For this Journalist, Rebuilding a Georgia Park Was More Than Community Service

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Isabel Gonzalez
Photo: Courtesy

Isabel González Whitaker is following in her mother’s footsteps. In her southern home state of Georgia, which in 2015 had the fastest Hispanic population growth in the U.S. according to a Pew Research poll, she has redesigned a park in her mother’s honor. It is the very first park named after a Latino person in the state.

Whitaker’s mother, Sara J. González, left her daughter a legacy of advocacy when she passed away 10 years ago. The Cuban immigrant, who fled Fidel Castro’s reign in 1960s Cuba, began a career in Latino community development that started at the Latin American Association and led her to becoming President and CEO of the Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where she served for 12 years on behalf of other Latino entrepreneurs (she had previously owned a local Cuban restaurant). González’s work left a lasting impact on the community, which is where, her daughter says, the last remaining Hispanic population now lives – and plays, of course, in her namesake, history-making park.

González Whitaker’s focus on giving back to the community where she grew up has garnered prestigious attention. Earlier this year, she was named a Presidential Leadership Scholar, for her work in recreation and sports. She's been recognized for her desire to foster an inclusive community with an all-abilities playground, thorough wheelchair access, a soccer field, and community plaza. The Trust for Public Land recently named her Atlanta's 2018 Cox Conserves Hero, an award that celebrates locals who reinvent outdoor spaces.

So far, González Whitaker has raised $270,000 to follow through on her ideas, and she isn’t stopping there. The former InStyle and Billboard magazine editor says she’s dedicated to continually improving the park. “I think what this has taught me is that I’m comfortable being the voice of a community, just like my mother was,” González Whitaker says. “I think it’s an extension of her legacy.”

Isabel Gonzalez

Getting started: González Whitaker, the youngest of three siblings, had the park renamed in 2009, one year after her mother’s death. Initially, she wanted to rename a highway in the area, but when a friend suggested she aim to rename a park, everything started to fall into place. “My mother loved kids, she loved nature, and she loved families,” González Whitaker says. “So, a park really spoke to her core values in a way that I don't think a highway, quite frankly, ever could have.”

Around 2014, González Whitaker received a large donation from a developer building a grocery store in the area. With that surge of funds, she started building community programs and revamping her area, which she says sits at the “intersection of gentrification and legacy Hispanic family community.” She created a steering committee of locals to help figure out what exactly the community wanted and needed. “Not everybody is going to know who Sara J. González was, but certainly, there will be Hispanic and minority children who see ‘González’ and recognize that as a representation of themselves symbolically,” González Whitaker explains. “But beyond that, I really wanted to embrace the broader themes and values that were so important to my mother: diversity, community, unity, and family."

New and improved: This year, to honor her mother’s passing, González Whitaker held a ribbon-tying ceremony to formerly introduce some of the improvements she’s already made to the space, including the playground, which was inspired by a family member with special needs. “Everything is accessible to everybody together in one unified space,” González Whitaker says. Other projects include a soccer field and a planned “learning nook," a shaded pergola with permanent seating and even electricity, a first of its kind in Atlanta.

“The ESOL teachers would come every day after school with a folding card table and folding metal chairs,” González Whitaker says. “I thought, ‘Nope. Not acceptable. We're going to take care of this and we're going to give you something proper where the kids can really focus.’” The nook will hopefully also provide space for financial literacy and civics classes. “It was so important to [my mom] to give people the resources and the lessons to start their businesses and to fulfill the American dream,” she says.

Role model mom: During Sara J. González’s time in Atlanta, she opened her own small business, a restaurant called Sarita, after fleeing Cuba in the 1960s, stopping off in New York, then Miami, and ultimately settling in the South. The Cuban restaurant eventually folded, but not before fostering a huge sense of community and a passion in González for supporting other Hispanic families. Shortly thereafter, she began her career in advocacy.

“When she passed, she had just received a very prestigious award called the Purpose Prize for her efforts around creating these sort of business incubators across the state, which generated millions of dollars for the economy,” González Whitaker says. “It was really inspired by the fact that she had no financial literacy [when she first came to this country].”

Park power: González says she’s learned a lot about the power of parks in her nine-year stewardship over the land. “You don’t think of them as living, breathing spaces. But I heard somewhere recently that neighborhoods without parks are just housing,” González Whitaker says. “I think parks bring this sense of community support as another platform and place for beautiful opportunities.”

González Whitaker saw the unifying potential to the space first hand when she held an interfaith vigil during the family separation protests held near the U.S.-Mexico border. “I didn’t want it to be political. I wanted this to be a spiritual convening,” she says. And it was. González Whitaker says she saw mothers, rabbis, priests, and more come out to show support. “I think that's the power of parks, to bring people together so that they see each other for the humanity that we all represent.”

Isabel Gonzalez

Presidential prowess: As part of the 2018 class of Presidential Leadership Scholars, González Whitaker was able to meet Barbara and George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and more powerful peers. For six months, she and the other 60 rising leaders met in different presidential libraries to learn more about what was possible with their existing programs. “We [learned] how to propel our personal projects around social good, optimally,” González Whitaker says.

Learning curve: “I learned very quickly that playground equipment is really expensive. You wouldn’t realize how expensive it is,” González Whitaker says with a subtle laugh. Going from magazine editor to park stewardess hasn’t been an easy process. However, once she got the hang of it, she says her delegation skills helped her manage multiple projects at a time. Plus bringing her Latina roots into her work goes back to creating a club called Hola to unite Spanish-speaking employees at Time Inc. “I think being an editor was great training for creating a park and creating a consensus around a park with multiple stakeholders,” she says.

On a more emotional level, González Whitaker says it was simply difficult to get started on the project while still grieving.One of the hardest things was creating something that's born from a very sad time in my life,” she says. She also lost her brother six months after her mother passed. “There was a time when every time I would go to the park, I would cry and cry and cry. The first time I brought my son there, whom my mother never met, it was very emotional.” But the support around her park projects has lifted her spirits and kept her charging on. “It slowly turned from being a beacon for me and my healing to being a beacon for the community. It only got that way because I was able to, with the support of the community and people who believed in what this park could be and represent culturally something much greater than the pain that I was suffering.”

Advice for her son: González Whitaker wants her son, who turns 6 this month, to know that his grandmother was eternally optimistic. “When you're comfortable in this country, sometimes you forget how jarring it can be to come here and be stripped of your resources and your support system,” she says, adding that she also has great respect for her mother having come to America not knowing the language with two babies in tow. “That legacy of bravery and courage is something I definitely want my son to know about. I may never be able to emulate her bravery or her courageousness, but I can give a voice to a community that I think needs it right now.”

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