By TIMARKO MITCHELL SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE
LITTLE ROCK — Until a year ago, I had never set foot in a national park. Now, I’m taking my first step toward a park career. My journey has been influenced by many, and my goal now is to do the same for others.
As a black college senior, I’m not your typical candidate for a Smokey Bear hat. Few black people work for or even visit national parks.
But this week, students of color from around the country are at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming for NPS Academy, a one-week crash course in National Park Service careers. The parks system figures a more diverse work force will help attract more diverse visitors.
Although I am new to national parks, I’ve always been into conservation. I believe since people inflict the greatest impact on our Earth, we have to take responsibility for the integrity of our environment. But I never thought about working for the Park Service until last year, when a speaker came to my school—the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff—and urged minority candidates to start applying for park jobs.
Fifteen years in classrooms, and this was the first time I remembered anyone mentioning national parks. I became curious and visited some federal parks in Arkansas, including Little Rock Central High School, a national historic site from the civil rights era.
Sure, I knew of Central High, but I could not have predicted the impact of standing on the very spot where nine black students, under an armed escort, defied a mob of protesters and forced school integration. It changed my perspective on the past. And it changed my plans for the future.
Within days, I heard that the Student Conservation Association (SCA), a nonprofit organization that offers environmental internships, was recruiting students for NPS Academy. Again, someone was telling me I should try to get a job with the Park Service. So I applied and now here I am in the Tetons with a chance to learn the parks’ culture, gain real experience and get my foot in the door. After this week, I’ll be a park ambassador until summer, when I’ll get an SCA internship to help prepare me for my park career.
I’m excited about sharing the vital role of black people in the founding of so many national parks and historical landmarks. Sites such as the Lincoln Memorial and the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site not only reflect milestones in black history, but in our nation’s history as well.
I feel that as my peers and members of my community come to understand this, they will be more interested in visiting these sites and sharing the connections that now course through my own being.
I feel fortunate to have discovered our national parks, monuments, battlefields and historic sites. They are permanent gifts to our country, touchstones of a common legacy. In many ways, they represent the soul of America. I recently changed my major to Parks and Community Recreation and look forward to helping other people—young and old, of all colors and cultures—celebrate our diverse national heritage.
All I can think about is what an honor it will be to serve as a catalyst for my community.
The newest national park is the memorial in Washington, D.C., to Dr. Martin Luther King who said “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?”
No one could ever fill his shoes, but working with the National Park Service will allow me to follow in King’s footsteps and make my own contribution to the remarkable legacy of our national parks.
Timarko Mitchell is a senior at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and volunteer with the Student Conservation Association.
Editorial, Pages 13 on 03/08/2012
Print Headline: A proud legacy