In Los Angeles County, the pandemic has underscored the importance of parks. Use jumped about 300%, according to the county’s parks department, and the organization quickly found itself balancing open-space management with pandemic response–hosting and running food pantries, homeless shelters, COVID-19 testing centers, and vaccination sites. In a county of 10 million that saw more than 1.2 million COVID-19 cases, parks became a physical part of the front line.
“COVID-19 has shown us that we are a key safety net for our most vulnerable populations,” says Norma Edith García-Gonzalez, the director of the Los Angeles County Parks Department.
As the region continues to recover from the pandemic, García-Gonzalez is leading the department in a new, more expansive direction. Instead of just thinking of itself as a provider of recreation opportunities, the parks department is making equity and youth engagement its mission.
“In the past, we wouldn’t call the work we did equity focused, focused on anti-racism, focused on supporting our most vulnerable communities. While we did that in practice, it was not what we utilized in our vocabulary to express the work that we do,” says García-Gonzalez. “Now we’ve become much more intentional about this work.”
Appointed in July 2020, García-Gonzalez is the first woman and the first person of color to lead the department since its creation in 1944. The department oversees 183 parks, about 70,000 acres of parklands and natural areas, and more than 200 miles of trails. García-Gonzalez has worked for the department for more than a decade and grew up in Los Angeles County, which has both a majority minority population and a high rate of poverty. In the months of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd, L.A. County Parks were classified as safe demonstration spaces. And as COVID-19 cases added up, it became clear that the widely distributed spaces and resources of the parks department could be reconfigured to be part of the county’s response.
“This work was very personal for me,” García-Gonzalez says. Giving the department an equity mandate, she argues, was intended to respond to the pandemic as well as long-standing racial inequities in the region.
The new equity mission is taking shape in a few ways. In addition to continuing the department’s pandemic response efforts, García-Gonzalez has broadened its focus on serving youth populations.
“The U.S. Department of Justice has many statistics that say youth are more likely to get in trouble between the hours of 3 and 7, Monday through Friday. Common sense, right? Parents are working, youth aren’t at school. So we’ve made it a core principle that those are the hours when the bulk of our programming is going to happen,” García-Gonzalez says. Programs include recreational sports, computer classes, and summer lunch services.
She’s also extended park operation hours to 9 p.m. or later, partly to ensure kids have a safe place to be but also to help working parents who may not have been able to pick kids up from a pool or park back when many closed at 5 p.m.
García-Gonzalez has also launched a youth jobs program, hiring about 300 teenagers during the spring and what she hopes will be another 500 this summer to work various jobs in parks in their communities. The jobs range from greeting visitors at local pools and answering phone calls to assisting recreation staff in the leading of expanded afternoon programming.
She says there’s been some pushback to this new equity focus, but mostly from an operations perspective. Some in her 2,600-person department have questioned the timing of making these changes, she says, and she understands where those concerns are coming from. “Staff are tired and overwhelmed. They’ve had to do more with less,” she says.
But so are the people the parks are meant to serve. For García-Gonzalez, that has only heightened her sense of responsibility and the need for the department to make these changes in philosophy. It’s something she says other departments, and other places, should consider exploring as well.
“I think what many of us in positions of leadership have had to really think through is how do we emerge from COVID-19 being better, doing better, and serving at a deeper level,” she says.