Berkeley symposium will examine national parks and inclusion
By Lou Fancher
Built into the genetic code of the United States' 58 national parks and over 400 areas preserved by the National Park Service are eco- and biodiversity and accessibility.
But equity and inclusion for employees and visitors in the protected spaces established by the federal Organic Act of 1916? Not so much. Surveys and reports issued by the NPS itself demonstrate that park staff and visitors do not match the country's evolving demographic profile.
A four-hour "Youth, Equity & Inclusion" symposium Aug. 10 at the Brower Center aims to confront the lack of access for young people and people of color in the national parks.
A coalition of youths from four participating partner organizations and NPS park managers will engage in presentations and invite the audience to join them in small group discussions that focus on solutions and future initiatives for the national park system, currently celebrating its centennial.
"The youths with outdoor organizations California Outdoor Engagement Coalition, African American Explorations, Latino Outdoors and Groundwork Richmond will offer their take on how diversity is effecting the parks," says NPS Chief of Interpretation Kelli English. "Then, we'll tackle the issues, United Nations style."
English, a ranger for 15 years, says the battle to increase diversity has two fronts: workforce and visitors. Legislative changes at federal, state and local levels are necessary to reverse-engineer a hiring process that's hard to navigate. "A one-page resume won't work, which is counterintuitive. We have to work with people to prepare, to make sure they have the right qualifications to compete for federal jobs," she says.
A similar broad spectrum idea applies to visitors and participants vital to the park's future. Youths benefit from professional role models but they also need school, community and family support.
"An African American ranger walking into a classroom will have the most impact if they look like the students," English says. "People of any color are wonderful rangers, but if kids can see themselves in you, there's an immediate connection. It shows the community a ranger can be a person of color."
Programs that revolve around minority figures and diverse topics are a crucial component. "John Muir is well-known; there are entities named after him across the world. But he was an older white man," English says.
"Young people of color struggle with how he's relevant to them."
School programs that bring kids from underserved communities to the parks can make a huge difference.
"This year, all Title I fourth grade classes from Richmond attended a park," says English. "Success is measured every time I see a youth who's gone from being a park visitor to being an employee. A ladder of experiences includes small steps like the Richmond initiative."
English says the majority of young people are introduced to the parks not by figureheads or field trips but by their families. Early interactions are the best indicators of lasting, meaningful connection to the parks. "People tend to recreate the way they did as kids," she says. "Young adults do what their parents had them do."
Paola Flores, 21, graduated from UC Berkeley in 2016 with a double major in ethnic studies and society and environment. Growing up in a family of modest means in the San Fernando Valley, she had few outdoor experiences other than in urban parks. "National parks were not a reality for my family as we did not have the knowledge about, the funds for, or the time to visit these places," she says.
Discovering the beauty of the parks years later while camping, Flores bonded with the land her ancestors had inhabited long ago. "The centennial is an opportunity to highlight to everybody that these spaces are relevant, beautiful, historical. "Like at Mammoth, where my mom said my grandpa and uncles were farmers and worked with the land and she knew so much about the trees -- my relationship to nature was suddenly real to me," she says.
Flores plans to share her story at the Brower Center event, which occurs during the venue's "Common Ground" exhibit, a show featuring work by 20 local artists inspired by parklands. Spreading an equitable message is the first step toward change that she says she'll recognize when, as a visitor, "people will look more like me."
English, too, will mark demographic improvements in measured fashion.
She says people are increasingly see parks as special places to escape the demands of contemporary life and find history, culture, and an opportunity to turn off electronics and take a hike. Of course there's no "one size fits all" solution.
"Every location is unique," she says. "You have to match your audience."