Beyond Parks for All
Our spring 2020 newsletter opened with a tribute to parks titled “Where We All Belong.” While it was a comforting message at the time, a lot has happened since then. In retrospect, we were too timid. The headline was gauzy. We hinted at the realities of inequity (“We must make sure that ALL residents…have easy access to the health, environmental, and social benefits of green space”) and gave a slight nod to politics (“Parks are where democracy happens”).
As we consider all the work of Seattle Parks Foundation over the last twenty years, we are reflecting on the language we’ve used to frame that work. Our clarion call was “Parks for All,” which was the campaign slogan for the 2008 parks levy and the 2014 park district campaign. It’s a worthy aspiration but one that avoids any reckoning with the long history of systemic racial exclusion that has stood in the way of that aspiration actually being realized.
When we describe our parks and public spaces as “shared spaces” where everyone belongs, we negate the lived reality of many thousands of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color who do not feel welcome or safe in those spaces, whose stories do not show up there, and who lack access to park and recreational amenities in their neighborhoods that are found in abundance elsewhere in the city.
Over the past several years, Seattle Parks Foundation has devoted a significant share of its staff and financial resources to supporting community groups and projects in neighborhoods impeded by generations of inadequate investment in quality public spaces. But we haven’t been explicit about this focus. As a white-led organization we were hesitant to “brag” about our commitments to park equity. Let the work speak for itself. But language obviously does matter and our concerns about people’s perceptions of Seattle Parks Foundation have kept us from making the strongest possible case for the importance of this work.
As advocates for the health, environmental, and community benefits of our parks and public spaces, Seattle Parks Foundation must first and foremost acknowledge, talk about, and do everything we can to redress how racism has skewed the distribution of those benefits away from the communities that have needed them most.
In our twenty years of working on community-led public space projects, we’ve seen time and time again that the hardest parks to get built are in neighborhoods that have suffered from chronic under-investment and historic segregationist policies, like red lining. To this day, these communities still lack access to the donors, businesses, and elected officials that are instrumental in the process of building and maintaining parks.
Starting now, Seattle Parks Foundation is significantly scaling up its fundraising and advocacy efforts to support groups in these historically marginalized communities. Our key commitments include the following:
- To provide substantially more direct financial support, as a percentage of our budget, to community leaders and organizations in underserved communities, to address public space gaps
- To actively and deeply educate individual and institutional donors about park and public space projects in underserved communities, to meet the needs and reflect the aspirations of their residents
- To advocate for significantly greater public-sector investment in community leaders of color and the park projects they champion
- To examine in greater depth how we perpetuate racial bias within our own organization and throughout the public space system, so we can change how we work, invest, and advocate
This fall, we will share with you a portfolio of high-impact initiatives that we will invite you to support. We are confident you will be moved to step up. You have always been there for parks, and you have always been there for Seattle Parks Foundation. You are a member of an enormous community of volunteers, donors, and advocates who have taught us to think differently, work differently, and never forget that how we care for our parks is the story of how we care for one another.
The title of that newsletter piece resonated for some folks and not so much for others. Simply declaring that “we all belong” in parks does not make it true. But the work of making it true belongs to all of us.
With gratitude always,
Thatcher, Michelle, Kiyomi, Robert, Jason, Shava, Kutira, Sarah, Andrea