The National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA) is the leading nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the role that public parks, recreation, and conservation have in enhancing everyone’s quality of life. NRPA’s 60,000 members leverage their roles as both park and recreation professionals and advocates for conservation, health, and social equity to improve their communities, which range from dense urban neighborhoods to rural counties.
We first spoke with Rachel about equity in early 2018, when she was a Program Manager on NRPA’s Health and Wellness team. We recently reconnected to learn how NRPA’s approach to equity has advanced during the last year and a half, and about Rachel’s new role as Director of Park Access.
Could you share more about this role and how it fits into NRPA’s commitment to social equity?
This is a new role not just for me, but also within NRPA, and I think it’s a really important step in the direction of advancing social equity. It fits into the Partnerships and Programs team, which oversees NRPA’s strategic partnerships and works with other programs and departments to build programs on key topics such as park access, resiliency, and healthy living. In this role, I oversee a number of initiatives to advance equitable access to great parks, including the 10-Minute Walk campaign and park improvements across the country. We work directly with local park and recreation agencies by providing technical assistance, capacity building, professional development and coaching around communications, planning policies, and funding, as well as looking at how all that work gets funded on the ground.
We intentionally fund park improvements in communities with the highest need, and in under-served areas as defined by race, income, and age. We also consider population density and transportation access. To do this, we use the Social Vulnerability Index. It’s been transformative for us, because it compiles all those indicators and provides an objective measure for advancing equity. Our agencies use similar tools to make decisions about allocating funds and resources. Because of this tool, our processes have been more equitable.
These are great examples of how NRPA has made intentional efforts to address equity in its work. Since we last connected, how has NRPA worked to advance equity internally, as an organization?
We just welcomed a new CEO, Kristine Stratton, who started at the beginning of June! On day one, she began developing a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Plan to address both internal practices and external efforts to ensure equity across all the organization’s practices. For example, we’re changing hiring practices to ensure diversity and putting together other formal policies. In the past, we’ve had one-off trainings or a few teams devoted to equity, but now we have something that’s much more intentional and that all of us will contribute to and participate in.
It’s only been a month since the DEI planning started, so things are still developing, but there’s much more to come! One of our organizational values is continuous improvement, so we’re excited to continue improving our equity practices.
“In the past, we’ve had one-off trainings or a few teams devoted to equity, but now we have something that’s much more intentional.”
These are inspiring changes! How has this new DEI Plan affected how NRPA works externally with communities?
Many of our trainings, such as those offered within the 10-Minute Walk campaign, examine the intended and unintended consequences of policies in order to understand what’s happened in the past, what’s currently happening, and what the future looks like. NRPA also has Park Metrics, which allow park and recreation departments to enter data like acres per person as well as national benchmarking numbers. We encourage professionals to dive deeper into these metrics and look at such things as gaps in access and inequities in maintenance funds. Currently, we don’t have a formal framework, but we walk people through the things they should be thinking about and offer tools like our Community Engagement Guide to inform that process.
You’ll also see changes not only in our grant-driven work, but also in our certificate programs and certification processes. We’re looking at adding a scholarship to increase diversity among people who become certified park and recreation professionals. We continually see that the communities we represent have a lot of knowledge, and we want to use that knowledge to inform a national conversation by connecting local leaders to national networks.
One of the key ways we do this is through the NRPA Annual Conference. The DEI Plan helps us ensure that speakers and hosts better represent the diversity of the communities we support, and that facilities at the conference meet diverse needs, too. Among many other changes, the event will provide gender-neutral restrooms, breastfeeding rooms, and a quiet room for prayer and for people who need a sensory break.
NRPA also created the Safe Routes to Parks Action Framework, which was piloted in 10 communities. What are some of the most surprising or inspiring things you’ve learned from those communities’ work?
In addition to the 10 communities that piloted the Safe Routes to Parks Action Framework, the Safe Routes Partnership has also worked with an additional 20 communities. Four and half years into this work, I am still learning about new models of governance, and I continue to hear success stories from these communities, because this work takes time when it’s done right. A few examples stand out to me:
“Four and half years into this work, I am still learning about new models of governance and funding from communities.”
In Vigo County, IN, elected officials were invited to join a walking audit. That walk proved so transformative that partners were able to get a multi-million-dollar investment to add pedestrian infrastructure to a bridge that serves as a critical connection to economic opportunity and as a major state and local park. That was a huge win, because it was something the community had wanted for years.
In Athens-Clark County, GA, a community engagement process revealed that many people were creating informal “desire paths” between a local park and recreation center near a community college. The community was able to secure a federal Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) for a project that formalized those paths.
And in Pittsburgh, PA, we saw the most innovative community engagement process. A team of volunteers assembled a collection of GoPro cameras and set up a geocaching game. Teens wore the cameras to track how they were accessing parks and other places they needed to go throughout the day. The data they collected provided important insights for the Pittsburgh Park Conservancy, and told the story of park access in a compelling way.
What do you think is next for park advocacy, specifically around access and equity?
What’s been really striking to me are the inequities between communities and the resources that are available to them. For example, Camden, NJ has a $500,000 budget for 50,000 residents, which hardly provides enough funding to mow lawns. But other communities will have excess funding. It’s important for us to understand how and why resources are being distributed this way.
Gentrification and displacement pose other threats. We want to make sure that local parks and recreation departments have tools to address those issues. (For a deeper dive, take a look at this study.) We recently published the new Community Engagement Resource Guide: Creating Equitable Access To High-Performing Parks to help inform these conversations. We will also host a training at this year’s conference on this topic.
“Park and recreation departments tend to take the hardest hit when budgets are cut, because they’re seen as beneficial but not necessary. But we know that parks are a vital resource for communities’ health, the environment, and social resilience.”
One of the most significant challenges in this work continues to be lack of funding. Park and recreation departments tend the take the hardest hit when budgets are cut, because they’re seen as beneficial but not necessary. But we know that parks are a vital resource for communities’ health, the environment, and social resilience.
Now we just need folks to fund parks!