In 2021, I visited 12 U.S. National Parks and National Monuments as we traveled around the American West in our little camper van. Yep, I’m one of those digital nomads who work from anywhere with a decent Wi-Fi connection. 2021, in particular, we toured America’s great outdoor spaces. In particular, the spaces the U.S. government deemed important enough to protect by giving it a “National” status.
If you follow me on social, you might already know I have a pretty big passion for nature and the great outdoors. But this is not meant to highlight my white privileged outdoor travels, but to highlight the lack of diversity seen within these spaces during our seven months of adventuring outdoors.
My point? I can count on two hands how many Black people I saw in these outdoor spaces, both visitors and National Park Service employees, during my 7 month sojourn in the National Parks of the American West. It’s not hard to keep track because when you see a Black person in a National Park, you notice them –if only because you’ve realized that you haven’t seen a Black person since you left the whichever city you came from to visit said National Park.
And there are a few reasons I noticed (and maybe you do too) the lack of diversity in the outdoors.
Every February, we dedicate a few social posts or maybe even a blog post like this one to black history. It bears repeating that black history is U.S. history. We need to acknowledge it and remember it as frequently as we think about any other aspect of our intertwined history as humans.
Now, I know Black History is an expansive topic, and I can only harp my own distorted narrative here. There is sooo much learning (and unlearning) that we need to do surrounding this topic.
My goal is to shine a light specifically on Black History and the resulting underrepresentation we are currently dealing with so we can take action today to make the outdoor spaces more accessible and welcoming for every Black, white, brown, yellow, pink, or turquoise person out there.
One month, one year, and one century will never be enough time to cover the diverse, rich history of Black people.
It’s time to address the deep-rooted barriers for Blacks in the outdoor spaces and remove them so that Black representation and access to National Parks reflects America’s rich, diverse population.
According to Park Servies Social Scientist Jim Grumman, “The demographic face of America is not reflected in national park visitation, with a few exceptions.” He said, “In the large Western parks especially, visitors are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic white, highly educated and affluent.” (New York Times)
History Of Black People In National Parks
Today’s representation of Black people in National Parks ties directly back to Black History and the racial disparities formed over the centuries to segregate our society, even in outdoor spaces.
I’ve seen the results myself, even in the 21st century. But given my own observation of the lack of representation created as a society in our own National Parks, I want to point you towards some resources that shed light on why People of Color are less likely than other Americans to visit national parks and what we can do to alleviate this issue.
To better understand why Black people are underrepresented in the outdoor spaces, I suggest reading “People of Color and Their Constraints to National Parks Visitation” by David Scott and KangJae Jerry Lee. This research paper does a more thorough job than I ever could, but I will highlight some key findings.
Scott and Lee state Black people are less likely to visit National Parks compared to other Americans due to:
1) limited socioeconomic resources
2) cultural factors and boundary maintenance
3) discrimination and White racial frames
Unequal pay, an increase in economic inequality, transport issues, socialization practices, cultural relevance and constraints, lack of outdoor knowledge or formative experience with outdoor recreation, discriminatory and exclusionary practices in the past and present, lineage trauma within these spaces, white racial framing (among many, many other reasons) all contribute towards the representation disparity in our National Parks.
The Disparity Of Black Representation
An overwhelming majority of National Park Visitors are white. Based on the 2010 U.S. Census, 72% of Americans identified as white and 13% as Black. When N.P.S. examined the race of National Park visitors, 91-97% of visitors identified as white (this range depended on the region where the National Park was located), while less than 2% identified as Black (this number was across all regions where National Parks were located).
In 2013, the N.P.S. created the Office of Relevancy, Diversity, and Inclusion to address the lack of people of color in national parks. But that still isn’t enough.
What Can We Do To Increase Black Participation In Outdoor Spaces?
While I encourage everyone to learn more about the history, the most critical issue at hand is what can we do today to increase black participation in the great outdoors?
We can start by
- Electing representatives that stand for diversity + inclusion in outdoor spaces. National Parks require congressional approval for any initiatives or programs they pursue
- Promoting initiatives and programs that work toward ensuring younger generations of Americans, particularly youth of color, establish a long-term relationship and gain in-depth experiences with national parks
- Speaking out for better representation of People of Color in the N.P.S. workforce (a 2018 study showed that 80-83% of the N.P.S. workforce is White). (New York Times)
- Educating ourselves on why Black people are one of the least represented groups of Americans in National Parks
- Promote Outdoor movements that target Blacks and other People of Color (see below for a complete list)
Great resources to check out:
Here are some organizations working to increase Black representation in outdoor spaces.
- Next 100 Coalition is working towards a shared vision of a more diverse and inclusive land and ocean conservation movement.
- H.E.A.T. Hikes: Bay Area hiking group bringing diversity SOMEWHERE every weekend.
- Outdoor Afro: celebrating and inspiring Black connections and leadership in nature. Heathikes Black Girls Trekkin’: a group for women of color who choose to opt outside. They inspire and empower black women to spend time outdoors, appreciate nature, and protect it.
- Black Outside Inc.: (Re)connecting Black youth to the outdoors through culturally relevant outdoor experiences.
- Melanin Basecamp: bringing diversity into the outdoors.
- Soul Trak Outdoors: facilitating community, recreation, service, and leadership for P.O.C. in nature.
- Black Kids Adventure: Inspiring Black families to engage in outdoor adventures together through group hikes, caving excursions, paddle boarding, and more
Social Accounts to follow.
Books to read.
The Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places by Dudley Edmondson
Every single person deserves the right to enjoy the outdoor spaces. Barriers need to be eliminated, and diversity should be represented and celebrated everywhere, including National Parks, State Parks, local parks, and the curbside around the corner from your house.
Did I miss any black outdoor resources? Let me know! I’m happy to keep this list fresh and growing!