Background: I'd described the frustration I was feeling in not participating in a volatile climate of rage being experienced throughout the city due to growing racial tensions being driven by forces let loose by misguided though well-intentioned players. I'm being urged by friends to weigh in on the heated debate that is threatening the peace and increasing the risk of who knows what? I'd cited the restraints as imposed by the Hatch Act for all federal employees which limits participation in specific ways. I realized (sheepishly!) after a sleepless night that I just might be using those limitations to keep myself from becoming mired in the disastrous effects that have made the city nearly ungovernable. We've reached a state of dysfunction that defies logic and that is paralyzing the process of governance. The frustrations are shared; the answers, elusive.
Betty Reid Soskin
This conversation is undoubtedly one that we've all needed to have, but we're veering into sensitive territory in the last few posts, and I think we need re-directing -- also known as National Park Service 101:
First, no one -- over the ten years of my association with the NPS -- has ever censored my speech, limited my freedom, or tried to rein me in in any way. I've worked in a supportive environment at all times, with complete trust in my judgment. I've made speeches before the public without anyone ever asking to preview the text, up to and including my recent Naturalization Day keynote address which was co-sponsored by two federal agencies. I enjoy local, regional, and national support throughout the agency. So much for imposed restraint. I am only restrained by my own integrity and rather uncommon common sense.
Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park is a new kind of national park in that we own none of the sites which are being restored and interpreted to tell the stories of women's worker roles and those of the Home Front mobilization; a partnership park. We partner with private owners, nonprofits, county offices, corporations, etc., our major partner being the City of Richmond.
Our ranger staff is as scattered throughout the city as are the sites that define the park. Ranger Paul Scolari, cultural resources chief, and his ranger crew of Veronica, Isabel and Sara, work with NURVE and the Richmond Museum of History, and the SS Red Oak Victory. Rangers Lucien Sonder and Craig Riordan and Raphael Allen work with the Maritime Child Development Center, the Richmond Community Foundation, the YMCA and affiliated agencies in the Rosie's Girls program. Ranger Matt Holmes, education specialist, does teacher training, youth programming and environmental work -- partnering with school districts throughout the area. There are others doing equally fine work with the County and beyond, all toward the goal of assisting this host City to reconstruct its illustrious past in order to take its place among the great national parks in the system; Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, GGNRA, Harpers Ferry, etc, for the visitors from the rest of the nation and the world.
It would not occur to me to invite myself into any of their community meetings out of uniform and attempt to be "Betty Soskin, Private Citizen." Where in the past I might have become involved in any of these efforts, this is no longer appropriate since I have another important role to play these days, one especially fitting given my personal history. I've been given access to a charming little theater in which to set up my imaginary soap box to present to a growing audience an uncensored message of truth, fairness, and justice, in a historical context -- for two full hours each week -- 2:00-3:00 -- each Tuesday and Saturday afternoon. I also represent the voices of the un- and under-represented in talks far and wide, on university and college campuses; at corporate gatherings; before organized labor union events; state and federal agencies; and service organizations. That's a tall order and a great honor and privilege.
In the process, since we're in uncharted territory in building this unique urban park, I've been allowed to improvise my way toward the creation of a new non-coercive leadership model (the kind that says,"follow me, but only if you really want to") as we, together, bring this park into being.
Now for the Hatch Act and my reluctance to take on the negative forces in these troubled times:
Even without those restraints I would be foolish to trade that power for what would mean a minute-and-a-half to two minutes of words in the public hearing portion of a raucus council meeting. And since the NPS is a tenant of the city with our administrative offices now located in the Civic Center, there are complex relationships to be maintained between Superintendent Tom Leatherman and/or Deputy Superintendent Sue Fritzke who have on-going negotiations with the mayor's office, the city manager, and on occasion, the city council. They shouldn't have to trip over "Betty Soskin, Private Citizen" when they enter those chambers, one reason you rarely see me at council meetings, though no one has ever suggested that I not attend in whatever identity I might wish to use at any given time.
Let's say I do attend and sign up to speak to make the case for my private citizen's point of view; do my two minutes then walk out into the lobby, take the elevator to the third floor, swipe my I.D. card against the security mechanism while listening for the click of the unlocking of the door, and enter my cubicle in the offices of the National Park Service -- just above the heads of the council in session three floors below. So much for "Betty Soskin, Private Citizen." With the swiping of that card my private citizen self has disappeared down the rabbit hole with Alice!
Which leads us back to -- either I retire from the greatest position I've ever held in order to officially go on the public record against the impossibly volatile situation the city is currently trapped in, or, I find some way to hold on to my integrity by continuing to provide that model of leadership which may, over time, be helpful to the creation of much-needed change.
I see no quick fixes here, guys. And maybe I see those Hatch Act prohibitions as a safe haven against impossible odds, at least at this moment. One more drowning citizen in that swamp of rage may not be helpful to anyone. And maybe I'll shelve that retirement talk until another day ... .
But we need to keep talking ... I see this kind of sharing as a part of the answers we're desperately seeking. Besides, someone needs to stay afloat with the life raft to summon help if all else fails!
Note: Did I remember to tell you that my code name during the Black Revolution of the Sixties was Chicken Little?