By Monica Danielle, AccuWeather senior producer (Reposted from accuweather.com)
A growing coalition hopes to get more people of color into the great outdoors. Uncovering the myriad reasons behind statistics that illustrate fewer people of color visit outdoor spaces, like America's national parks, is an integral part of creating diversity in wilderness.
Statistics collected from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service show that although people of color make up nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, roughly 70 percent of people who visit these outdoor spaces are white. Black people are the most dramatically underrepresented group.
Shelton Johnson is one of few Black national park rangers in the United States and one of the country's foremost experts on the Buffalo Soldiers, a group of Black men considered to be some of the very first park rangers. Johnson authored a novel, Gloryland, about the life of a Black man and his experiences as a Buffalo Soldier stationed in Yosemite. He told AccuWeather that at the beginning of his career he was blazing his own trail.
“You know when I was starting out as a ranger, there was not a backstory of previous African Americans who had written about the experience of wilderness," Shelton said.
As the years went on, Johnson found he was trying to capture a sense of belonging in these wilderness spaces that seemed elusive to people of color. It was uncovering the hidden legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers that helped him realize his ancestors were there from the beginning. He told AccuWeather a combination of economic inequality, legalized segregation and other forms of historical and current racial violence has perpetuated the current diversity gap.
“Why would African Americans, who descend from Africans, descend from people who had an innate, intimate connection with the natural world, why would they all of a sudden resist the experience of being in the wild, resist the experience of willingly seeking respite in the mountains or nature? What happened in between?"
Johnson blames the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Although African Americans made great strides during the Civil War, many of these accomplishments were reversed during Reconstruction and the years after. The fate of African Americans was eventually turned over to individual states, many of which adopted restrictive 'Jim Crow' laws that enforced segregation based on race and imposed measures aimed at keeping Black people from voting and many other spaces.
Johnson called to mind the Oscar-nominated movie, Green Book, which, as History.com notes, "tells the true story of the actual guide... which provided African Americans with advice on safe places to eat and sleep when they traveled through the Jim Crow-era United States."
The Green Book appeared yearly between 1936 and 1966 and helped Black travelers navigate any place where its readers might face prejudice or danger because of their skin color. As a result, while many visitors may see national parks as places of serenity or adventure, the African American experience with the outdoors has historically been punctuated by lynchings, flights from slavery and trauma. "Many of these sundown towns had those signs saying, 'Don't come in here' up until the '70s,” Johnson told AccuWeather.
“Why would you leave the safety of what you already know to be a fairly relatively safe place and go cross-country and go to Yellowstone, go to Zion, go to Canyonland?" Johnson reflected. "The whole point of a vacation is to enjoy yourself, but how can you enjoy yourself if you're full of fear?”
There are several groups and organizations that are not only doing the complex work to bring awareness to the lack of diversity in outdoor spaces but are also devoted to fixing a problem that has proven to be a daunting issue to tackle.
Teresa Baker, founder of In Solidarity Project told AccuWeather, “It's difficult because when you look at it, this is really a conversation around race. Period. And this country is not comfortable with that, so we have to find a way to make people feel comfortable in doing this work.”
For Baker, it was the lack of diversity she experienced on a trip to Yosemite that inspired her to found In Solidarity Project, which aims to increase the number of people of color who experience the great outdoors. “I just noticed the people around me, and it was an entire week that I spent in Yosemite and none of them look like me."
In 2018, Baker also launched the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge, which asks executives at companies to commit to creating, promoting and enforcing policies that expand the diversity, equity and inclusion of their employees, board members and customers.
"You don't see us in publications that talk about national parks; you don't see us in advertising that talks about national parks," Baker told AccuWeather.
By building a relationship of support, empathy and understanding, Baker hopes to move the outdoor industry toward authentic inclusion. She believes that by creating diverse marketing campaigns as well as highlighting experiences of African Americans in outdoor spaces in those campaigns and on social media, companies and other organizations can play a huge role in helping make people of color feel safe in these places that have historically been white spaces.
"We aren't visible and that's what we're working to change because when we see ourselves then there's a sense that's created that we too belong," Baker said. “It's a matter of finding ways to get more people of color in park uniforms, so that when we are there it's not uncomfortable to approach a ranger who looks like us and engage in conversation about the park."
Baker said that while diversity in outdoor spaces is crucial for the betterment of society as a whole, getting more people of color involved in discussions about the environment and the climate crisis is also critical.
"It's not going to come to my neighborhood and skip yours because we look different; it's going to jack up both of our communities. So it doesn't matter if you're white or if you're Black, this is your fight too. If you have kids, what are you leaving, what type of environmental mess are you leaving for future generations, if you don't act today?”
If you’re interested in learning more, becoming an In Solidarity Member, or connecting with Teresa, visit the In Solidarity community at InSolidarity.com.