A message from PI’s Director of Health Equity: Renaming taps into broader processes of inclusion, truth-telling and reconciliation

Image of Sue-meg State Park
It was almost a year ago today that I, as a former California State Park and Recreation Commissioner, along with my fellow Commissioner, Ernest Chung, lauded our state’s Department of Parks and Recreation for its plan to identify and act on discriminatory and dehumanizing names on parks in our October 2020 article that appeared in CalMatters. At the time, Ernest and I also urged the department to "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 Californian into the proud state we are today."
"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." Elva Yañez and Ernest Chung
This week, the California State Park and Recreation Commission took an important first step in its Re-examining Our Past initiative by renaming Patrick's Point State Park in Humboldt County. To honor the Yurok Tribe and Indigenous people who have and continue to steward the land, the park will be renamed Sue-meg State Park. Prevention Institute applauds the Commission, the Office of Governor Newsom and the California Natural Resources Agency for this historic milestone.

California is often looked to for its relative racial inclusiveness and tolerance, yet history and current day practices tell a story that is far more complex. While some will argue that renaming efforts do not go far enough to address structural inequities within the California park system, the reality is that this historic step presents both a challenge and a reason for hope. Although Ernest is no longer with us, I know that he, too, would be proud to see this important step in renaming our state parks to tell a more accurate and inclusive history of California—one that inspires and uplifts future generations, ‘prepares the soil’ for fundamental policy and systems change to advance health equity and racial justice—and perhaps serves as a model for other agencies across the country.

For many of us, the move to rename parks and remove monuments glorifying historic figures that fought in favor of oppression, genocide, and slavery are not ends—they are means with the potential to tap into broader processes of inclusion, truth-telling, reconciliation and maybe even the healing that our country so deeply needs.

While there is disturbing evidence all around us that this country is deeply divided on issues critical to our nation’s health and wellbeing—from vaccines to climate change, from voting rights to infrastructure spending—the racial reckoning of 2020 continues to hold importance for all of us committed to advancing health equity and racial justice. I am encouraged by the growing movement to rename parks, streets, monuments, and buildings throughout the U.S. because it is part of a collective effort to transform racist narratives and rewrite inclusive histories.
Of course, the trauma of racism will persist without structural change. And changing the names of individual community assets is not equivalent to changing the policies and practices that have sustained the legacy of white supremacy in this country. But history also demonstrates that many successful social movements and public health initiatives initially focused attention on building grassroots support and shifting norms and mindsets—the building blocks for culture change and critical precursor to moving forward transformational local and state policies.
Renaming essential community assets is primarily the purview of private institutions and local and state government agencies. While renaming an asset like a park may seem straightforward, my experience as a California Park and Recreation Commissioner proved otherwise. Renaming is both complex and controversial. In other words, it is ripe for public debate and increasing public awareness about issues of race and historical accuracy as well as othering and belonging. While calls for a national conversation about race have continued unabated for decades, renaming can bring that conversation to life in communities across the nation and, ultimately, begin to bridge what seems at times to be an insurmountable divide to manifest our humanity and our connectedness.
Dedicated to the memory of Ernest Ying-Chee Chung, 1952 – 2021
Elva Yanez's Signature

*Image of Sue-meg State Park; Image credit: Alyosha Efros

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