in their work of cultivating nature connection with African Americans. I’ve borrowed this phrase from Outdoor Afro, using it when I’m a lone brown face in a green space.
This is my park. This is my park. This is my park.
This year I’ve gotten to explore our local and national park system more than ever before. My increased connection to this land has increased my understanding of its African American heritage and history. I already knew about the Buffalo Soldiers who, 150 year ago, were some of the original caretakers of these shores, meadows, and forests. This history is a source of comfort and pride for me and has spurred my curiosity about the other black folk that have walked and served on this land. I recently gathered another lesser-told story I’d like to share with you: a story of the pivotal role the Sutro Baths played in California’s journey towards civil rights.
Postcard of Sutro Baths interior, circa 1909, photo courtesy of sanfranciscodays.com
On July 4th and July 11th of 1897, John Harris, an African American, was denied entry to the Sutro Baths, a bath house, swimming, and recreation area located by the Cliff House. Now a part of Golden Gate National Parks, the Cliff House and Sutro Baths were once privately owned by Adolph Sutro, former mayor of San Francisco. The Sutro family contested that their white customers would not “co-mingle” with other races in their pools and that discrimination was necessary to avoid financial ruin.
John Harris and the Sutro Baths made headlines when Harris sued Adolph Sutro. His case is notable because Harris won and, most importantly, gave teeth to California’s first civil rights law, the Dibble Act of 1897. Passed only a year after Plessy v. Ferguson legalized “separate but equal,” the Dibble Civil Rights Act mandated that Californians “of every color or race whatsoever” are “entitled to the full and equal facilities of all places of public accommodation.” The Dibble Act was the precursor for the better known Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1959, which ultimately served as a model for the nation’s Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Harris v. Sutro, was the first test of California’s commitment to civil rights and it was set right here in the Golden Gate National Recreational Area. The legacy of Henry Clay Dibble, author of the Dibble Act, is also tied to park land. Dibble, a champion for civil rights and women’s suffrage, is buried in the San Francisco National Cemetery.
I want to thank author Elaine Elinson and my new office buddies from the National Park Service, Steve Haller and Abby Sue Fisher for sharing this piece of history with me. As we kick off Black History month our park professionals, historians, community partners, culture-keepers, and educators are working hard, as they always do, to remind us that parks are for everyone.
Oh – and pools, the coast, and ski slopes are for everyone, too.
This is my park. This is my park. This is my park.
This photo was taken the day I learned if you let one first grader drink from the hose, you have to let all the first graders drink from the hose.
I used to be naive enough to think my work was something new. As an urban farmer, then a green jobs advocate, and now the newest Program Manager at the Institute – I thought it was cutting edge to use public and communal land to cultivate health, wealth, and connectedness. I thought it was original to use parks to grow produce at City Slicker Farms, and innovative to teach youth about green jobs at Ecology Center. Thankfully, I got some needed and righteous humbling when I learned about George Washington Carver. I mean, once I really learned about George Washington Carver.
I got the same “peanut man” story that most folks get as a 3rd grader. My ignorance was exposed when, while at Allen Temple Baptist Church, a Reverend casually gave thanks to George Washington Carver. That simple act of gratitude was a catalyst for me to become re-acquainted with the man who laid the ground work for my personal and professional purpose. Carver had a deep love for the earth, he espoused sustainable agriculture practices (despite the mocking of his peers), and saw the land as a resource for self-sustainability, food security, handicrafts, and a means for poor sharecroppers to escape indebtedness. I now see George as a mentor and guide for turning to the land for community health, for financial and physical sustenance, and for community. I can completely nerd-out about George Washington Carver’s innovative work in sustainable agriculture and community education/outreach, but I’ll let you learn more about him on your own terms. Should you need some good starting points, I’ve got links below to my favorite books about Mr. Carver. One of the links is to a children’s book, because, (1) I’m the kind of adult who enjoys good children’s literature and (2) I will utilize any opportunity to teach or learn from kids about nature.
I’m grateful that writing this blog, one of my first tasks in my new position, allows me to acknowledge the ancestors and communities that have paved the way for the Urban Program at the Institute. I hope to bring forth many more stories and heroes from marginalized communities through my work here. Within the Institute’s Urban Program, I’m excited to support parks that cultivate healthy, connected communities and communities that cultivate relevant, diverse green spaces. I am honored to be a part of your community and privileged to carry on the work of heroes like George Washington Carver, Dolores Huerta, and my grandmother, Gertrude.
I hope to meet more of our community soon, but until then – tell me who your heroes are. Who inspires you in this work of creating restorative, inclusive and dynamic green spaces?
Your hippie home-girl,
Elyse’s favorite George Washington Carver books:
For Kids: George Washington Carver