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Why aren’t more parks named for people of color? Crusade to honor ‘Dune’ author raises question

There is an effort afoot to name a new park and trail in Tacoma after “Dune” author Frank Herbert.
There is an effort afoot to name a new park and trail in Tacoma after “Dune” author Frank Herbert. Courtesy

People came expecting a vote. What they got, instead, was the uncovering of a blind spot that sorely needs addressing.

In the process, we also were given an important lesson in civic engagement and reactive governance.

On Tuesday, the Metro Parks Tacoma Board of Commissioners was supposed to decide whether to name 11 acres on the edge of Commencement Bay in honor of author Frank Herbert and his classic series, “Dune.”

That didn’t happen because Aaron Pointer, who’s been on the Metro Parks Board for nearly two decades, had an important issue to raise first.

When it comes to naming parks in Tacoma and Pierce County, people of color and Native Americans are woefully under-represented, Pointer told those who had gathered for the meeting.

He’s right.

Before this week, I’d never really considered it. Neither had a lot of people, which is exactly the problem.

The audience Tuesday included a number of Herbert supporters. My guess is that Pointer’s observation came as news to a few of them, too.

It certainly did to Metro Parks commissioner Erik Hanberg, who has championed Herbert’s cause for years.

“It’s a punch to the gut,” Hanberg told me the next day. “That’s something that needs to be corrected.”

It’s a punch to the gut.

Metro Parks Commissioner Erik Hanberg

Going into the meeting, Pointer said he was ready to vote “no” on the proposed name. While he believes Herbert is worthy of the honor, he also feels like Metro Parks staff could have done more to involve the board, which would have allowed him an opportunity to point out that people of color haven’t received a fair shake in the park-naming process over the years.

Pointer would like to see a park named after longtime civil rights activist and federal judge Jack Tanner, who grew up in Tacoma and passed away in 2006.

It’s a great idea. Tanner should absolutely have a park named after him.

For Pointer, raising this possibility and the specter of institutional racism in the process — in such a public setting, with the tide of vocal public opinion in favor of sealing the deal in honor of Herbert — took some courage.

Which brings us to the valuable lesson in what good government and productive citizen engagement can look like.

Given the potential emotions at play here — a room full of passionate Herbert supporters confronted by an uncomfortable truth that’s indicative of a systemic bias — things easily could have gone sideways and gotten ugly. People could have gotten defensive, and the dynamic could have quickly turned contentious. We’ve seen that before.

That’s not what happened, though, making for a consequential moment.

In a world ripe with examples of embarrassing elected officials and belligerent denizens, the leaders and engaged crowd in this room instead provided reason for hope. They rose to the occasion and reacted exactly like good public servants and thoughtful citizens should.

They listened attentively, and acted with purpose. Ultimately, a decision was made to table the vote until next month to provide more time for consideration and conversation, and a commitment — at least informally — to begin the process of trying to figure out just how to be more equitable in the future.

It marked a sign of progress, especially as Metro Parks puts the finishing touches on a new strategic plan that emphasizes equity.

Pointer said later he feels like his message resonated and that he is prepared to support naming the park after Frank Herbert. That’s provided, of course, the board and Metro Parks staff are serious about examining the naming process and dedicated to doing the work that obviously needs to be done.

“Last night was a good session for not only parks staff but also for the commissioners as well,” Pointer said upon reflection. “It’s going to make us all better.”

Last night was a good session for not only parks staff, but also for the commissioners as well. It’s going to make us all better.

Metro Parks Commissioner A

Hanberg agreed. Amidst a number of moments that clearly left an impression on him, he recalled people from the crowd stepping forward to volunteer to form a committee looking at parks that might be renamed.

“It was a really positive meeting last night,” Hanberg said.

My prediction: Early next month, the board will vote to name the new section of Point Defiance Park after Frank Herbert. It will mark a victory.

Not long after, Tanner and other deserving people of color and Native Americans will start to be honored similarly.

Borrowing a line from a previous column of mine on the subject of Herbert, Pointer said bluntly, “It’s about time.”

Yes, it is.

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