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Connecting Communities of Color to the National Parks

Teresa Baker, the founder of the African American National Parks Event, talks to Earthjustice about what national parks can do to welcome communities of color.

Teresa Baker, the founder of the African American National Parks Event, talks to Earthjustice about what national parks can do to welcome communities of color.
Teresa Baker, the founder of the African American National Parks Event, talks to Earthjustice about what national parks can do to welcome communities of color. (Photo courtesy of Teresa Baker)

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Teresa Baker is the founder of African American National Parks Event, a nationwide initiative to encourage African Americans to get outdoors, explore the national parks and join the conservation movement. Below, Earthjustice talks to Teresa about what all of us – the parks and environmental organizations – can do better.

What was your relationship with nature growing up? How did it have an impact on the environmental work you’re doing today?

It’s funny, I never considered myself to be an environmentalist. I just have a love for the outdoors. I guess that’s how I got started in this line of work. Always wanting to be outside in open spaces—hiking, camping, horseback riding.

I grew up in Richmond, California, and there is a national park there now, Rosie the Riveter, but not when I was growing up. We were surrounded by regional and city parks. We grew up hiking around the hills of Point Richmond, Tilden Park and Wildcat Canyon.

What are the biggest obstacles facing people of color in developing a relationship with nature?

Part of the problem is not being familiar or not having opportunities to experience nature. There is a lot our state and national parks can do to encourage communities of color to get out in to these open spaces. The reason I got involved with this work back in 2013 was because, after taking several trips to Yosemite, I grew frustrated at not seeing other African Americans. I reached out to one of the only African American rangers in Yosemite, Shelton Johnson, and mentioned my concerns to him. We talked about how some in the African American community do not feel connected or welcomed in our national parks. When you don’t see park staff that look like you, it’s intimidating. I think the parks can do a better job at hiring people of color to represent their agency.

What do people of color add to our environmental narrative?

It’s not just a matter of connecting to these outdoor spaces but re-connecting. Native Americans, Latinos and African Americans have always had a relationship with the land but we have moved away from that over the past couple of generations. Right now, we need more people that care about the land and the number one demographic that’s missing from all of this work around conservation is communities of color.

Have you encountered incidents where the historical legacy of racist violence towards African Americans has contributed to a fear of visiting remote areas away from other black people?

I personally have not, but you can do a search on Google and come up with incidents that have happened where African American families have been chased out of campgrounds here in northern California. This is not something that happened in the ‘50s or ‘60s; it’s happening now. We let people know that incidents like this are not occurring daily, but it is something to take into consideration when we encourage African American communities to get out into our open spaces.

How can environmental organizations welcome African American into outdoor spaces?

They can do a better job of recruiting people of color into their organizations and reach out directly to African American communities. They have to move beyond what they’ve always done—publicizing in publications that do not reach communities of color. Welcome them into your organization and on your outings—your camping trips, hiking trips, the meetings that you hold on conservation measures.

What do you hear from African Americans who experience parks and camping for the first time?

I receive so many e-mails from African Americans who took their families out for the first time and absolutely loved it. There’s no way you can see a waterfall in Yosemite or a giant Sequoia and not fall in love with these spaces. We have to put all of our efforts towards getting people outdoors because once they are there, they will continue to get out. It’s the first experience that’s the most difficult.

What initiatives do you see as having the biggest impact on making national parks more inclusive?

Every June, I do the African American National Parks Event where I put a call out across the country for African American communities to get out to our national parks—for hiking, discovering, exploring and camping.

I also did a “Hike like a Girl” campaign and received hundreds of emails with pictures of women being out on a hike for the very first time. A lot of them were African American. I think it helps people to know that on this particular weekend there are hundreds of people responding to this call so they don’t feel alone.

What changes have you witnessed in the past few years? Have you seen more diversity in the parks?

Back in 2013 I could be in Yosemite for a week and not see another African American. I was in Yosemite four months ago and the very first couple I saw in Yosemite Lodge was African American. It used to be rare for African Americans to post photos of themselves in national parks on the African American Nature and Parks Experience Facebook page, but it happens at least once a week now. The message is getting out there that these places are safe to visit. It takes all of us, the National Park Service (NPS) and grassroots organizations, pushing this message and showing ourselves out in these spaces.

What are your hopes for the next generation of environmental caretakers?

I’m partnering with the NPS and a few other organizations on youth and inclusion in the National Park Services. It’s happening next month at the Brower Center and this program will be completely in the hands of our young people. If we don’t take the time to engage and listen to our youth, we are doing a disservice to our future and to our environment because the environment depends on action. And as adults, let’s face it, we screwed up this environment. Why not give our youth what they need to fix some of the messes we’ve created?

Where should future diversity and inclusion efforts in conservation be focused?

Grassroots organizations and the NPS have to find a way to bridge the gap. We have to find common ground because we are the community they are trying to get out to these spaces. The NPS has been around for 100 years next month and they have managed in that 100 years to be about 80 percent white. I encourage the NPS as well as the organizations that work with them to reach out to some of the grassroots programs. Let’s find common ground and work together to find a solution for the next 100 years.

As the National Park Service turns 100 this summer, the 100 Years Wild series is celebrating the value of public lands as refuges for wildlife and people, while also shining a light on the threats to these irreplaceable landscapes in a changing and warming world.

Vivian was a Communications Intern at Headquarters in San Francisco.