A Passion for Story and Community: Betty Reid Soskin Looks Ahead to the Next Ten Years

By Biggar, Alison | Aging Today, January/February 2011 | Go to article overview
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A Passion for Story and Community: Betty Reid Soskin Looks Ahead to the Next Ten Years


Biggar, Alison, Aging Today


It's a gusty, overcast day as park ranger Betty Reid Soskin strides across the grass dressed in at least four layers - turtleneck, regulation gray Park Service shirt, sweater and green khaki work jacket - narrating the story of the Rosie the Riveter park and her place in it. Soskin is a ranger at Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, Calif. - a park that, as she is now telling curious visitors, is built on stories, not land.

Rosie the Riveter park consists of an evocative steel monument a full ship's length that juts into the water, with paragraphs of explanatory history carved into its cement pathway, and photos of women shipbuilders sunk into a frame in the ship's center.

Then Soskin guides visitors to several other sites - the Ford Assembly Building, where jeeps and tanks were made, and near it the location of the park's soon-to-be-opened (in Fall 201 1 ) Visitors Center.

SPEAKING STORY, EMPOWERING COMMUNITY

But it is Soskin's interpreting of park history that really engages, as this 89year-old African American woman with cropped, slicked-back hair and a ready laugh embodies twin traits of hard-fought wisdom and forward-looking inspiration. Not someone who, as she said, "ever looked for a job," instead Soskin was offered this ranger position at age 85, following years as a field representative for California State Assemblywoman Dionne Aroner.

Attending park planning meetings as Aroner's community liaison, Soskin was struck by what was being left out of the discussion - the African American home-front story - spoke up about it and ended up with the ranger job. She now works five days a week, six hours a day, telling that story.

Soskin felt out of place when she first started, she says, because, "Rosie's story is a "white woman's story." But now she's made it more than that, adding insight from when she worked as a clerk in the black union office serving the shipyards of Richmond.

She explains how her interpretive ranger position is bigger than just Rosie the Riveter, too. "I consider that when I get up each morning and get into my uniform and flat hat, wherever I grj - on the street, into elevators and escalators, boardrooms and waiting rooms in my city - I'm announcing to every little girl of color a career choice that she might never have thought of entering. Everything else is built upon that."

According to Soskin, it can take up to 20 years to fully develop a national park, and she feels a great sense of privilege to be a part of that collaborative building process. Plus there's an even greater satisfaction in what her position represents to her community. "I can see the pride (particularly among people of color) in my work everywhere I turn. The community identifies with me and my role as a park ranger. When I think of retiring, I'm always aware that - until my replacement enters 'stage left,' I represent a federal response to their national park ambitions and concerns - and this is validation of the highest order.

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