Juan Martinez
Juan Martinez (Vanessa Torres)

Fighting for Diversity in the Outdoors

Our panel runs down the challenges, including the unwaveringly white face of adventure media

Juan Martinez
Vanessa Torres

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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.

Lockhart: To state the obvious, we’re becoming a much more diverse society. People of color are becoming the majority. People protect what they know, and so it’s important for the future of the planet for our young people to have a real love for the environment. And the work that we’re doing with natural-science education in the national parks clearly demonstrates that kids who have learning opportunities connected with nature do better; they have better retention, test scores, and so forth.

Why else is it important for us to reconnect with the outdoors?

Peterman: I’d like to talk about the word biophilia—E. O. Wilson’s theory that human beings need nature not just for recreation but as a physical reality. We need nature for all our processes to work, for us to be fully human. It’s important to recognize that when we talk about how race, ethnicity, and culture affect our relationship with nature, in America it’s different. The racial aspect is different. For example, I grew up in Jamaica. No Jamaican I know is in any way intimidated by the great outdoors. The difference for African-Americans who grew up here is the cultural history in which people were enslaved and had a very vicious relationship with the land. People are afraid of atrocities that were perpetrated against people of color on the land.

Manos: Building on what Audrey just said, you make labor good again when you give people opportunities to move past the total disempowerment of their lives and actually rebuild—that establishes a connection. Our experience restoring ecosystems is different from recreation. The work is being done by some very damaged people—people for whom trauma, crisis, anger, violence, despair, apathy, depression, hopelessness, and anxiety have been the norm. And I think they can see the connections between the restoration of the land and their own lives and futures.

Baker: For American Indians, that connection to the land is everything. Reservation life is not really an existence that has much of a future unless the young people start understanding nature again, not only through spiritual values but also through discovery of natural resources and the many sciences. We’re at a point right now where it would be very advantageous for the government, including the Park Service, to start bringing youth back to our lands again.

Martinez: While I love nature and I love it for everything it’s done for me and the healing power that it has, I love it more because I see the impact it has on people from all walks of life—but especially people who have had the hardest time growing up, and finally they get a piece of heaven through nature. Culture plays into that: every single race, culture, has its roots in the land. It’s really engraved in our genes.

Lockhart: Juan, you made a comment that we have to be part of the message. One of the biggest messages comes from images embedded in advertising. To whom is the outdoor industry really marketing?

Peterman: People of color don’t see themselves in the picture. When I see someone like me in the picture, then it’s talking to me—it’s diverse, it’s inclusive. Otherwise it’s talking to the white majority. I just asked professor Carolyn Finney at the University of California at Berkeley to send me something from her research for her upcoming book, Black Faces, White Spaces: African Americans and the Great Outdoors. She looked at 44 issues of Outside magazine over a ten-year period, from 1991 to 2001, and found that, of 6,986 pictures, 4,602 contained people, but only 103 were of African-Americans. And those were mostly well-known male sports figures in urban settings.

I mention this because I think to a larger degree, the conversation about who is using the outdoors is framed deceptively. You always see these stories about the ­national parks reaching out to people of color. I’m like, Yeah? How are they doing that? Every grassroots group doing this work is dying on the vine. There’s a whole lot of rhetoric about how to get people of color involved, and I don’t think that’s the issue at all—we are desperate and eager to get involved. It’s not that we all don’t have money to go to places. The fact that we don’t see ourselves in images on TV or in the outdoor media dampens our presence in this movement.

Lockhart: I agree. I’m a board member of REI, and when I look at catalogs and don’t see myself there, I say, OK, how do we connect back to when I was a kid? I’m old enough that I had a segregated scout troop, and we went out with just the canvas tents and the little linen bedrolls and had the best time with minimal stuff. It wasn’t something that was portrayed as an upper-middle-class activity where, essentially, instead of wearing a suit and a tie you wear Gore-Tex and Lycra. It wasn’t a dress-up game.  

Martinez: In general, I think the outdoor industry is starting to grasp the reality that we’re here and it’s a market they’ve been missing for a long time. Look at what REI has done through their grant-giving program. And the North Face, with its Explore Fund, which encourages youth outdoor participation. They realize that if they don’t catch this rocket ship, they’re going to miss out on profits and they’re going to miss out on being part of a cultural fabric. What we wear, what we buy, is part of our culture and how we identify ourselves. If the outdoor industry is willing to work with us on that, we’re more than willing to work with them.

Lockhart: Certainly, if you look at the investment in the national parks, every dollar spent generates about $4 of revenue. So our outdoor spaces really do have an associated economy, and it’s important to develop ladders of opportunity where we can engage our young people early on, first as an educational opportunity and then an economic opportunity.

Martinez: Jobs are what keep us grounded. There’s a great sense of community built through volunteerism. But there’s also the reality check that, when this becomes a passion, when this becomes something that a young person chooses as a career path, where do those jobs fit in? How do we make a livable wage? Look at some of the jobs or internships available out there and they’re not really sustainable or don’t offer fair wages for students who are just coming out of school and want to do this as a life. In a sense, we’re losing a lot of talented individuals.

Peterman: It’s not just about young people—there are mature individuals. You will find that the mainstream environmental organizations and outdoor retailers are very lacking in diversity among their staffs. I think it enhances your chances of being employed if you are white. I would venture to say that, as late as 2008, more than 80 percent of the staff of the Park Service was white. How does this happen in a country that’s becoming increasingly diverse?

Baker: Audrey, you’re right—in the past five years, I’ve seen a push to get more people of color in the boundaries of the national park system. But what I saw over so many years there is that sometimes we talk the talk but we don’t walk the walk. As a very small example, in 1998, when I first got to Rushmore—Rushmore’s a very beautiful place—they put in new sidewalks, a whole new system. Here I come along and I put up an Indian tepee, expecting to hear, “Boy, that’s really good, you did a really good job.” Instead I heard through the grapevine that the tepee was an intrusion on the visual integrity of Mount Rushmore.

Lockhart: We’ve talked about communities of color, particularly in urban environments. Is it possible to find a connection with the outdoors if you live in the city? How do we make that link?

Manos: The first step is not seeing nature and the outdoors as separate. If it just becomes taking people out someplace without it being relevant, then it will still be seen as separate. There was a study published in The Lancet, the British medical journal, that said access to the natural environment can modify pathways through which low socioeconomic position can lead to disease, while health inequalities related to income deprivation were lower in populations living in the greenest areas. We need to bring it back home, central to our own health. We need to help people feel part of something bigger so they can trust it right there in their daily lives.

Peterman: In Atlanta, when we took members of local com­munities into the Chatta­hoochee River National Recreation Area and showed them that the forest is where their water comes from, the forest purifies their air, etc., you’d be amazed at how fast those people began to talk to elected officials about wanting to keep the land protected and wanting positive action on behalf of the environment. But if almost half the population doesn’t know and doesn’t feel involved, we’re reducing our chances of dealing with these critical issues.

Lockhart: I absolutely agree. To me, place-based learning promotes a more sustainable environment, encourages development of a lifelong relationship, health-enhancing habits, appreciation of nature, and really stimulates learners to discuss issues, particularly the democratic issues that are central to our civic life. It’s a lifelong process, and with it comes greater engagement and better stewardship of the environment.

So, with all the benefits we’ve talked about, from health to economic opportunities, what should the Outside reader take away from this?

Peterman: A key thing is to write a letter to the editor of this magazine saying, “Look at who you’re appealing to, who you’re giving prominence to, who you’re publicizing,” because that has been identified as a key factor in the involvement or lack of involvement among people of color. Write a letter to your newspaper supporting the notion that our public lands have to be more inclusive. The park system was created to educate and [as Ulysses S. Grant put it in 1872] “to be a pleasuring ground” for the American people. That’s not happening if 50 percent of us don’t get any benefit from the system.

Manos: I’d like to reiterate that psychological health is for everyone. There are a lot of people everywhere who have a lot of worry and uncertainty about the future. Rather than being passive, I’d encourage anyone from any demographic to find hope through hard work—less of a passive and more of a proactive involvement in these issues that connect us all.

From Outside Magazine, Jul 2011 Lead Photo: Vanessa Torres