By Kylie Marsh
On a recent Wednesday evening, a small crowd of spectators gathered in the Rashkis Elementary School gymnasium, where Gunk Squad, East Chapel Hill High School’s recreational basketball team, played against the Minnesota Miracle Whips, Chapel Hill High School’s team.
It was just one of many regular basketball games facilitated by Chapel Hill Parks and Recreation (CHPR), which parents and students alike agree have been a much-needed bright spot during the tough times of the pandemic.
“I’m grateful and happy to see these young men having a good time and getting some exercise instead of being in front of a screen,” said Leslie Rinehart, whose twin sons play for the Miracle Whips.
The Town’s Parks and Recreation staff have worked to maintain programming for the community while following health and safety protocols to prevent transmission of the coronavirus. In the beginning of the pandemic, programming temporarily stopped altogether. Players now are allowed only two spectators, and everyone, including referees and coaches, are required to wear masks.
“They’ve been pretty adamant about requiring that everyone wear masks and have even thrown a few kids out of games for it,” Rinehart said.
Paul and Jan Krause, whose son plays on Gunk Squad, agree that CHPR have provided great opportunities for students to play and have community with each other during the pandemic.
“It’s good for them to have an outlet,” Paul said.
CHPR acknowledges that the pandemic has exacerbated inequity nationwide and have endeavored to serve every member of the community regardless of race, location, or socioeconomic status. Nikiya Cherry, recreation manager for CHPR, detailed the meticulous steps that her staff have taken to make sure programs remain diverse, inclusive, and accessible to all.
“We serve a very diverse population of people, including those who are low-income,” Cherry said. Programs can cost up to $1,500. Cherry estimated that about 50% of those who participated in CHPR activities last summer received some form of fee reduction.
CHPR has also made changes to the process of registering for its summer camps by placing a cap on the number of online submissions they receive. Cherry estimated that about 80% of registrations occurred online.
“Is that fair for those who may not have access to a computer or internet?” she asked.
CHPR also works to make sure that minorities and participants with disabilities are included.
“We make sure that our programs don’t have only participants that are students of color, or just white kids,” Cherry said. It can be difficult, however, to include a diverse population in those programs that are neighborhood based, such as those in the Northside neighborhood.
“It’s absolutely and always will be challenging, every day,” Cherry said. She offered, as an example, the challenge of scheduling the start time of an afterschool program so that students have time to travel from across town.
Another challenge, according to Cherry, is social distancing.
“I feel like our biggest restriction is space,” she said. Because students must stay 6 feet apart, the number of students who can fit inside the community centers is reduced. “If it’s raining or if it’s hot, what do we do then?”
In the early days of the pandemic, when community centers were closed, CHPR brought summer camps to neighborhoods. They also packed and distributed bags of materials for families to take home so that they could participate in recreational activities remotely.
Cherry praised the Town government’s efforts to meet the recreational needs of all residents.
“The Town also does a great job of giving us whatever we need to operate,” she said.
Cherry has been with CHPR for 5 years and said she sees the department “going in a good direction.”
Cherry said credit for the progress CHPR has made in the area of inclusion is due, in part, to Shenekia Weeks, Chapel Hill’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officer. For example, Weeks encouraged CHPR staff to make sure posters and photos in the Town’s community centers include diverse models that reflect the entire community.
Weeks was hired last June to help the Town become more socially conscious and equitable in its operations. She said much of her job involves “setting up an infrastructure,” which includes “normalizing conversations around race,” as well as organizing and implementing equity initiatives.
For example, CHPR did not previously gather demographic data about those who participate in its programming, because, according to Weeks, the Town does not have a uniform record-keeping infrastructure in place to collect such data.
“In most jurisdictions, people don’t typically collect information when they don’t have a specific plan for how to use it, or they’re not sure how to safely secure the information,” she said. “It requires a formalized process.”
Weeks said that while the Town recognizes that recording demographic information can help reveal how various groups in the community are impacted by various policy decisions, it will take time and effort to implement new data-gathering systems and processes. Fortunately, she said, Chapel Hill Town government is an organization whose members are willing to do the hard work required to become more equitable and inclusive. Weeks said that CHPR has been a particularly enthusiastic partner in these organizational change efforts.
“Parks and Rec are always thoughtful and intentional about [promoting diversity, equity and inclusion],” she said. At CHPR, “the community will see an authentic focus” on these issues.