Ranger Betty Reid Soskin sits in front of the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National
Historical Park Visitor Education Center. NPS Photo, Luther Bailey
Amelia Lowe, Chesapeake Conservation Corps Member at Chesapeake Conservancy
Tell the stories. And tell them again. By now, it seems unlikely that anyone has not heard of Ranger Betty Reid Soskin. We’re telling it again, just to be sure everyone has heard of this phenomenal woman, and channeling her message. So this week we would like to use the Lightning Update as an opportunity to wish Ranger Betty a happy birthday and recognize her contributions to the National Park Service (NPS). At 100 years old, Betty is the oldest active NPS ranger, serving at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California. Ranger Betty’s centennial birthday celebration provides a special opportunity to appreciate her as a pioneer in the National Park Service, championing equity and inclusion.
Ranger Betty joined NPS in the early 2000s after attending a meeting on the development of the park. She found Rosie the Riveter an insufficient icon to represent all women’s experiences during World War II; seeing the symbol as telling the story from white women’s perspective. During the War, Betty worked as a file clerk in a segregated portion of the traditionally all-white Boilermakers Union. She wanted visitors of the proposed park to understand the experience and contributions of African American women in addition to white women. Becoming a ranger has allowed her to share her story and the African-American wartime experience, emphasizing the importance of preserving a historical narrative that remembers the legacy of people from all backgrounds. Although known as the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Park, the park makes an effort to tell the stories of not only women during the war, but the roles of Japanese American flower growers in Richmond, CA who were sent to internment camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Mexican American braceros who came to the U.S. on short-term labor contracts, and the railway workers from pueblos in New Mexico. Ranger Betty raised awareness to the importance of inclusive storytelling, emphasizing the fact that everybody has a story to tell.
“What gets remembered depends on who is in the room doing the remembering”1
– Betty Reid Soskin
NPS Photo, Luther Bailey
Over the years, Betty has found ways to tell her story and that of other African Americans through music (as a singer-songwriter), activism, writing (check out her powerful blog, CBreaux Speaks), as well as through her interpretive programs at the park.
Tom Leatherman, park superintendent since 2010, said “what leaves him in ‘awe,’ …is her ability to connect with visitors and show them that history belongs to, and is made by, everyone. ‘Betty has an amazing ability to share her own story in a really personal and vulnerable way — not so people know more about her, but so they understand that they too have a story. …We all have a history — and it’s just as important as the history we learn in school.’”2
This idea of equitably remembering and presenting history is particularly pertinent in the conservation field. Whether we are conserving our natural resources or preserving history, in addition to the existing communities, it is important to become informed about the people and communities that came before us and how they were impacted by and had an impact on natural resources and an area’s history. Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (DEIJ) are on the forefront of conservation agendas. Understanding the history of people, places, and communities is essential to achieve DEIJ. Ranger Betty and her storytelling of the African American experience during WWII is one way in which history is not only preserved, but used to inform, promoting DEIJ within the National Park System.
NPS Photo, Luther Bailey
On a more personal note, I would like to share the effect that learning about individuals like Ranger Betty has on me, a young professional. Having recently graduated from college and joined the green career workforce, I find it important to reflect on the work and accomplishments of those who come before me. I often hear a variation of the opinion that my generation is bringing refreshing ideas and energy to the workforce, but I think that idea goes both ways. Learning about and experiencing the hard work and dedication of those that came before me is reinvigorating. Graduating from college and facing the exciting, yet daunting idea of potentially working for the next forty (or more) years provides for some hesitation and questioning of interests and future career paths. Learning about individuals who are closer to the end of their careers than the beginning and their accomplishments, dedication and in many cases several role changes is refreshing and inspiring as I consider my future. Ranger Betty is a particularly notable individual in this regard given her work toward preserving history in an inclusive and equitable manner as well as the many roles she held throughout her professional life. Regardless of career field, Ranger Betty’s work towards inclusivity and equity through storytelling at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Park should be taken as an example of how we all can work toward greater equity and inclusion in our efforts and to make sure all people have the ability to share their stories and perspectives.
Ms. Soskin selecting flowers a month before her wedding in 1942 to her first husband, Mel Reid.
Image: E.F. Joseph, via NPS, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front NHP, RORI 5021
If you are interested in learning more about Ranger Betty or hearing her speak, the National Park Service is hosting an informal talk with her this Thursday, September 30th from 5 to 6pm (EST). Visit Rosie the Riveter NHP’s website for more information and access to the virtual talk.
1Jennifer Schuessler, “‘America’s Oldest Park Ranger Is Only Her Latest Chapter,” New York Times, September 22, 2021.
Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at success.chesapeakeconservation.org, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.