What does real inclusion look like in parks?

One day, I was checking out at the supermarket after working at the nature center, and asked the cashier if I could pack my items in a reusable bag instead of plastic, lightening the inconvenient request with a joke, “you know, I still think I can save the planet and all,” and she smiled and said seriously, “you know you can’t save the planet without first saving the people on it.” TRUTH! I was humbled and inspired by her words.

So many leaders in the sustainability movement have long acknowledged the interdependence of social and environmental justice. It is not enough to protect forests, oceans, soil, and other natural resources from destruction and degradation, if in the process we neglect relevant social issues, like indigenous rights, migrant labor, economic opportunities, disability justice and accessibility to resources. Organizations like Green For All (nationally), We Want Green, too! (locally), and many, many others, are founded on the intersection of social and environmental uplift. At the Great Lakes Bioneers Conference in Detroit last week, we were called to action by a water access warrior, and engaged in an emotional discussion on the importance of including human rights in the fight for nature’s rights. As a lover of both nature and people, I challenge myself and my network to research, learn, listen, reflect more on how social justice informs environmental quality, and vice versa, so that we can be better advocates for both.


At the core of all movements is the question, how to engage people in the struggle? On the conservation side of things, nature interpretation, environmental education and outdoor recreation all serve as useful tools for connecting people to nature. The idea is that when we have positive experiences in nature, it can not only benefit our mental and physical health, but deepen our affection for and desire to protect natural spaces.

The National Parks Service and other federal agencies are utilizing environmental education and outreach to better engage underrepresented demographics with the aim that more of these communities will take ownership in federal lands. As part of its centennial celebration, NPS and its federal partners have launched several projects, like Every Kid In A Park, the Parks Exchange, and New Century Vision, to connect with next generation of stakeholders, with a particular focus on urban and ethnic minority populations.

I was fortunate enough to participate in one such initiative called Mountains to Main Street – check out the M2M video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E59BsUvuJ5c and Ashley Perez’ blog https://mountainstomainstreet-aip.exposure.co/mountains-to-main-streetOrganized by a partnership between Groundwork USA, The Student Conservation Association, and Teton Science Schools with generous support from Grand Teton National Park Foundation and Grand Teton Association. I attended a week-long training at Grand Teton National Park last January, where I recreated, attended workshops, and met an amazing and diverse group of young conservation leaders from all over the U.S.  We met the Superintendent of Grand Teton, David Vela, and the first African American director of NPS, Robert Stanton. I learned about a Detroit hero, Shelton Johnson, a black ranger currently working at Yosemite. These parks employees all share a passion for the parks, but all had to overcome various cultural and systematic barriers to get to where they were. Notably, all of them are active advocates for increasing diversity and inclusion in the parks.

At the end of the training, all of the participants were tasked that spring to apply our reignited passion to connecting our communities to the parks. For me, my official project involved collaborating with Greening of Detroit’s  Our LAND program and the River Raisin National Battlefield Park to organize a field trip in May. Though a valuable learning experience, I hope it is only the beginning of something more sustained. I am inspired by the beauty of the various parks systems here in metro Detroit, as well as our dynamic community of environmental justice warriors, and our unique opportunities for outdoor recreation, environmental education, and cultivating green space. But to be a real ally in equitable access to nature requires deep reflection and anti-racism work.

There are several reasons why communities of color are particularly underrepresented in parks tourism – segregation, systematic racism, and intimidation are significant forces, in addition to economic and geographic considerations. These obstacles have been well documented – as seen in a literature review put out by NPS, as well as books like Carolyn Finney’s “Black Faces, White Spaces,” to name a few. Reversing these obstacles  and reframing participation will be a long, hard process. For white folks, it starts with acknowledging systematic racism. As a white person who has visited parks since childhood, it is hard for me to immediately understand some of the intangible yet very real barriers that African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities face in accessing the parks systems. Only through reading, trainings, workshops, witnessing, and conversation, am I beginning to understand this important perspective.

“Engaging underrepresented communities is as difficult and necessary as protecting our watersheds, restoring habitat, and managing wildlife……Yet, that assumes people are not already connected in their own way.” Nina Roberts, a professor and environmental educator at San Francisco State University, warns in an article for the Journal of Interpretation Research. She continues, “That is, nature inspires people for very different reasons that are often unknown or misunderstood. Nature, with all its intricacies, does not know the difference between cultures; people are stewards of their own experience.”
With that, I am reminded that the big challenge for nature interpreters and adventure leaders of privilege is to simultaneously acknowledge past and potential barriers of a certain minority group, while withholding stereotypes and recognizing that every individual within the group may connect to nature in a unique and personal way. I am eager to hear from different folks, how do you connect with nature? What pulls you in? What would you like to protect and nourish in your environment? Eager to celebrate the diverse ways that one can enjoy nature.

It is autumn now, so I will share a passage on one person’s connection to autumn that really moved me. The following was written by wildlife ecologist J. Drew Lanham in his book The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature, and expresses the way autumn nature touches him. I hope it moves you to go outside and enjoy the season, as well.

“The season has always drawn a sort of restlessness from me. In the wanderlust I want to go somewhere far away, to fly to some place I think I need to be. Nature is on the move, too, migrating, storing, and dying. Everything is either accelerating or slowing down. Some things are rushing about to put in seed for the next generation. A monarch butterfly in a field full of goldenrod is urgent on tissue-thin wings of black and orange to gather the surging sweetness before the frost locks it away. Apple trees and tangles of muscadines hang heavy. The fruit-dense orchards offer a final call to the wildlings. Foxes, deer, coons, possum, and wild turkeys fatten in the feasting. The air is spiced with the scent of dying leaves. The perfume of decay gathers as berries ripen into wild wine. Even the sun sits differently in an autumnal sky, sending a mellower light in somber slants that foretell the coming change.

The droning katydids, tired from the their months-long work of filling the hot wet nights with song, hang on into October. But soon choirs of thousands dwindle to hundreds, and then just one or two. A persistent cricket tries hard to fiddle in time but the first freeze throws a wrench into his rhythm. The rustling riot of turning, falling leaves and the mysterious moonlit chirps of migrant songbirds winging their way to faraway places makes my heart race. It is all so beautiful that it hurts. Almost overnight eastern red cedars suffer the savagery of hormonal surges and a ravaged stand of sapling pines point the way to a pawed-up and piss-soaked patches of ground that whitetail bucks leave as calling cards. When the moon glows in a mid-November sky like a pallid sun, I, too, am so soaked in wanting and wood’s lust that I might as well wander like a warbler in the joyous urgency of it all.”