What’s Your National Park Story?

By: 
National Park Superintendent Cherie Butler

What’s your story? For some, the right story at the right moment can brighten a day; for others, it can even make the world seem like a better place.

Everyone has a story to tell. It comes complete with a fascinating plot, at times it’s riddled with drama and suspense, and it’s chock full of great characters and pivotal moments. One of the pivotal moments in my life story emerged thanks to the National Park Service, and it’s provided opportunities for real personal growth.

My initial introduction to the National Park Service was in 1992 as a co-op student from the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.  I originally aspired to find work in New York City in arts and culture, but after one summer as a park ranger at the Statue of Liberty National Monument, I was immediately hooked on the National Park Service.

Fast-forward 21 years… I’m still here.

I feel tremendously privileged to really love what I do.  My career has kept me on the northeast coast, working at seven different national parks in states spanning from Maryland to Massachusetts. Though each experience has been incredible and has helped shape my world view, my most transformative experience, by far, was at the African Burial Ground National Monument (AFBG) in New York. 

At the AFBG, I served as Chief of Interpretation, Education and Cultural Resources. The setting was a space that nurtured dialogue and conversation. It was my first experience working at a place that dramatically displayed the efforts of intense civic engagement in a national park setting.

Some of the AFBG volunteers would vividly “tell their story” of many days of protests and ultimately, long days of celebration. When you consider the emotional power of these stories – especially since these stories are often the untold ones lived by people who look like me – it makes a lasting impact on you. The experience was completely life-changing. In fact, it has been the most authentic and my most fulfilling experience at a national park.

In March 2013, I was selected for my new role as the first superintendent of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument.  The national commemoration of this remarkable woman, whose efforts made such a profound impact on American history, was long overdue.

The national monument is a site in progress, and we are literally building it from the ground up. The State of Maryland will begin constructing a visitor center and we will co-manage the space. From the very beginning, it has been critical for the National Park Service to build relationships and partner with local and national organizations that genuinely care about protecting Tubman’s legacy. Our vital partnership with the State of Maryland and the US Fish and Wildlife Service demonstrates each group’s commitment to protecting her legacy. In the end, our efforts will lead to exhibits that reflect her life and her accomplishments. This national park is a tribute to her story.

It feels good to think that what I do every day for the National Park Service, even the small things, contribute to my story. I have grown so much from the young girl who entered the National Park Service 21 years ago.  Much of my growth can be attributed to all I have experienced in national parks. Our national parks are the nation’s storytellers, the custodians of America’s history, and the world’s largest classrooms.  I'm proud of what I've been a part of so far, and I am ready for whatever my next step is going to be.  That’s my story.

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Cherie Butler is the Superintendent at Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument (HATU) and the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom Program.   A 21-year veteran of the National Park Service, Butler was selected as the first superintendent of HATU. Butler has served as Chief of Interpretation and Education for seven national parks in New York City, including Hamilton Grange National Memorial, General Grant National Memorial, African Burial Ground National Monument, Castle Clinton National Memorial, Theodore Roosevelt National Historic Site, Saint Paul National Memorial and Federal Hall National Memorial. Butler has been credited with translating complex and sometimes controversial history into compelling public programming and interpretive media.