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A Message from National Park Foundation President and CEO Will Shafroth

During this past week I have had a hard time juxtaposing all that was happening around me; the beauty of spring turning to summer while at the same time witnessing grief and despair in almost every direction I turned. I found myself both uncomfortable and upset, trying to figure out how best to channel my energy and angst.

How do you come to terms with 100,000 people in this country being lost to Coronavirus, in just over two months? It is an astounding loss of life.

On top of that, 40 million people are out of work, a number never known before in our country, with all the stress and uncertainty that being unemployed brings.

And how do you ever come to terms with the senseless and awful death of George Floyd at the hands of a uniformed police officer. The images haunt me, the cries for help are hard to get out of my head. Mr. Floyd’s death was stunning in its brutality and stark in its utter lack of humanity. I am left overwhelmingly saddened for both Mr. Floyd’s family and for our nation as a whole. We all have lost something profound.

And, of course, George Floyd’s death wasn’t a first but rather was another of what has become a too long line of Black Americans who have lost their lives to an act of grave injustice. So, while much of America grieves, this reality has caused especially acute pain and anguish across the Black community and we cannot look away as though this were not so.

How do you come to terms with all of this? I am not sure you ever do. How do you make it right? I am not sure we can. But I know we must try.

All of this has caused me to reflect upon what we at the National Park Foundation do as an organization, our mission. We work every day to ensure that our national parks can achieve their fullest potential and positively impact as many people as possible, regardless of their race, creed or who they love. It is important work and it has direct relevance for our society today. But how can we do it better? What is our role in helping to heal a nation that is grieving and apart?

Our parks mean many different things to different people. For some, they offer a place of comfort and solace. Others may find wonder and awe. I appreciate, however, that not all people share these experiences; that still, some Americans do not feel at peace in our parks and we need to work on this as an essential part of our mission until they do.

But one essential attribute our parks offer us all is that they tell the American story, in all of its glory and imperfections. From Point Comfort in Virginia where the first enslaved Africans arrived in America in 1619; to the heroism of Harriet Tubman more than 200 hundred years later; to Camp Nelson where 10,000 African-American men enlisted in the Union Army after the end of slavery; to the bravery of the Freedom Riders as they fought the Jim Crow laws of the segregated South, and, of course, to the home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King in Atlanta, where the civil rights movement was organized. These sites – and many more – are all part of the National Park System and they all tell a vitally important story of who we are as a nation.

And they are all places where the National Park Foundation has played a role in telling these important stories – which needs to continue to be our role in these turbulent times. The work we are doing through the generosity of the Fund II Foundation and our relationship with NPS, for example, is enabling us to do for the country what it needs right now. We can help provide perspective – the long view that our nation has been through tough times and hardship and struggle for its nearly 250 years. That our work to create a more perfect union is ongoing and not a straight line; there are setbacks along the way that will help inform our journey going forward.

These recent events have caused me to think about what more the National Park Foundation can do to contribute to our nation in this time. How can we support the National Park Service to do more to discover and tell the important stories – both famous as well as those that have never been heard before - that need to be told? How can we make parks truly welcoming to all of our citizens so all can experience their awe and wonder and beauty? In short, how best can we advance our mission to support parks in greater service of the challenges our society faces today?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to these pressing questions, but I am committed to trying to find them. But to do so will require all of us in the national parks community to engage in this discussion and grapple with some hard truths.

And at NPF, we have our own work to do. We need to make sure all of NPF’s employees feel a sense of belonging. We must look at all we do with an ever-vigilant eye to ensure that bias, intentional or unconscious, has not compromised our efforts. And, we need to begin to take action now and get help from those skilled in navigating these challenging conversations.

Finally, in all that we do, let us be sure to approach our work with openness and each other with compassion and kindness. Let us invite others into our national park movement and make sure they feel welcome when they are here. Together, let us all celebrate a common commitment to parks and true equality for all.

I look forward to this journey. I hope you will join me.

Will Shafroth