The United States is one of the most diverse countries in the world. So diverse, our history rests on the backbone of immigration. Another important piece of our history is the preservation of public spaces. We boast some of the most beautiful and varied landscapes for the public to enjoy. So why aren’t more people from diverse backgrounds reaping the rewards?
The National Park Service’s (NPS) latest study showed that a mere 20% of visitors were minorities. The US Forest Service shows even more distressing numbers. Only 5.1% of national forest visitors between 2011 and 2015 were minorities.
As much as we’d like to bury our heads and think this problem will fix itself, it won’t. The question “why” is one a lot of us have asked ourselves but are too uncomfortable to talk openly about.
A few brave soldiers are starting to speak up. News sources like The Huffington Post and The New York Times are featuring stories. What we need is more discourse. Not just from the media, but from the represented, and underrepresented. We need facts, data, opinions, and anything else that will get the attention of those affected.
Two important pieces of discussion should be figuring out what the problems are, and how to fix them.
The problems are multi-faceted. They begin with the way we define accessibility to the outdoors. The barriers that prevent people from enjoying outdoor services aren't always subtle.
There's a lot of talk about the outdoors not excluding minorities. Folks say this isn't a problem because the outdoors don't inherently keep anyone out.
But like most things, the outdoors are driven by industry. The outdoor industry is a white, male dominated one. Pick up a clothing catalog, or a popular outdoor magazine. How many of the pictures feature people of color?
Accessibility, in fact, is an issue. From a young age, kids from minority backgrounds are at a disadvantage when it comes to gaining access to the outdoors.
If you tour white, affluent high school campuses, you see flyers for outdoor summer camps. Tour a campus of an inner-city school. You won’t see that kind of thing.
It’s less an issue of “exclusion,” and more an issue of “lack of inclusion.”
Remember that NPS study I mentioned earlier? The top two reasons minorities gave for not visiting the parks were:
1. “I just don’t know that much about NPS units”
2. “The hotel and food costs at NPS units are too high”
Clearly, there’s a disconnect. Between socioeconomic availability and education, and what’s expected when visiting outdoor locations. A lot of us know about low-cost or free options like BLM and forest land. Many of us also know we can go hiking in old Nikes and torn up leggings. But not everyone considers these options when planning an outdoor excursion.
The National Parks are our most marketed outdoor destinations. Destinations that, rightfully so, charge a premium for entry. Add the cost of camping and food; it adds up. If you were new to the outdoors, you might look at those catalog photos for gear and clothing ideas. $150 for a pair of hiking shoes? There goes the budget.
Another problem is the tenuous way we look to the future of the outdoors.
Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson draws an important point about the future of our national parks. He reminds us that making the parks equal opportunity is critical for their continued survival. As the population becomes more diverse, minorities become the majority. People of all backgrounds make up the voting population. These precious resources will need their votes for protection. Reaching out to them now will ensure they know what they’re fighting for. We are all stewards of our nation’s public lands. Without the support of everyone, we will lose these gifts.
Furthermore, the outdoors provide a host of physical and mental health benefits. Why wouldn’t we want to promote healthy activities for our children? Sustainability is more than driving an electric car. Taking care of our lands means taking care of ourselves.
So, how do we solve these problems? How do we reach populations that may not have access to information about the outdoors? How do we make it easier for them to gain that access? And, how do we convey the value of the outdoors, especially to younger generations?
There are a few things we can do to start.
We need more stories celebrating the accomplishments of outdoor athletes and explorers. Explorers of color get a fraction of the attention that “mainstream” explorers do. Ask ten people who Sophia Danenberg is. How many knew the answer? Now ask ten people who Conrad Anker is.
We also need better education about historical figures of color in the outdoors. The Buffalo Soldiers are an important part of American history.
They're skipped over in history books and outdoor guides alike. African-American Matthew Henson was the first person to stake the North Pole. He was part of a team, led by Robert Peary. Peary became ill and couldn’t go on, at which point Henson went ahead to plant the American flag. Henson’s role in that expedition remained cloaked for more than fifty years.
Outdoor gear and clothing manufacturers should feature more diversity in their models. Outdoor magazines should write articles that cater to a more diverse audience.
Engaging our youth using platforms they're familiar with is a great place to start. Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Catchy hashtags and titles that grab their limited attention. Bright, flashy images that show them what they’re missing. The US Interior Department’s Instagram feed is one of the most impressive out there.
Once we have their attention, we need to make the outdoors easy to enjoy. By removing obstacles, young people everywhere can become consumers of the outdoors. This may include mentorship, subsidiaries and grants, programs, or educational materials. By whatever means possible, we need to make it happen.
We can use data we already have to launch the conversation. Outdoor Foundation’s recent findings show that minorities’ favorite outdoor activities are running, biking, and wildlife viewing. Minority youth report physical fitness and being with family as the most important motivators for being outside. Conversely, they report disinterest and cost as top detractors. These data give us talking points for educational material, mentor programs, media topics, even hashtags.
Several organizations are currently doing great work with minority groups in the outdoors. These organizations deserve recognition.
The American Latino Heritage Fund is part of the National Park Foundation. They offer grants and programs that celebrate the relationship between the parks and Latino heritage.
Latino Outdoors is a network of leaders devoted to introducing Latino families to the outdoors.
Outdoor Afro is a network of leaders committed to inspiring African Americans to connect with nature.
The Inspiring Connections Outdoors program is part of the Sierra Club. It's dedicated to bringing the outdoors to those with limited access. They emphasize reaching out to youth.
Big City Mountaineers provides wilderness mentor and expedition opportunities for underprivileged youth.
These programs are on the front line for creating necessary change in the outdoors.
Let’s follow in their footsteps by keeping the dialogue going and being agents of progress. We can make the outdoors a more accessible, welcome place for everyone.
By reaching out to young people from all backgrounds, we can excite and inform them. This gets the conversation started. By setting a standard that includes people of all shapes and colors, we redefine the face of the outdoors. This nurtures the conversation. By recruiting a diverse population to care for the outdoors, we secure prosperity. This turns the conversation into action.