“It doesn’t matter if it’s a giant park like this or a little tiny pocket park. It’s about the people. We’re here to serve them.”Parks & Recreation, Season 5, Episode 8

Heekin Park

Parks & Recreation

Parks and Recreation, the popular political mockumentary series starring Amy Pohler, Nick Offerman, Aubrey Plaza, and Chris Pratt, has been a fan favorite since its premiere in April 2009. The satire, which takes place in a small, Midwestern town in Central Indiana, focuses on the inner workings of its Parks & Recreation department and the absurd antics of its local government staff. While speculation about their inspiration pointed to several cities throughout Indiana, producers and cast eventually revealed that Pawnee, Indiana is actually based on Muncie, home of Ball State University.

Leslie Knope, Pawnee’s zealous public official may be fictional and thus not at the helm of Muncie’s real Parks and Recreation Department, but Dr. Jennifer Erickson, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Assistant Chair of the Department of Anthropology, saw an opening to craft an immersive learning class based on the goals and efforts of the hard-working, humorous characters in the show. She wanted to work with students to research and understand how public spaces are

Dr. Jennifer Erickson

used and managed in Muncie through the framework of urban anthropology. According to the course’s website, Dr. Erickson shares that “the fight for building and maintaining public space is widespread and ongoing, if not universal. A park is so much more than just a park. Parks are a lens for how much a community values public space, green space, recreation, safety, accessibility, and community events, and for the relationship between public and private spheres, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more.” This senior level course, ANTH 495 – Ethnographic Methods, hoped to answer some of the questions put forth about why these local parks are important and how they can be better managed to serve the community in greater ways. 

The class, which one of the methods courses required for all anthropology majors, has attracted students both within and outside of the department as it involves real-life experience working with the Muncie community and local government. It also allows students to experience a hands-on impact of their program while building valuable skills such as leadership, teamwork, communication, and critical thinking. In addition to their educational and career growth, students are able to explore and give back the community that they have grown to love through their education at Ball State.

“I really enjoyed getting to see the Muncie community outside of the Ball State perimeter. It was awesome getting to know people that are lifelong locals of this community.”Sierra Runion, Senior Anthropology Major

Westside Park Playground

Digging In

When entering the class, students are divided into four groups, each focused on one of the four major parks in Muncie: Tuhey Park, Westside Park, McCulloch Park, and Heekin Park.  Their goal was to examine these environments and turn the data they collected into patterns and stories, and each park presented students with unique challenges and research questions.

Through ethnographic research methods such as interviewing, participant observation, and field notes, students were able to begin to formulate ways in which the Parks and Recreation Department could improve their current operation and provide specialized attention to previously undeveloped programming. The students began constructing an argument about how parks serve as a lens for the city of Muncie by understanding the relationship between municipal government and its residents and exploring the role of power in the city. In addition they began to explore who is truly responsible for the parks and how the city of Muncie can work together as a whole to promote these public spaces. Recommendations included fostering increased communication between Park staff, the Parks and Recreation Board, and the wider community to bring attention and attendance to public functions and the needs of the parks. Additionally, students challenged the stereotyped definition of what a successful park looks like to help community members understand how much these parks do offer and how they would improve if outside people were to get involved. To share their findings, the students attended the Parks and Recreation board meetings, city council meetings, and even met with the superintendent of the board, Carl Malone.

Zoe Lawton

Additionally, students were tasked with creating and maintaining a website to consolidate their findings to the public and spread awareness of the parks throughout the community. Zoe Lawton, a senior Anthropology major, focused on Heekin Park and, after extensive research and writing, crafted an article about the importance of representation within the park.

“This experience has opened up new mindsets for myself. I have fallen in love with the history of these parks and I want to tell more their story.” – Zoe Lawton, Senior Anthropology Major

Overall, this experience allowed Ball State students to become more well-rounded anthropologists or learn how to combine their fields of interest. Brooklyn Kelley, a senior who is majoring in Natural Resources, found that this course gave her great insight into how she can incorporate her degree with a minor in Anthropology and Spanish. Under the guidance of Dr. Erickson, she is now able to see how these programs overlap to satisfy all of her interests and future goals.

Creating an Impact

Painting of Westside Park by Keira McWhinney

Although the goal of this immersive learning experience has been to equip students with tools and educational opportunities to grow as future anthropologists, the impact of their work has gone beyond the classroom. Recently the Muncie Parks and Recreation Department has been able to improve their parks and construct a well-researched Parks and Rec. Five Year Plan. For example, the city approved the first ever Parks Program Director so that parks programming can engage more Muncie residents. Muncie parks and trees are among the current mayor’s top priorities which include the 1,000 Trees Program and stressing the importance of the parks for attracting and maintaining a healthy, happy community.

Students have witnessed the importance of being an active citizen in their community.

My favorite part about this experience was getting to become a better Muncie resident. I have started to go to [neighborhood meetings] by myself because I know my job as a citizen of Munice is represent both myself and others.” – Zoe Lawton, Senior Anthropology Major

This unique Ball State program will continue for the foreseeable future, impacting the lives of community members and students for many years to come. Dr. Erickson and her students carry on with passion to achieve their goal of improving the parks to preserve and  improve the Muncie community and live up the expectations put forth by the fictional characters of Parks & Rec. 

For more information about the Department of Anthropology, visit our website, contact our office or follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.