That time I got to interview 94-year-old Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin
by Allison Joyce, SCA NPS Centennial Volunteer Ambassador
ABOVE: Ranger Betty Reid Soskin at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park Visitor Education Center.
A few weeks ago I was lucky to be able to sit down with Betty Reid Soskin, a Park Ranger at Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park. At 94 years old, she is the oldest Ranger is the Service and happens to be an extremely powerful speaker who is talented at sharing her unique experience and perspective with anyone willing to listen. I sat down to our conversation hoping to conduct a brief interview, type up some of Betty’s wisdom, and submit it to the SCA. The format would simply be of a Q&A blog because the world is so eager for some “cele-Betty” (these types of jokes are endlessly funny to me) and here I am, with blogging as part of my job description.
Needless to say, our conversation was not neat or clean cut. And because I have no background of journalism, I did not think to try to record our meeting. Instead of a “Q&A”, Betty ended up gracefully comforting me as I confronted the deep-seeded discrimination and ignorance of our world and nation; she reassured me that the National Park Service is poised to facilitate major social change and that young and passionate people like me will make the difference we need. She is also the first person to encourage these difficult conversations. She knows that talking about the arc of history is painful and hard but it has to be because the subject matter is so important and so close to our hearts.
So I had notes from this really powerful conversation I’d had with Betty but I didn’t know what to do with them, until one week ago at the One NPS workshop at the NPS PWN Regional Office in San Francisco, California. This workshop was organized by our Urban Fellow, Kieron Slaughter – one of 10 such fellows placed in metropolitan areas around the nation to help implement the NPS Urban Agenda –an initiative aimed at engaging urban communities with the NPS.
Me and CVA Joey Negreann, from Pinnacles NP, at the One NPS workshop. Photo: NPS
The National Park Service is a huge entity. Over 400 units throughout America employing over 22,000 people. Over one third of all NPS sites are located within metropolitan areas with sites in 40 out of the 50 most populous cities in the US (statistics from the 2016 Urban Agenda: Call to Action Initiative). Despite this government agency’s size and expansive reach, most Americans do not think of it that way. We think of Yosemite, Yellow Stone, Rocky Mountain, and Arches: beautiful places that are far away, quiet, and expensive to reach. There’s a discrepancy in how the National Park Service is seen and what it actually is.
But who cares? The Urban NPS sites will exist regardless of whether that’s part of our reputation as an entity. Is this just another example of the government tooting its own horn? Or is it actually important for the National Park Service not to just exist in urban areas, but to have a presence?
Ranger Betty Reid Soskin told me a short story that demonstrated the importance of a recognized Urban NPS in a crystal clear way. Once, after work, she went to the grocery store while still in her Park Ranger uniform. As she was checking out, a black woman asked her if she was a prison guard. As Reid Soskin explained it to me, that was that woman’s only association with seeing someone in a federal uniform.
One NPS workshop facilitators, Catherine Carlton and Kieron Slaughter with “challenges and opportunities” for implementing a more unified NPS. Photo: NPS.
So, I ask again, is it important for the National Park Service to have a presence in Urban America considering over 80% of our nation’s population lives in urban areas? (https://ask.census.gov/faq.php?id=5000&faqId=5971) Considering the current state of our police relations and astronomical imprisonment rates? Considering the fact that our nation as a whole has checked out of the democratic process that makes us so great? The voter turnout in 2012 was 57.7% of all eligible voters, a record low (http://politicalticker.blogs.cnn.com/2012/11/08/report-shows-turnout-lower-than-2008-and-2004/).
I’m not naive enough to believe that Urban NPS can single-handedly bridge the gap between our civilians and our government. But I do think that communicating to as many people as we can that there’s a branch of our government down the street that you might want to interact with—not because someone mad at you for breaking a rule, but for fun or health or history—can be a balm for the hurt of this nation. Not to mention the fact that our Urban NPS locations can provide literal spaces for the kinds of conversations that lead to progress in our federal policy. An obvious example is Ranger Betty Reid Soskin’s presentations which take place three times a week at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park Visitor Education Center in Richmond, CA and do not shy from political or controversial subject matter.
I am very excited about the future of the National Park Service. There are a lot of passionate, engaged people who care about our public lands and the people of this nation. The NPS Centennial campaign can sometimes feel like a gimmick, just an advertising campaign by and for an affluent, racially homogenous group of Americans. But if you really listen, the crucial and difficult conversations are happening. It’s our job to keep listening. As Ranger Betty said, “It has to be difficult.
This is a HUGE topic that I have a lot to say on but that will come later. For now, I’ll close with how Ranger Betty sees her own Park Ranger uniform. “I see wearing my uniform as the most important message I can send. Because whenever I’m seen wearing my uniform I feel that I am advertising a career path.”
BELOW: Betty Reid Soskin, 94 year old ranger at Rosie the Riveter/World War II Homefront National Historical Park.