In summary

A committee is embarking on an ambitious journey to identify discriminatory names and features of state parks and change the names to be more inclusive.

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By Ernest Chung

Ernest Chung, a former commissioner with the California State Park and Recreation Commission, is a retired management consultant and a resident of the Monterey Peninsula,

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Elva Yañez, Special to CalMatters

Elva Yañez, a former commissioner with the California State Park and Recreation Commission, is director of health equity at Prevention Institute and lives in Los Angeles,

The California Department of Parks and Recreation recently announced its plan to identify and act on discriminatory and dehumanizing names currently used in its parks. As former California State Park and Recreation commissioners, we heartily applaud this initiative to redress and heal California’s historic legacy of racism and discrimination as reflected in our parks.

As the parks department embarks on this unprecedented journey, we believe it should also take this opportunity to honor and celebrate the rich culture and histories of Native Americans, Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders and other groups that have made California into the proud state we are today.

By following the examples set by the National Park Service, California State Parks can highlight important events in the history of California: The Manzanar National Historic Site and the Tule Lake National Monument, both of which acknowledge the racism which resulted in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World World II; the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument which honors not only his contribution but also underscores the plight of farm workers in California and everywhere.

With just one state historic park – Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in the Central Valley – devoted to Black history in California, formal recognition of the role of Afro-mestizo pobladores in the founding of Los Angeles is long overdue. Half of the 44 settlers who founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles in 1781 were descendants of African ancestors.

California also has two world class park units celebrating the importance of railroads in connecting the state to the rest of the nation.  However, the story of the largely Chinese laborers who did the back-breaking and dangerous construction work remains little mentioned.  The same is true with the construction of the levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, and other infrastructure around the state.  These contributions deserve recognition.

While selecting the name of a park or its features may seem largely symbolic or superficial, our experiences serving on the California State Park and Recreation Commission suggest otherwise.  

Carefully chosen, a name can effectively reflect the history and culture of those associated with a park or features within it.  But frequently, the names of many of our state park units reflect an outdated understanding of history that was dominant in the first half of the 20th century and downplays the importance of other groups and histories.  For example, many state parks have important Native American history and artifacts, yet very few of them have names reflecting that significant heritage. 

While the path to justice, historical accuracy and inclusion is bumpy, daylighting these issues and the education that occurs as part of a naming and renaming debate is essential to racial healing and wholeness. Renaming will ultimately move us toward racial amity by instilling feelings of pride, respect, welcome and belonging among California’s historically marginalized groups.

California State Parks and the California Advisory Committee on Geographic Names will need fortitude as they embark on this ambitious but necessary journey toward a more diverse and inclusive telling of California history. To be successful, the governor and Legislature must provide them the necessary mandate and resources to strengthen their staff capacity and bring in the historical, cultural and community engagement expertise required. The people of California and its future generations deserve nothing less.

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