Saturday, July 28, 2007

Just returned from another of our wildly successful NPS bus tours ...

Today's was another in a yearlong series of bus tours that began as an experiment designed to involve the Richmond community in park-building with us. Unlike other national parks, Rosie the Riveter is situated on scattered sites throughout the city, and where the NPS owns little or nothing. There are no scenics falls or canyons, no Mt. Rushmores or Old Faithfuls or Civil War Battlefields, or parades of statuary on the Capitol Mall. The area was congressionally designated without precise boundaries. We do have the Rosie Memorial at the shoreline which was its genesis. We're defined by rusting still-existing structures from the World War II period that are privately-owned or are the property of the Redevelopment Agency, the City of Richmond, or organizations that purchased them to be adapted for other more current uses. Therefore, with a variety of partners -- we're co-creating a new national park -- and making it up as we go along. I don't remember ever a time or project that created more interest -- either in me -- or in those who are sharing the adventure with us. Little-by-little, this park is being defined by the human stories it is yielding -- with the structures, the shipyards, SS Red Oak Victory, the Kaiser Permanente and Maritime housing, the beautiful Ford Assembly Building (and the site -- eventually -- of our Reception Center), medical facilities, and prefabrication sites providing the background to those stories.

It is all so fluid at this point that it's is hard to see what form it will eventually take, which makes it all the more exciting. We're building ourselves a national park and you can feel the excitement as it unfolds and takes shape before our eyes with each of these trips into the past.

We're still in the process of identifying those relevant sites that are scattered throughout the city, and in order to do that, we invite groups of folks to board our small bus (18-passengers), and for 3 hours follow a guided tour during which (if we're lucky) our "tourists" slowly become participants in the re-living of the story of the Home Front experience from as many angles as there are people on the bus. The experience is astounding!

The fact that we're re-living times that were triumphant when viewed from the perspective of the progress made in the shipbuilding industry; times that were excruciatingly painful for the black community that entered into one of the greatest migration stories in our nation's history; a time so devastating for the Japanese-Americans shamefully interned in relocation centers for the duration; and a time that was so freeing to the women who were entering the nation's work force for the first time ... with each bus load carrying at least a few who lived some parts of those stories. Layer-upon-layer we've been peeling the onion back to a time of unprecedented social change in the nation's history, and doing it honestly, with candor, and without rancor.

Initially, it was my role as a community outreach consultant to create each group by invitation. Over the past year our past and present mayors, city manager, most department heads, some city council members, school teachers, business and professional leaders, church folks, a few teens mixed in with others, elders, all in a healthy mix of races and ethnicities have come along for the ride. There have been to date over two hundred "tourists." At one point in doing my audit I discovered to my joy that exactly 52% of our riders were African American. In lesser numbers were Latinos, with the rest of European descent. But then I was carefully controlling the makeup of the groups -- being careful to have them balanced racially, and in every other way possible. It worked beautifully. But there were some who were missing. We've had few people of Asian ancestry and none of the newer immigrants; the fairly large Sikh community or an equally substantive community of Laotians that arrived in the Bay Area as refugees after the collapse of the Vietnam War. These groups, of course, are a part of the more current migration story -- but perhaps it's too early for that kind of interpretation. We'll have to work on it.

Over the past month, we've opened the tours up to the general public. No more choreographing. Flyers were sent out. Announcements were made through the media, and a great item was published in the local newspaper by one of several reporters who've joined us from time to time. The response was overwhelming, so much so that the six tours (3 each in July and August) were oversubscribed within 4 hours of the article's release. All week I spent much of my day returning telephone calls to would-be "tourists" explaining the dilemma and promising to add their names to a bulging Wait List. But the past two groups have been totally European-American without a single person of color on board. Interesting. But not to worry. We're allowing folks to self-select now and our next scheduled group will be larger (27) and will consist of 10 African American members from Easter Hill United Methodist Church among others, a Japanese American woman from Berkeley, and a family of 3 Chinese-Americans who have history as workers on the Home Front. Another tour in mid-August will have a group of ten African American teens (14-17) from a training program -- with their director who I believe is from Nigeria. It's an exciting thought that those youngsters will be mixed in with a group of racially-mixed adults in order to encourage the direct transmission of that history to occur. The buy-in by the community is showing up in meaningful ways.

How will we deal with the overflow? Our management team has granted us permission to add two more August dates, and in addition, we're graduating from an 18 passenger model rental bus to one that holds 22 -- and for all 5 tours. However, by the time this was accomplished, my Wait List had accumulated an additional 50 names! Groups are now calling to request permission to come with their own bus (public-address-system equipped), and wanting to know if we can provide guides-only? October will see 40 members of the California Pioneers of Santa Clara County (esta. 1875) touring the still-forming Rosie the Riveter World War II/Home Front Historical National Park with two guides (I'm one) at the helm. Another group of 24 from San Francisco called to ask if we could meet them at the local Bay Area Rapid District (BART) because they like to use public transit when possible... .

And tomorrow's *West County Times Sunday edition is doing a feature story on the park and our tours and then the carefully adjusted expanded system will crash!

Come the last weekend in September we will be hosting with partners (Chamber of Commerce, the City of Richmond, and others) the 1st Annual two-day Home Front Festival. Save the date. And -- only after that date -- after October 1st -- we'll resume public bus tours and, hopefully, we'll have gained control over our popularity and the growing enthusiasm of our audience!

Success is surely the proverbial double-edged sword.

*National Park in Richmond honors women who reshaped workforce during World War II : WARTIME HEROES, The Sunday Times, West County, Sunday, July 29, 2007.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Toss your walkers, your dentures, and fling your hearing aids skyward. "We can do it" too!

Would have written sooner, but I was busy getting my keys to the tree house, and everything had to be put on hold while I was being properly badged and hatted for re-entry into the workforce (as if I ever left). As unlikely as it may sound, I'm now a full-fledged National Park Ranger and I'm even wearing regulation brown socks, courtesy of our General Superintendent. (But I vowed long ago to go easy on mentioning the actual names of others in my life lest I invade someone's privacy. Learned that from one of my son's who shall be nameless.)

At an age where most have been retired for at least 25 years, I've just started another career. And -- I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm having an amazing adventure that will probably come to an end only on that day when I wake up and look for my bright and shining brass name plate (neatly placed over my right breast pocket) to figure out just who I am and what in the world this woman is doing driving to the office in my little red Beamer with my fancy-schmancy ranger hat topping her blue flannel pajamas!

Last Friday was my first day actually in uniform after several years of being a contract worker for the Trust which supports Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front Historical National Park. In that role I've been consciously aware of the privilege and responsibility of working with a national park in its earliest stages of development. The chance to help to shape what this park will be -- even in the seemingly inconsequential ways open to someone in the lower ranks of the hierarchy -- is awesome -- in the best sense of that overused word.

Though my work life started relatively late. (I didn't seriously enter the work force until my children were grown and I was nearly 50.) Since that time I've been lucky to have held a succession of great positions that -- together -- led to where I am now. Nothing was wasted; not a single month, day, or hour. And it all came at a time when I was fully mature with an impressive time line in exciting eras of political change; with an awareness of where I fit into it all; and with an enthusiasm that kept me contemporary every step of the way.

I thought of all that yesterday as city staffers began to file into our work space (the Park's temporary Reception Center is hosted by the City of Richmond in City Hall) to take a look at me in full regalia. It feels as if I've become symbolic of something truly important. I am a woman of color. In a strange way, through my work with the National Park Service -- we've all arrived at some new place. It feels as though we're all standing under this distinctive straw hat -- only I'm the official wearer of the moment. Some young woman will inherit this role at some point when I'm no longer around; what a humbling thought. What an amazing way to enter into a new trajectory of national life while helping to preserve the old and its lessons. In some strange way I appear to represent it all.

Much of this crossed my mind as I stood against the wall of the makeshift chapel with the other Rangers at yesterday afternoon's powerful commemoration of the tragic Port Chicago Explosion of July 17, 1944. I was there among the remaining veterans of a tiny group of survivors; family members of survivors; other National Park Service personnel; Armed Forces and Maritime Service representatives; all gathered to honor those young lives lost long ago. I could close my eyes and still bring to consciousness the trauma of that awful night when -- miles away in Berkeley -- the silence was shattered by the fury of that awful blast as it broke through our sleep. Some of the lives that were lost had been at an innocent afternoon party only hours before in our little apartment. They'd left hurriedly to make it back to Port Chicago before curfew ... .

I never knew their names.

... and here it was. Betty the Old with Betty the Contemporary, and both awed by the wonder of it all ... .