BY TAMIA DAME
National parks, sustainability, social justice and inclusion: As a UNC Asheville student with a passion for studying these things, I felt compelled to attend the Spring Greenfest keynote address by authors Audrey and Frank Peterman. The Petermans delivered an insightful speech March 26 titled It’s Time to Break Race Barriers in the Great Outdoors, touching on the disproportionately small percentage of people of color who make up the overall national park visitor population, compared to the vast percentage of their white counterparts.
This trend is a topic of conversation among conservationists, environmentalists, environmental justice advocates and others. Despite those who know and care, finding solutions to this problem can be tough. Aware of this, Audrey and Frank offered advice on effective practices they’ve used in over 20 years working to diversify green spaces.
After their last child graduated, the Petermans decided to take a cross-country road trip to explore the protected lands of our country. They visited national parks across 12,000 miles and were astounded by the places they found, including the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and the Badlands.
“I had no idea there was this much beauty in the world; the entire landscape seemed untouched by human hands. I had an incredible transformative revelation at that point: I realized that the same entity that created that also made me, and it seemed if that was beautiful and perfect, then I must be beautiful and perfect too, and so must be everyone and everything else,” Audrey remarked.
There was one not-so-beautiful thing that Audrey and Frank became aware of by the end of their journey. “From coast to coast,” Audrey told the audience, “we saw a total of four black people.”
Following their journey, Audrey remembers sharing her excitement about these awe-inspiring landscapes with a friend, another person of color. “‘What? I have no idea what you’re talking about,’” her friend had remarked. “She really had no clue these places existed in our own country, and if I had been in her position just a few weeks earlier, I would have been equally nonplussed because I didn’t even know these places were out there.”
Audrey emphasized that recognizing the lack of information in the black community inspired them to “light a candle” and become pioneers in the movement to cultivate a population of outdoor enthusiasts that better represents U.S. demographics.
The words the Petermans had to offer hit close to home for me. As a woman of color with a love for Mother Earth, I, too, question the racial demographics I’ve observed in most outdoor spaces. My favorite outdoor activity is hiking the Appalachian Mountains, and similar to the Petermans, it’s rare for me to see another person of color along any given trail.
The typical outdoor enthusiast in my experience can be easily identified by hiking boots, name-brand outdoor apparel, a backpack full of gear and white skin. One exception I often see in national parks is people from around the globe who have traveled thousands of miles to see the mountains I grew up roaming. This eventually leaves me as usually the only American person of color I see on these public lands. If folks can travel from near and far corners of the world to explore here, why does it seem our own black and brown citizens are left out of the national park visitor population?
Embedded in everyday life are reminders of slavery and segregation, and many aspects are so well-hidden they’re tough to pinpoint. This is especially true for those on the outside looking in, namely white folks who struggle to understand why racial diversity and equity are so important. Segregation effectively taught people to believe there are designated “white-only” spaces. Today that manifests in the idea that dialect, behavior, locations, etc., can be described as exclusively white or black regardless of who participates.
For most of us, this incites a stream of consciousness in which we inadvertently segregate ourselves. In short, a culture that believes in “white-people things,” creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is plainly evident when it comes to population demographics of public lands and green spaces.
Environmentalism is notoriously known as a movement celebrated largely by white people. This is true despite the fact that nearly all natural disasters affect people of color at rates disproportionate to white people. One might ask if this trend over time may also have impact on how people of color think and feel about the natural world.
The National Park Service conducted comprehensive surveys in 2000 and 2008-09 to measure the racial and ethnic diversity of national park visitors. As far as respondents who could name a national park they visited in the previous two years, there was growth across the board. The black response increased from 13 percent to 28 percent but remained the lowest percentage reported. Black respondents were also more likely to report that national parks are too far away and accommodations are too expensive. Perhaps most shocking is the 56 percent of black respondents who claim that they simply have little knowledge of national parks.
While this disparity in national parks is evident, some still fail to understand the importance of diverse inclusion. Well-loved public lands are at stake, with some currently being considered as potential sites for mining and oil drilling. And with admission prices to popular national parks on the rise, we must emphasize that public lands are not a privilege meant for those who can afford them.
The majority alone cannot protect public lands; rather, we need a united community committed to protecting America’s greatest treasures. People of color must be engaged in the effort, and this begins with exposure and accessibility. People of color have the right to know about these lands and to be educated on policies that restrict their accessibility.
“The benefit of being able to look over the last 20 years is that we’ve seen progress happen, but not nearly at the rate it needs to,” Audrey offered. This is why it’s crucial to acknowledge those who foster change and spread the word of the work being done. Opportunities for people of color to engage in environmental efforts aren’t as rare as they seem.
The Petermans have contributed to the cause by initiating the Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau and the Atlanta-based nonprofit Keeping it Wild. Other programs include Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, the Environmental Professionals of Color Network and hundreds more.
Local organization Asheville GreenWorks offers a Youth Environmental Leadership Program, a paid internship focused on advancing equity in the environmental field. This program provides high school and college age students with opportunities to gain outdoor skills and education, provide meaningful service work and obtain useful skills for future employment.
I’m personally thankful for Everybody’s Environment, a collaboration of environmental and community-based groups in WNC striving to foster equity, plus the Conservation Trust for North Carolina’s Diversity in Conservation Internship Program, for which I’ll be serving my second summer AmeriCorps term this year.
The public lands system unites American people beyond skin color: It taps into an innate sense of adventure and humility. Audrey and Frank Peterman are two wonderful leaders of change in the efforts to diversify these public lands.
Though the future of diverse green spaces may seem far away, there are people nationwide making connections and creating opportunities for progress daily. It’s our responsibility to support those people and organizations; research the cause, donate, volunteer, follow and share their social media pages, and reach out and let your representatives know that this work is important.
As Audrey states, “There is nothing in the way of our integrating the public lands system except for the desire and the commitment.”
Tamia Dame is an undergraduate student at UNC Asheville working toward her bachelor’s degree in environmental management and policy.