Black Leaders on the Frontlines:
James Parks - Retired Sergeant on a Mission to Serve Community Justice
In the heart of Washington, in the Yakima Valley, by way of Fort Lewis and hailing from Atlanta, Georgia, James Parks is a 71-year old retired U.S. military sergeant who has seen the world and tells a story that makes you stand straight and pay attention. For Sergeant Parks who has been in Yakima since 1988, “Everything today is about listening and learning. Today, I am concerned about the direction that we as a people are headed. We are not putting our good minds together enough to address the problems of climate change, violence, and injustice.” As the former President of the NAACP Yakima Chapter, he still remains involved in community justice work and manages to produce an internet based radio show “Keeping it Real with Sergeant Parks.”
When asked about the intersection of racial and environmental justice, Sergeant Parks tells a story of contamination of the groundwater in the Yakima Valley. Contamination is in the soil in Sunnyside, Washington and beyond. Businesses may receive a fine, but people still endure living with the sub-quality of life. How can the community make their voices heard about such issues? By looking at civic engagement opportunities, but the redistricting and impact on voting rights in the county is challenging. He explains,
“Everything today is about listening and learning. Today, I am concerned about the direction that we as a people are headed. We are not putting our good minds together enough to address the problems of climate change, violence, and injustice.”
“You see the difference in quality of air, quality of water, and quality of infrastructure between the east and west side. While the city invests in tourist sites like a new aquatic center or convention centers, the heart of the city is crumbling for the people who live and work here and make essential industry work – agricultural workers for example – possible… So, many people do not feel they can be heard at City Hall. How can we talk about the need for solar energy when the issue is already taboo before it gets raised?”
Sergeant Parks got involved with Front and Centered when Civic Engagement and Policy Manager, Sameer Ranade reached out and encouraged him to participate in the coalition’s statewide membership summit. Sergeant Parks has learned even more about the intersections of racial and environmental justice having participated in Front and Centered community listening sessions and gaining access to climate justice curriculum produced by BIPOC organizations such as the national NAACP. And now that he has been involved, Sergeant Parks who is a loving grandfather, is ever more convinced that the future depends on paying more attention to the potential of young people and instilling in them the responsibility for a collective future to solve climate change, stop racial violence, and bring communities together.
When rallying young people to pay attention to such issues, he often quips, “What do you want to be, and what do you want to see? Be that change.” To get youth to engage and excited, Sergeant Parks has lots of ideas from radio shows, rallies, classroom talks, special events, t-shirts and lots of swag. But most importantly, when he thinks on his path to leadership today, “It is all about listening and showing by example and that’s why I think my mantra today is all about the listening and learning together.”
Front and Centered is honored that we are listening and learning with James Parks as well.
This is part of a series of blog posts highlighting Black Leaders on the Frontlines in our state who are working at the intersection of environmental, racial, and economic justice.