Betty Reid Soskin, Groundbreaking Park Ranger, to Have East Bay Middle School Renamed in Her Honor

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National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin, 99, at the Rosie the Riveter Visitor Center in Richmond, in 2017. On Wednesday, the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board of Education voted to change the name of Juan Crespi Middle School to Betty Reid Soskin Middle School. (Courtesy Luther Bailey/National Park Service)

An El Sobrante middle school will be renamed in honor of National Park Service Ranger Betty Reid Soskin following a vote by the West Contra Costa Unified School District's Board of Education Wednesday night.

The vote came after eight months of consideration to rename Juan Crespi Middle School. According to the district, social justice movements during the COVID-19 pandemic inspired the school to assign students a project researching their former namesake, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, and the mission system's exploitation of the Indigenous people living in California.

Eighth grader Anaya Zenad, along with faculty members, led a series of community meetings earlier this year and petitioned the WCCUSD school board to change the name, according to EdSource.

“I’m a person of color, and I don’t want to be treated horribly in school where I want to learn,” Zenad, who is Mexican American, told EdSource. “If that represents our school, then why would I even come?”

Principal Guthrie Fleischman told EdSource the idea for the research project arose last summer, in the wake of the nation's racial reckoning following the police murder of George Floyd.

“Students have always been told a very whitewashed version of history," Fleischman said. "Essentially we wanted to provide an alternative perspective ... A name can be motivating, a call to action, or it can harbor trauma and violence and abuse."

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The Juan Crespi Renaming Committee came up with two options for a new name: Chochenyo Middle School, to recognize the language spoken by Indigenous tribes in the Richmond area, or Betty Reid Soskin.

"The district must be agents of change," WCCUSD trustee Jamela Smith-Folds said in a statement. "Naming a middle school Betty Reid Soskin is creating conditions for positive change."

Soskin, 99, is the United States' oldest National Park Service ranger. A graduate of Oakland's Castlemont High School, she works at the Rosie the Riveter World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, which honors World War II home front workers and recognizes the contribution of Richmond's shipyards.

Before working at the museum, Soskin was herself a home front worker in Richmond.

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During World War II, she worked as a file clerk helping Black workers. She was active in the civil rights struggle and founded a record store in Berkeley. Now, she helps teach park visitors about the contributions of women and African Americans to the war effort, and about the experience of Black home front workers – an otherwise "missing" part of the story, she wrote in an article for Newsweek.

"What gets remembered is a function of who's in the room doing the remembering," Soskin told NPR in 2014, recalling her involvement in hashing out plans for the park's creation in 2001.

As the only person of color at the planning table, Soskin said she drew deeper connections between Richmond's World War II-era home front historic sites that define the park, and those sites' histories of racial segregation. She said she was "the only person in the room who had any reason to remember that."

Soskin spoke to KQED in 2018, when her memoir "Sign My Name to Freedom" was released.

"Betty Reid Soskin is a national icon, leader, and symbol of inspiration in the WCCUSD community," WCCUSD trustee Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy said in a statement.

"I am thankful to the now Betty Reid Soskin community to be a small part of the process of this renaming and to the families, communities, and especially the students who advocated for this change."

This story includes reporting from Bay City News, EdSource's Ali Tadayon and KQED's David Marks.