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The Body & Soul of a Nation PART II: Can National Parks Help Save Our Country?

Race and Our National Identity

Historic frontier homes. Monuments to white supremacists. Places connected to epic struggles. The site of genocides. Unique natural wonders. Stolen land. Our national parks preserve places that articulate our country’s history, and not just the parts that we’re proud to have on display. Preserving this history requires more than just making sure cemeteries are tended to and the roofs of historic dwellings don’t leak. It requires safe spaces to explore and confront our history as well as those skilled in the use of techniques that seek not to judge, but to provoke or inform through evidence and conversation.

If progress is to be made today in dealing with current issues regarding race and identity, it must be done through first understanding history because, like it or not, it impossible to have a conversation about the present without first discussing the past. This is because helps us understand that the world we live in needs to be improved and provides perspectives that can be used to improve it.

But this is challenging for two reasons;

1) The average American’s understanding of history varies widely, especially since there are no national standards for topics, historical figures, or concepts.

2) Most people would rather just avoid or gloss over topics that are uncomfortable, especially when race is involved. They are also more likely to become defensive as opposed to receptive when their beliefs or cultural views are challenged.

While it is difficult to anticipate just who among us will be most hesitant or resistant to discussing controversial topics related to race, a recent report from Heterodox estimates that the number could be as high as 6 in 10 Americans, with the vast majority of these folks being white. This does not necessarily mean that white people are inherently more racist or resistant compared to others, however we do have to acknowledge the inherent privilege whites have in avoiding unpleasant experiences around race and, when it is discussed, it is usually white people who are defining the terms under which such a discussion takes place. For example, we can talk about George Washington, but only as the founder and hero, not as the unapologetic slave owner and aggressive pursuer of runaways.

Prior to his passing, Congressmen and Civil Right Leader John Lewis wrote an opt-ed in which he discussed this crucial conversation as essential to redeeming the “soul of our country.” He optimistically insisted that “ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America” But gaining extraordinary vision requires many to undergo a perspective shift, and an uncomfortable one at that.

There are many ideas around how to best to invite those most resistant into these conversations, but one thing is certain; people need to expand their perspectives in order to do this work, and invitations into perspectives shifts is something that national parks are positioned to do very well. In addition to perspective, parks come with guides.

As we have discussed in a previous post that teaching controversial history, interpretive staff understand that visitors have plenty of choice in the way they learn, and calling someone’s beliefs out as “racist” is the quickest way to make a guest leave with their inaccurate and negative beliefs intact or, at worst, confirmed. When dealing with charged topics that connect directly to present-day racial or identity issues, parks are uniquely positioned to be tools towards this end for several reasons because;

· Park interpreters follow a strict code when discussing critical issues. Their approach to learning is apolitical and specific to the audience they are engaging with, leading to greater engagement.

· Research shows that if you’re trying to change someone’s mind regarding a tightly held belief, the most effective method it to help them realize the error in their thinking on their own. Interpretive programs provide a balanced and

· Educational progressive John Dewey once said “Democracy begins in conversation” and the dialogic approach that is practiced widely within the NPS lends itself to learning through conversation as opposed to confrontation.

· Parks, as federally managed places of learning, may be more insulated from state rules and mandates on what can and can’t be taught. This can be helpful to classroom teachers or state-funded educational workers because they are free of pressure brought on by using funding as leverage.

· Nat’l parks are built around “free choice learning” or design their educational programs with multiple ways for guests to learn, many of which are independent and absent peer pressure that could result in someone not being willing to consider new information that might put them at odds with the group they are visiting with.

· It is easy to misrepresent, deny, or obfuscate facts when they exist solely as part of the medium that can be ignored, edited, or simply turned past, like a textbook or an ideologs YouTube channel. But when it is physically in front of you or takes the form of a building or a stone monument, you have to admit that it, and the point of view it represents, exists.

· Park rangers acknowledge that the issues their park interprets are constantly evolving, and instead of calling out a point of view as wrong, they use their deep knowledge of the park to offer audiences “something else to consider” rather than telling them what they believe is outright wrong.

Part of the reason why the above strategies are so useful, especially in park settings, is because of the environment of the park itself. The majority of park visitors do not wake up, pack up their van, and drive across the country because they are looking for an opportunity to be racist or start a fight, they go to parks to recreate and to learn something. They go because parks, whoever we are and however misguided our beliefs, are for everyone, and perhaps leveraging these truths along with the strategies mentioned earlier can help build bridges across cultural chasms when little else seems to provide the same.


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