“It’s just a badge,” is what I kept telling myself. Over and over, I’d say it during my first years as the operations supervisor at Oxbow Regional Park. “It’s not as important as other diversity, equity and inclusion work that needs to get done.”
When I started in May of 2019, I was beyond excited to take on this new role in such a beautiful park with an incredibly passionate team of park rangers. But from my first day on the job I just couldn’t shake the unease circling in my mind after I met the park rangers and saw they were wearing a seven-point-star badge. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I learned park supervisors and managers are also deputized and wear the park badge on occasion – typically on busy weekends or during emergencies. The thought of wearing the badge made me uncomfortable, but I still wasn’t sure if anything would change if I mentioned my concerns.
Being from south Louisiana and a history major, I knew all too well what a star badge can represent. While today you will find a star badge on various law enforcement personnel, in North America one of its original purposes was to deputize slave catchers and legalize posses who raided Indigenous communities. These original forms of American “law” enforcement became the basis for some of the first police units, and the badge was part of that inheritance.
The star carries that history, weighing it with a great deal of negative meaning. Setting aside this history – which I don’t think you really can – the star badge signifies the wearer is an officer of the law. That was a mismatch for our rangers.
Looking at the work and the role of a park ranger, law enforcement is not their main job. The bulk of a park ranger’s time is spent on stewardship, ensuring facilities, accessible places and environmental efforts are sustained for the public. Next would be customer service and education. Lastly would be enforcement of park rules. Naturally this order varies from park to park and between different park systems, but this is what I observed were the goals of Metro park rangers. Therefore, it seemed out of place to see a badge that led with enforcement. And it was out of step with the work Metro was doing to create safe and welcoming places for all. As a Black woman whose family had been in the South for at least four generations and as a descendant of enslaved Africans, I felt unsafe because of the badge so I couldn’t feel welcomed.
But, I kept saying, “It’s just a badge.”
During my first year in the job, I observed, listened and learned. I observed how park rangers at Metro did their jobs; listened to work happening across the department related to diversity, equity and inclusion; and I learned more about the Parks and Nature department’s past, present and potential future in regard to our work and racial equity. The more I understood, the more I felt the current badge had no place in the work we did at Metro, and especially not in park operations. It didn’t support the racial equity goals we hoped to achieve.
In May of 2020, many of us found ourselves grieving over the death of Breonna Taylor. Then the nation and soon after the world erupted in grief and anger at the senseless murder of George Floyd Jr. and the clear abuse of power by the Minneapolis Police Department. I was a year into my job, struggling with my own anger and frustration, and I concluded that even if a step toward change seemed small it was both necessary and essential to take that step. While watching the news and trying to understand the events that led up to George Floyd Jr.’s murder, I watched a local news station read a message of condemnation on behalf of several local law enforcement agencies in response to the Minneapolis Police Department’s actions. Illustrating this statement of condemnation, badges from several local agencies came up on the screen. Most were five- or seven-point stars. It was hard, maybe impossible, to reconcile the statements with the racist origins of those symbols. When our badges were so similar, how could patrons come to a Metro park and see park rangers as anything other than law enforcement? How could our rangers create a safe and welcoming experience for Black and Brown park visitors?
In June of 2020, I started looking into what it would take to either change the current badge to one that is more inclusive or to get rid of it entirely. A few weeks later, I sent an email to my supervisors. I cited historical information surrounding star-shaped badges and their problematic history. I also collected images of local law enforcement agencies badges and park agencies badges to show the need for change. Along with revealing the problems of our badges, I wanted to show that we had a wonderful opportunity to create something more inclusive, something that celebrated the parks and patrons we serve.
I waited anxiously for a reply. Fortunately, I had a busy summer day at Oxbow to keep me distracted. When I checked my email at the end of the day, I was delighted to see an overwhelming amount of support to put a project plan together. Moreover, my supervisor gave me a call and stressed that my leading this project was optional, highlighting the fact that Black, Indigenous and people of color shouldn’t have to carry the burden of undoing racism and systematic oppression. I chose to lead the project, with my supervisor’s support to help when needed.
Unfortunately, this all happened in June of 2020, and, like many, I had no idea what was in store for us as life continued to shift around a global pandemic. Oxbow Regional Park never closed during the pandemic. Our park staff had the dedication and desire to continue providing safe and welcoming spaces when the public needed somewhere to go and simply be: be safe out of the house when we were all in lock down; be outdoors in the sun; and be doing something normal when so much felt unpredictable. With many of the Columbia Gorge’s parks closed, Oxbow became an even more important destination, while we made do with a staff reduced by half due to pandemic cuts.
Whenever I found free time, I worked on the badge project. It became a tether for me, something to focus on and keep pushing forward. I was joined by a team of smart and passionate colleagues who carved time from their work to join me. To ensure a diverse group of voices had input of this project I gathered three stakeholder groups. The first was the Equity Advisory Committee, a group of community members who advise on Parks and Nature department projects. Three internal staff members who work directly with communities of color: Isabel LaCourse, our Indigenous community liaison; Tara Miller, our community partnerships program manager; and Ruby Joy White, then our equity and racial justice program manager.
Lastly, most importantly, the park rangers. For this project to be a success it was crucial the park rangers were onboard. They had to wear the new badge or no badge at all. They were going to be affected just as much as patrons could be by this change, though in a very different way. Individually and in groups, many of my teammates were already reflecting on their work, thinking more deeply on how they enforced park rules, looking to be more mindful and trauma-informed in their approach. Out at Oxbow we were having almost weekly conversations around park rules, when to enforce them, how to enforce them, and ensuring we were all engaging with patrons as equitably as we could – all in a desire to foster safe and welcoming spaces. It was a rich ground to bring the discussion about our badge.
A regular concern among the rangers was that by losing the badge or changing it, they would lose their ability to enforce important safety rules. Without a badge, would the public even listen to them? This was understandable. Through the conversations, however, a consensus grew that a badge – a piece of metal – shouldn’t be the first tool used to engage with people, even if rules were being broken.
During the remainder of 2020 and throughout 2021, I held several formal meetings with stakeholders and numerous informal, often one-on-one conversations, to talk about possibilities. All of these conversations were necessary. They helped me and the park rangers see what was possible when we work to include everyone in the conversation. They were also painful at times. Everyone is at a different place in their understanding of diversity, equity, inclusion, justice and liberation work and what positive change can look like. It can be uncomfortable to embrace change when it affects something you feel supports you personally or professionally.
Through the wonderful conversations with stakeholders, it was clear most wanted to keep a badge in place but wanted to see it redesigned. First and foremost was a desire to encapsulate nature on the badge. Being able to have nature represented is one of the main things that helps distinguish a park ranger badge from law enforcement. It also a point of connection between a ranger and a park visitor. Nature and a passion for the outdoors is the common ground between park patron and park ranger.
Fortunately, Metro’s parks are gorgeous! Inspiration was everywhere. Rangers, Metro staff and community members made suggestions on what to feature, and the design slowly took shape. At the end of last year, more than 18 months after starting the project, I shared the final design. It was incredible to see people look at a badge differently. Some, including myself, were taken aback. There was certainly a sense of pride, particularly from those who would have the chance to wear it every day. For others, seeing the final design was the moment they understood what all the fuss was about and why the project was important.
With this project completed I hope that future Black, Brown and Indigenous patrons, park rangers, supervisors and managers will be able to look at this badge and see a symbol that was created for them. It’s not just a badge; it’s a promise that these special places are for everyone.