"We are desperate and eager to get involved. It's not that we all don't have money to go places. The fact that we don't see ourselves in images on TV or in the outdoor media dampens our presence in this movement."
Why aren’t there more people of color enjoying the outdoors? To kick-start a frank and ongoing dialogue on this topic, we gathered an all-star cast of leaders in the fight to ensure diversity in the landscape: longtime conservation advocate Audrey Peterman, retired national-parks superintendent Gerard Baker, prairie-restoration guru Jarid Manos, and youth organizer Juan Martinez. Our moderator, NatureBridge board chairman Stephen Lockhart, steered the wide-ranging 90-minute discussion, in which, thankfully, none of our panelists pulled any punches—even when it came to Outside itself.
Stephen Lockhart: Why should this issue even matter? We face so many other struggles every day: economic challenges, education, social justice. What puts the outdoors on the top-ten list?
Juan Martinez: In my previous job, I was a housing-rights organizer. How do you explain to a single mom with three kids, living on welfare and about to be evicted, that nature should be a part of her and her children’s lives? It really made me more aware of what the messaging was around our connecting with nature. Conservation traditionally calls for an exclusion of people from the land. But how can somebody conserve something if they don’t understand what they’re conserving? We focus a lot on creating something that’s not there, and that’s the wrong way to engage communities.
I’m speaking from the Latino community. We have a connection with nature; it’s just in a different way. Look at family gatherings: A lot of communities have a hard time accommodating their extended families in apartments or houses, so where do they go? They go to local parks. If you go to any pier on any weekend here in L.A., you see the fishing lines over the harbor, and you see a lot of cultural diversity: African-American, Asian-American, and Latino. Our connection to nature has been and continues to be there, but there is some guidance that needs to happen. We need to be more a part of the fabric.
Audrey Peterman: Many people have said to me about the outdoors over the years, “Black people don’t do that.” I saw my first national park in 1995; it was Acadia, in Maine. I saw that expansive, untouched beauty, and that experience has not left me. I compare it to living in a mansion. Until that time, I’d only seen the kitchen, which is very serviceable, but then I felt like I had wandered into the grand living room. Oh, my God! That’s what people need to remind themselves of: who we are as human beings and who we are as a country.
Jarid Manos: The stereotype that we don’t care about the environment is a complete falsehood. People want access. People want work. They want green space and healthier communities. It’s a matter of letting people make those connections and helping them through. Even if we’re in the ’hood, we still live on the prairie.
Gerard Baker: I started out working in North Dakota’s Theodore Roosevelt National Park as a district ranger in the same area my people traditionally claimed as their territory. I spent many hours on horseback, and I had two thoughts when I would sit on high peaks and look out over the wilderness. One was: Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The second was sadness. Because from the American Indian standpoint, 100 percent of the American Indians got chased out of these areas. I saw eagle-trapping pits; I saw tepee areas that were still standing after a couple hundred years. To think that this was our area—where we could come to pray, to live—and we had that taken away from us. Now we have to pay to get back to our own land.
It’s a generational thing. My mom and dad were outstandingly bitter. With my generation it’s getting easier, and my kids and grandkids will hardly think about it anymore. Our next obligation is to get our people back on that land, to educate the young as to exactly what happened from a historical standpoint and to look at both sides. Then we’ll have a better feeling about returning to those lands we now call our national parks.