The Wissahickon Valley Park is for everyone

News // September 15, 2020

By Alyssa Edwards and Ruffian Tittmann

Following the tragic death of George Floyd, FOW made a statement on June 4 against racism and violence, and in support of Black Lives Matter. In doing so, we joined many of our peer organizations in Philadelphia and around the country. As an organization it was imperative that our position was made known to our stakeholders in the community. However, we must put anti-racist polices into action throughout all of our work in the Wissahickon Valley Park. We have a responsibility to all of our stakeholders to move forward with this commitment and we must be held accountable.

While we were heartened by the overwhelming support that our statement received, we also received messages of opposition. Specifically, we were asked how such a statement relates to our mission and our stewardship of the Wissahickon Valley Park. Our answer is: There is an inextricable nexus between access and enjoyment of public parks and systematic racism and social injustice. Our mission is to conserve the natural beauty and wildness of the Wissahickon Valley and stimulate public interest therein. As an organization we embrace both parts of our mission – nature and people. And within this mission is a commitment to stand up to persistent injustices that plague our Philadelphia community and society at large.

We recognized years ago that FOW programming resources were invested in private schools and individuals with considerable resources and privilege. This realization caused a paradigm shift in our thinking that materialized into the development of our Little Friends of the Wissahickon program, planning to build a neighborhood engagement initiative with our consulting partners Let’s Go Outdoors, and evolving in our in-park engagement work from rules enforcement to education and information through the principles of Leave No Trace.

Nevertheless, our organization has a significant amount of work to do. If we are working to connect our community with its park, we should also work to make sure the park is welcoming when they arrive for a visit. This means recognizing that not everyone has had the privilege of feeling safe to enjoy the great outdoors because of the history of violence and racism in these spaces. This means recognizing that the design of public spaces has a history of reinforcing exclusion from the space. This means recognizing that we must put diversity, equity, inclusion and justice at the core of all our work. We will continue to share with you how the forces listed above exist in our park and what we can all do to make changes. Our immediate next steps are:

  • Retaining a consultant to guide us on a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice Initiative (DEIJ)
  • A commitment to making our board reflect the diversity of our City at our next board cycle in June 2021
  • Through the establishment of a DEIJ Committee and through conversation at the board, staff, and community level, examine our role in the community, actions of the past, and how we can change the future

We cannot be a conservation body that strives to promote an ecologically diverse and functional habitat for watershed health, land management, and wildlife, without also celebrating the diversity of humanity that seeks out the Wissahickon Valley Park’s many pleasures. We cannot ask visitors to respect the park and not to respect each other and their right to enjoy this public space. Thank you as always for your shared love of our beautiful Wissahickon Valley Park and for joining us to make it a place that welcomes everyone to its wonder.

Alyssa Edwards is President of the FOW Board of Directors and Ruffian Tittmann is FOW’s Executive Director.