Published: November 23, 2021
Blue Star Parks DEPLOY Fellow Welcomes All Military Families to See Themselves in New Roles and Places
Meet Nicole. She’s a Navy spouse, mom of two, and the Blue Star Parks program DEPLOY Fellow for Blue Star Families. As a degreed librarian, Nicole is passionate about being a steward of information and resources and advocating for access to information and knowledge. While her fellowship in support of Blue Star Parks takes her out of the library and schools, her mission is the same. And local, regional, and national parks are an environment in which Nicole feels right at home.
“Parks have always been an incredibly important part of my life,” Nicole said. “Growing up in Cleveland, our entire community was surrounded by the Cleveland Metroparks—a system of connected park spaces and trails that spanned the entire county. We had consistent access to recreational activities, fields to run, lakes and rivers to fish, interpretive centers to learn, and green surrounding us. The parks were where we spent time with friends, had family picnics, celebrated birthdays and graduations, learned to swim, and learned to be stewards of our environment. Parks cemented friendships and built community. Experiencing and enjoying the parks have enriched our relationships with others and our lives as a whole.”
As Nicole continued to pursue her education and began to experience new communities moving with the military, she realized that not everyone grew up with the same relationship and access to parks. “National and state parks were not immune from Jim Crow policies, segregation, or the exclusion of people of color,” Nicole explained. “The impacts of history often last longer than the laws themselves. People carry the experiences of their ancestors along with them. While the parks may be open to all now, even in just the last 75 years, people of color, people like me, may not have felt welcome or safe. Representation is invaluable and, right now, the outdoor recreation space as a whole — in advertisements, corporate ownership, and employment — is still quite homogeneous. When I can see myself through a mirror within spaces, I feel more connected to them; I think that is a human tendency. As more people of color see themselves in that mirror and feel invited to connect to the parks and outdoor experiences, we will see a great widening of diversity inside the parks.”
The lack of representation, not seeing herself within a space or community affected more than just Nicole’s experiences with parks. Being multi-racial and the first person in her family to earn a bachelor’s degree, Nicole was proud of what her accomplishments meant to her family. She was excited to start her career as a librarian. But as she did, she would often hear, “you don’t look like a librarian,” a statement that often cut deep. But hearing that, knowing that she was a person of color working in a role that isn’t traditionally filled by someone who looks like her, inspired Nicole to be that mirror for kids so they can see themselves in different roles and different places. Continuing to be a mirror and example for military families of color is what she plans to do now with her involvement with the Blue Star Parks program.
“My passion is for developing and supporting public outreach programs that drive equity through community voice, inspiring young people, and building up resilient future leaders,” Nicole shared. “I’m so excited to shift into the park space because I see so many intersections between museums, libraries, and parks. There are these amazing pockets of our communities and among the few last spaces where you can ask questions, access a wealth of knowledge, or just exist without the pressure to buy something or have a transactional interaction. But so many relationships, especially ones where we divulge our needs for resources and support, heavily rely on trust and authenticity. When there is a lack of representation, people may not feel comfortable reaching out to request and use resources because they do not see themselves, nor their specific experiences represented or understood. Developing trust is the first step, and that happens by explicitly inviting families of color to connect and build authentic relationships, identifying ways to create a conversation that centers the experiences and needs of families who have traditionally found these spaces inaccessible, and listening to them as the experts of their own lived experience.
Having those relationships and building that trust is so important for military families and, with frequent moves disrupting their time in communities, isn’t easy for many to find. In fact, according to the 2020 Military Family Lifestyle Survey, only 27% of active-duty family respondents reported feeling a sense of belonging to their local civilian community. As the Blue Star Parks DEPLOY Fellow, Nicole will actively work to build that trust, creating a connection for military families of color with the national, regional, and local parks that stand ready to welcome them. “DEPLOY Fellows is a Blue Star Program within our Racial Equity and Inclusion Initiative (REI) designed to diversify and expand the pipeline of leaders in the military community,” said Kathy Roth-Douquet, CEO and Founder of Blue Star Families. “The effort will embed and train individuals from historically underrepresented populations into Blue Star Families’ organization as paid staff in national and Chapter roles. Through our training, we’ll seed a new generation of leaders throughout the veteran and military family support space.”
“I want to be a leader, a voice, and an advocate for creating welcoming communities and forging pathways towards more equitable access to resources and outcomes for all,” Nicole said. “As the Parks Fellow, I am so excited to bring my own experiences and love for the parks to military families. I want to be a mirror for families who may not have seen themselves in these spaces. I want to be the person to actively invite and welcome families to the many opportunities parks provide. I want to raise awareness of how our parks can be more welcoming and representative of our great and diverse country and create lasting relationships with the families I have the privilege of meeting.”
With so many benefits found at national, state, and local parks, Blue Star Families, with support from the National Park Service, wants to make it as easy as possible for all families to access nature’s amazing resources. You can find Blue Star Parks programs, along with information about this year’s Outdoor Explorers for All Club, on Blue Star Families’ website. While you’re there, download the free America the Beautiful park pass and the ParkPassport app to begin exploring America’s bounty and beauty. With more than 2,000 national parks and federal recreation sites at your fingertips, there’s never a shortage of wilderness to explore and memories to make. We hope you’ll join us!