Kelli English poses for a portrait at John Muir National Historic Site

The History Whisperer

Photo: David Lee

Ranger Kelli English interprets the past for a new generation of park visitors.

I’m Michael Kleber-Diggs, a writer and arts educator who thrives in outdoor spaces., I’m partnering with Public Lands to showcase four Black Park Rangers. See our profiles on Jerry Bransford, Shelton Johnson, and Olivia Williams.

Our fourth and final profile for this series is Kelli English. She is the Chief of Interpretation for John Muir National Historic Site, Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, and Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in California. English recently celebrated her 22nd anniversary in the National Park Service. 

Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, including the path English traveled to becoming a Park Ranger, her work at the parks, the importance of remembering difficult history, her family’s history in outdoor spaces, and the value of diverse races and backgrounds in Park Service staff and visitors. 

MICHAEL KLEBER-DIGGS: You were studying to be a scientist before you became a Park Ranger. How did you make that leap?

KELLI ENGLISH:  Well, I took a job as a research assistant right after college. I was working in Puerto Rico at the time, conducting behavioral research on a group of rhesus monkeys who were part of a biomedical study. I went to a field station on this little island off the eastern coast of Peru. I lived in this tiny town and got good at Spanish. I realized that I just didn't really enjoy the research itself. What I loved, though, was talking to all the kids in the neighborhood about exactly what we were doing out there and combating some of the misconceptions. That was a huge epiphany for me. I realized that I felt strongly about issues of conservation, but I also felt strongly about education. So I thought, How can I get into this? I came back to the States and ended up taking an internship at a residential environmental education center at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

You were working with kids?

Yes, students. And at Indiana Dunes, I realized the combination of loving science and loving history and loving education was really what I wanted to do. It was set up so that one class would come in for three days, then another class would come in. So the first group of the season came in one Monday morning, they were from downstate Indiana—mostly white kids. This was February, and they were all dressed properly for the weather. They had a great time. That Wednesday afternoon, the new group that came in couldn’t have been more different. They were almost completely people of color. Most of them did not have proper footwear. We actually had a little collection of coats and scarves and gloves and things like that, even a couple boots. So we were giving out all of the gear we had because a lot of students didn’t have sufficient gear for walking around the snow in Indiana in February. 

This sounds like a moment of epiphany too.

It was. The difference was so great that I actually had to retreat to the bathroom for a few minutes to kind of get my head around it. I remember standing there in that bathroom thinking, You know what? I know these kids. I know exactly where these Chicago kids are from. They’re from the west side. I know where their school is, and I know their neighborhoods. I know this because I’m from the south side. I know that many of these kids have probably never been beyond about a five-mile radius of their house. I realized I was probably the one person in this building who knew these kids and their experience. I knew where these kids were coming from and my well-meaning colleagues did not. [English and her colleagues worked for the education center, not the Park Service.]

I realized I was in a unique position to be able to bridge that gap. And I was also positioned to be able to model that for my colleagues. So I walked out of the bathroom with a whole new vision and a whole new understanding of the limitations of the field that I was getting into but also the idea that I had the ability to help with the opportunity, to help reach a broader audience.

I’m fascinated by two levels of conversation that are happening there: One is the point where science becomes translatable and explainable and receivable by people who are not scientists. The other is, as you shared, the inherently powerful moment when students from an urban environment like Chicago arrive at a new place. When my daughter was in school in the Twin Cities, where I live, we went on a school field trip to northern Minnesota up to Bemidji, which is a lovely area rich with forests and lakes. A fair portion of the students on the bus with us had never been out of the metro area. 

Yeah, I experienced both of those things almost at the same time. I had the ability to make these students feel welcome because I understood them in a way that most of my colleagues did not. I realized I could teach my colleagues how to better understand that a lot of our students come from really different experiences. And what matters most is that you are able to adjust to meet students where they are. 

That led me to more collaborations with the Park Service and eventually I ended up switching uniforms, moving from the residential education center to parks. So that was kind of the epiphany of, Wow, this is the right thing for me, and I have a unique combination of skills and life experiences to be able to bridge a gap that is often missed. And so, as you can see, that’s stuck with me for 20 years. I think about that moment a lot.

Kelli English at John Muir National Historic Site

Tell me about your role in the Park Service today.

I’m a manager, a park manager. So there are four sites here [in Northern California], and they all have the same management team. My official title is the Chief of Interpretation – Education Outreach, but we’re trying to get away from using the title ‘chief’ in the Park Service right now. I really wish there were some coordinated efforts across not just our agency but across the entire government. In the meantime, on the local level, we’re allowed to use the title of Division Manager of Interpretation Education.

You work at Historic Sites. What are they like?  

They range from celebrating a great playwright (Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site) to two sites commemorating World War II history to honoring John Muir (the John Muir National Historic Site). John Muir of course is the naturalist, advocate, writer, you know, the father of the national parks. Arguably we would not have the national park system, the way that we know it, without him. The Organic Act, creating the National Park Service, was passed on August 25, 1916. Muir died in 1914. The author of the Organic Act was William Kent. William Kent bought up a whole bunch of redwoods in Marin County and donated it to the government and named it after John Muir. The Organic Act was passed partially in honor of Muir. 

John Muir’s legacy is not a simple story of a conservation hero, is it? 

Muir has an interesting legacy in the sense that he adored wild spaces and wild areas but wasn’t necessarily progressive for his time when it came to matters of race. His writings included disparaging things about Native Americans, about Asian Americans, and about African Americans. With Muir, we have the opportunity to talk about this really unique man who helped shape not only the Park Service, but the entire environmental field. 

So we have the opportunity to learn about the origins of the Park Service and the origins of conservation. And it’s an important legacy to look at. But it’s not always a happy one. What would Muir think of me being in the position that I am with my office in his house? How did the origins of the conservation movement help shape institutions like the Park Service? It may not be a coincidence that some of these movements have stayed very white over the years, right? And there’s been this constant need for more diversity in conservation and environmental fields. So I think these are really interesting issues we can take a look at. But to me the question of, ‘How racist was John Muir?’ is really only interesting from an academic perspective.

John Muir sits at his desk and writes. The desk is displayed in the "Scribble Den", which is in the upstairs of the Muir home in Martinez, CA.

Olivia Williams, Shelton Johnson, and Jerry Bransford, Black Park Rangers I spoke to for this series, spoke of that moment when park visitors see themselves in rangers. Maybe that helps people of color feel more at home in parks and want to visit again. Those moments feel terribly important to me. And the process that leads more people to have that discovery is worthwhile but also complicated and troubled by our history.

Yeah, I know. In my family, my dad was always into the outdoors. My mom was afraid of dangers from other humans in the outdoors. There was this kind of push and pull—my dad wanted to take us camping. My mom said absolutely not—things like that. Eventually, once we were older, my dad won out. My parents discovered some of the joys of national parks as I was discovering that I wanted to do this. 

But yeah, we tend to recreate the way that we enjoyed recreating when we were kids? And when all of your choices about recreation are formulated from wanting to keep your family safe, and take them to safe places, then you avoid places that aren’t safe. And sometimes that avoidance continues for generations. 

My husband and I got married in Starved Rock State Park, Illinois. Starved Rock is a beautiful place. It’s only two hours outside of Chicago. I totally forgot about this. My aunt pulled out this album with pictures from the 1930s of my grandparents and my dad and my uncle, and they were at Starved Rock. Starved Rock was actually a haven for African Americans who were recreating. It was one of the places where they were welcomed.

Intellectually, things are better today, but you still tend to go to the places where you have memories. So we have to purposely, deliberately break the pattern. We have to form new traditions in order to get folks to start exploring some of those places that were uncomfortable for them early on. 

When I was in Indiana Dunes, I remember talking with this one gentleman, Henry Jones. He was an amazing botanist and an amazing man. He’d been a ranger, one of the earlier Black Rangers at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which was established in 1966. He said that in the early years of the park, law-enforcement rangers had their hands full because one of the new parts of that park, West Beach, had previously been kind of informally known as a whites-only beach. So the residents there were not very happy that now this area was a national park and there were all these folks of color who were able to come. They had constant issues with the local white residents hassling folks of other ethnicities when they tried to come to the National Lakeshore area.

There are a lot of stories like that associated with national parks. People don’t really appreciate how these memories become generational, both in terms of recreational patterns and storytelling about the past.

How have things changed?

The thing I love about this moment that we’re in right now is that there are so many opportunities. There are organizations that have sprung up that create community around folks of color in the outdoors. That is an amazing thing for me to see 20 years into my career. It just shows there are a lot more opportunities for people of color out there now. 

Kelli English at John Muir National Historic Site

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