By Frances Figart, Creative Services Director
In late May, as the park began to resume operations after being fully closed for 46 days, a shock wave rang out around the world when George Floyd was tragically killed in Minneapolis. Socially distancing and working from home due to COVID-19, the public tuned in to racial injustice as it had not done since the 1960s. With the ensuing mass protests and continued violence ushering in a social revolution of global proportions, this new recognition of racism’s true face began to take a different shape in each community.
Profoundly affected by these events, GSMNP Superintendent Cassius Cash intuitively decided to take positive action for his own park and its local communities. In early June, he asked Great Smoky Mountains Association to support him in creating Smokies Hikes for Healing. Through this initiative, he is inviting people of all races to hit the park trails with him to have difficult discussions about racism, social justice, and how to grow during this time of profound change.
“There is a new chapter being written in this country’s history, but we can’t tell the story yet because it’s still being written,” said Superintendent Cash. “What do you do in the meantime? Well, for me, the answer is: put your own identity into it to help write the story.”
Smokies Hikes for Healing (SHFH) utilizes Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a place of sanctuary for eight guided hikes over several months. Ten independent individuals from Tennessee and North Carolina communities around the park will be selected for each experience. During the hikes, a dynamic facilitator will lead groups in a thought-provoking discussion around race by first establishing an environment that is trusting, bold, and safe for individuals to recognize the long-standing ills associated with racism and how these have carried over into today’s society.
“I like to say, if I have left it better than when I found it, then I have done my job. But that doesn’t just apply to my workplace, it’s also about my community,” Cash said. “Addressing these issues and looking at how our communities can make changes or be a part of change, I think that is the job I’m here to do.”
Those who are interested in applying to participate in SHFH can find information at smokieshikesforhealing.org and at hashtags #smokieshikesforhealing and #SHFH. As part of the SHFH experience, the park will create a digital platform where participants can share their stories, realizations, and commitments to inspire others to be a part of the journey in their own way.