The push to remove the country’s Confederate statues has been a heated front in the country’s modern racial justice movement. A larger question underlies that effort: Does the way the nation has protected and memorialized our places truly tell the story of America?
To put it another way, can all Americans see themselves in the spaces we choose to honor, and if not, how can we get there?
It’s a question the National Park Service has been making earnest efforts to answer in recent years, building out a series of initiatives to honor American heritage well beyond war memorials and natural landscapes. And considering the Park Service’s high-profile budget woes, doing so has naturally meant drawing in private support.
The latest example is a nearly $1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to the National Park Foundation to establish the National Park Service Mellon Humanities Fellows, three new research positions that will allow the service to expand its storytelling of labor, civil rights and equality history. The grant will fund one fellow to work under a leading expert in one of three fields: gender and sexual equality, the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, and the history of labor and productivity.
In addition to conducting original research related to each subject, fellows will work with NPS to create interpretive and educational resources while pursuing research relevant to their own careers. Funding comes from Mellon, a prominent higher ed funder and one of the most important backers of the humanities.
The fellowships were established as part of the Centennial Campaign for America’s National Parks, an effort that went public early last year to raise hundreds of millions to supplement the park system’s stagnant federal budget. The fundraising drive is run by the National Park Foundation, the government agency’s charitable partner that rallies philanthropic support, and the campaign is the largest since it was founded in 1967. The park service has struggled for sufficient funding for years, and has a national maintenance backlog of around $12 billion.
If the Mellon fellowship sounds a little "woke" (in the overused parlance of our times) for an agency that maintains trails and visitors centers, consider that the National Park Service has a broad reach and educational mission. The system oversees 417 nationally significant areas such as battlegrounds, memorials and historic sites. In fact, more than two-thirds of its sites are established for historic significance.
“Strong private support is key to expanding the power of parks as living classrooms, for all ages,” said Will Shafroth, president of the National Park Foundation, in the grant announcement.
The NPS’s efforts to connect memorialized places with the full spectrum of the American experience has been in the works for a while now, including a series of heritage initiatives exploring women’s history, Latino heritage, Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage and more.
In 2016, the service released a comprehensive tome of a study called “LGBTQ America: A Theme Study of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History,” which explores preservation of the community’s heritage and historic sites. That study was funded by the Gill Foundation, started by software entrepreneur and LGBTQ advocate Tim Gill.
The Obama administration in 2016 added the first national monument recognizing the struggle for gay rights at the site of the 1969 Stonewall Riots, and that same year, established the Freedom Riders National Monument.
In addition to being part of its mission to serve a diverse public, this kind of push to tell more diverse stories is important to the park service’s longevity and support, in that it engages more people with our protected sites. Note that a large theme of the Centennial Campaign has been to encourage more people to find personal connections to parks.
The National Park Service has been in a tight funding spot for some time now, prompting a larger embrace of fundraising and sponsorships, which has not always been well received. Under the Trump administration, the agency has found itself in an even more precarious position, facing threats of shrinking monuments and funding cuts, and even outright adversarial moments. One interesting thing about this grant is that private funding is allowing NPS to continue expanding in areas of work that the current federal budget and political leadership might not otherwise consider a high priority.