As a child, Nichole McHenry envisioned herself broadcasting the news, just like famed St. Louis anchor Robin Smith.
Although her dreams of becoming a reporter did not come to fruition, she found a different way to tell stories.
For the past 28 years, McHenry has been sharing the stories of national parks and other connected sites for the National Park Service. McHenry began working full time with the park service right after graduating from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.
McHenry started her career in 1992, working as an interpreter and educator for the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield, Illinois. Her job would take her to six other sites, including the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site near Grant’s Farm, where she is currently working as regional program manager for relevancy, diversity and inclusion for the NPS.
While living in East St. Louis, McHenry, 48, said she could see the Gateway Arch from her backyard, but she never knew it was a national park.
“Growing up in the city, I really wasn’t exposed a lot to the outdoors,” McHenry said. “And I think that’s what a lot of people just totally associate the National Park Service with.”
McHenry said that while she was in college, two NPS recruiters caught her attention during a career fair and pitched working for the park service. She was offered an internship in New Jersey at first, but accepted one in Illinois.
Though she did not use her communication degree in a news setting, she used her storytelling skills at various park sites across the states.
“I love being a park ranger. I love telling stories. I love being an interpreter,” McHenry said. “But I think for me, I kind of always wanted to do this recruitment work because I was recruited.”
Over the years of working in the park service, she said minorities were represented at her sites, but there could have been more.
She said preserving history at all 419 units of the park system with a diverse group of people including women, veterans and people of color will help the park service become an inclusive agency.
“It's so important for us to keep the stories going, and we want people to come and experience these places because they are their stories. We are just the ones preserving and protecting them,” McHenry said.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Andrea Henderson spoke with McHenry about diversity in the NPS, why recruiting is her top priority, and who owns the park system story.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Andrea Henderson: Often times you hear that African Americans do not enjoy the outdoors, nor do they travel to national parks. What’s your relationship with the outdoors?
Nichole McHenry: I have been to Cahokia Mounds — well, me, my sister and my mother. My mother didn't climb the mound, but my sister and I would, and we absolutely just loved it. So that was kind of our outdoor activity. We didn't do camping. And honestly, I've never been camping, and I’ve worked for the National Park Service for 28 years. [Laughs] I need to do it. I need the experience, but I've never done it. It's not that I won't. It's just that the opportunity really hasn't presented itself for me to do it. So it's something that I'm not totally against, but I think I would love it.
Henderson: When most people think of national parks, they think of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. What measures are you implementing to keep lesser-known parks like the Ulysses S. Grant home relevant to the national park conversation?
McHenry: Each park is going to do something different because their stories are different, and so their communities and the people that they are attracting are different. But we're often trying to hear from people about what they want. We are not necessarily targeting that one-time visitor that's passing through, but we are really looking at the people that live in the community, because they're visitors, too. So it could be yoga on Saturdays, it could be an art workshop, or they could be biking with the ranger. We just want them to understand that they can come and visit these places and have a voice. We want them to come visit the sites, but also become stewards of the site and tell the story.
Henderson: You stated that most people do not understand how hard it is to get a job with the government. Through your position with the park service, what are you doing to help streamline the process and diversify the ranks within?
McHenry: I'm currently working on a recruitment and retention strategy for our region, so that our hiring officials and leaders can have some tools at their fingertips to help them do targeted recruiting. I am using different hiring authorities and giving them the data of what the National Park Service looks like.
Henderson: Who exactly are you targeting?
McHenry: We try to target everybody. We target people who are in college, veterans who are returning from combat and people with disabilities. We really want the National Park Service to look like the country. We have a very diverse group of people who live in this country. We want them to see themselves reflected when they visit.
Henderson: In your opinion, how important is your position as an African American woman in this space to other black women?
McHenry: It is really important, and I think I have a big job to do. I understand the position that I hold in the National Park Service, and I don't take that for granted. And I think for me, I just want young people of all backgrounds to understand that this is a place that they can come to be creative. They can really get to experience a lot of cool things that they probably wouldn't normally get to experience. It is very important for me to show up in a way where people will see that “here's somebody who didn't come from a lot but who took what she had and made the most of it.”
This story is part of Sharing America Profiles — a series about women of color doing local work that highlights an issue of national importance.
Andrea Y. Henderson is part of the public-radio collaborative Sharing America, covering the intersection of race, identity and culture. This initiative, funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, includes reporters in Hartford, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Portland, Oregon. Follow Andrea at @drebjournalist.