8 Spiritual Treasures: The Public Lands Legacy of President Obama | Sojourners

8 Spiritual Treasures: The Public Lands Legacy of President Obama

Indian Creek, Bears Ears, Utah. Image via Bureau of Land Management/Flickr

As we stand in the final days of President Obama’s administration, I’m reflecting on his 2009 inaugural address. In it, he proclaimed, “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness,” and declared that changing our country for the better is not just the work of government appointees and staff, but rather “what is required of us now is a new era of responsibility — a recognition on the part of every American that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world.”

In my current work, I have seen firsthand how the president has operationalized his commitment to diversity and broad civic engagement. Since 2010, I have worked in religious organizations on Capitol Hill. The White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships has been extremely effective at gathering religious community stakeholders from a diverse array of religious traditions to provide advice and partner for success. Likewise, the Office of Public Engagement has brought together stakeholders from different sectors, and administration staff have been very responsive to our requests for meetings. These offices have helped me ensure my organization, Creation Justice Ministries, is aware of and has opportunity to participate in policy initiatives relevant to priorities we shared with the administration — which were many.

From the historic international Paris climate agreement, to measures for clean air such as methane rules, to safeguards for clean water such as the Stream Protection Rule, to conservation breakthroughs such as the multi-agency Sage Grouse Initiative, to renewable energy planning and investment, Christians who believe in justice and care for God’s creation have much reason to celebrate. While I am grateful for many of President Obama’s contributions, there is one set of contributions that particularly demonstrate his commitment to diversity, inclusion, and broad stakeholder engagement: his national monuments.

National monuments are part of a public lands system of parks, forests, refuges, and sanctuaries that conserve our country’s cultural and natural heritage for future generations. Using power granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906, President Obama has protected and conserved more of God’s terrestrial and marine creation than any previous president. He has also used the Antiquities Act to lift up a much broader diversity of stories than any previous president. Stories told in some of the national monuments established by President Obama nourish a spirituality of resilience and racial justice, which our country needs now more than ever. Here are just eight examples of how the president has celebrated our diverse country through our public lands.

1. Bears Ears National Monument, Utah (2016)

Thanks to President Obama, for the first time in U.S. history, the public lands system has a national monument with a primary focus on Native American heritage: Bears Ears National Monument, established in 2016. The land in Utah is sacred to multiple tribes, and many Native people endured being forcibly driven off the land and confined to reservations. With this monument comes the establishment of a Bears Ears Commission of tribal representatives, which will help “to ensure that management decisions affecting the monument reflect tribal expertise and traditional and historical knowledge.” This is a step toward healing. From now on, through this monument, we can all benefit from the wisdom of the tribes that claim Bears Ears as their ancestral land.

2. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument, Maryland (2013)

This is a monument near and dear to the hearts of many who work for racial justice, as well as against modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Harriet Tubman was an active member of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Enshrining the story of how Harriet Tubman lived out her Christian commitment to racial justice in our national collective memory was a powerful act.

3. Cesar Chavez National Monument, California (2012)

The Cesar Chavez National Monument, established by President Obama in 2012 in California, is also a precious part of the heritage of many Latinxs, Catholics, and community organizers. Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers (UFW) employed some of the most effective organizing for political power in our country’s history. Cesar Chavez’s Catholic faith was an important part of his spiritual resolve to fast and pray for justice for farmworkers. I do not think it is a coincidence that President Obama’s campaign chant “Yes We Can” echoes the “Si Se Puede” of the UFW.

4. Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, Washington, D.C. (2015)

The Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument honors the memory of Quaker activist Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party, which won women the right to vote through extensive marching, picketing, hunger strikes, and lobbying.

5. Fort Monroe National Monument, Virginia (2011)

Fort Monroe was a Civil War-era military site known as the “Freedom Fortress,” since any slave reaching it would be set free.

6. The Pullman National Monument, Illinois (2015)

The Pullman National Monument in Chicago established in 2015 commemorates breakthroughs in the labor movement for African Americans.

7. The Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, Ohio (2013) 

Colonel Charles Young’s home in Ohio was dedicated as a national monument, honoring his important leadership of a Buffalo Solider regiment and as the first African-American Superintendent of a National Park.

8. Stonewall National Monument, New York City (2015)

President Obama incorporated civil rights history of gender and sexual minorities into the public lands system by designating the Stonewall Inn, site of the 1969 police raid and Stonewall riots. 

The Obama administration consistently underwent robust stakeholder engagement surrounding all initiatives, including any potential monument designation. The love that communities show for these new monuments evidences our collective ownership of them as national treasures. I am grateful that the Obama administration’s public lands agenda sent a clear message that diversity and inclusion matter, and I believe future administrations have much to learn from their example. In fact, I am part of a coaltion that is asking President Obama to issue a Presidential Memorandum which would transmit the values of diversity and inclusion to public lands agencies. May the stories enshrined in the national monuments of the Obama years nourish us for struggles in the years to come.

In the words of President Obama at his inauguration in 2009: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass… our common humanity shall reveal itself ... ”