Reader Participation Day: How Do You Build Diversity in the National Parks?

In the wake of Oprah Winfrey's recent trek to Yosemite National Park, the question of how the National Park Service can build diversity in the park system again is spurring some debate.

If you've been paying attention to this issue and its treatment in the media, you've see a variety of reasons for why there aren't more African-Americans in the national parks. Some supposedly fear going into parks (One comment in the New York Times mentioned fear of encountering the Ku Klux Klan), others say they get poor service in the parks.

Is it economics? Is it the lack of diversity in the park system/s workforce?

Whatever the cause, how would you suggest the Park Service go about building diversity in its visitors?


I think it's much more complicated, and there are socioeconomic, cultural and other reasons for it besides "fear." So it isn't limited to parks. See for example this piece on Kenn Kaufmann's blog:

We need to build a more diverse workforce-However, for many of the small, isolated, rural parks a big problem is housing. There is a severe shortage of in park housing-More than once I have been turned down by diverse candidates because they did not feel that they could live in a small 100% white rural setting-they were afraid no one would rent to them-and were often concerned about their children going to a 100% white school.


About 15 years ago, I was walking around the Hidden Valley campground at Joshua Tree, inviting folks to come to morning climbers' coffee. About half way through the walk, I met an African American woman from LA who was out camping with some friends. We started talking and she told me that this was indeed her first time camping or even visiting a park. I asked her why a woman in her mid-20's would have waited this long to camp. She shared that she had always been frightened about spending a night in a place like Joshua Tree. Since fears of snakes and mountain lions are a common reaction from visitors - regardless of race - I commiserated but explained that the likelihood of her being attacked by an animal was virtually non-existent. She explained that it wasn't so much a fear of being attacked by an animal - her big fear was that a group of racists (she actually said "rednecks" but I think she meant bigots) would attack her in the middle of the night and beat her up or do something even worst.

That thought blew me away. My whole life, whenever I saw that welcome sign at a park, I immediately felt safe - concerns about crime vanished once I knew I was inside of a park's boundaries. Driving up from the 101 in Thousand Oaks towards Santa Monica Mountains, as soon as I saw that park sign and accompanying arrowhead, I felt safe. It was a poignant moment in my life when I realized that for other American's, a visit to a park was threatening and something to be avoided. We can certainly make a lot of headway in making all Americans more comfortable with a visit to a park as we continue to make our workforce reflect all Americans. When supervisors and managers use hiring authorities to recruit more diverse staff members, we show that park's belong to everyone. We must continue to work with our press officers, our recruiters, and folks doing outreach to emphasize that parks are safe. Only when people of color can feel safe in their parks can we really hope to see a more diverse flow of visitors into the parks.

Shenandoah National Park is currently working with local educators to bring whole families into parks and to teach them how to camp. They demonstrate to these first time campers that there is nothing to be feared. It's labor intensive but the payoffs to the parks are real. In parks up and down the west coast, NatureBridge is bringing first time park users out and into parks. These kids generally come from families that do not use parks but after a visit, they know that parks are a place where they can be comfortable and safe.

Making our workforce more reflective of our people and helping to eliminate fear among users - these are the foundations we need to build on to continue to make a dent in an issue that has confronted the parks since their inception.

David Smith

Hire people "of color." Have Xanterra and the other companies do the same.

Xanterra and other companies seem to be focused on the cheap international labor pool for park concessions. They should be required to hire disadvantaged AMERICAN CITIZEN youth as part of their concessions contract.

Regarding the issue of fear, it's not surprising that an urban dweller would fear that which he/she does not know. Same goes for the farm boy who wouldn't even consider hanging out in the city park all night.

For many people of color, their American history is the part of American history that most of the rest of us don't want to talk about. While NPS has a lot of that history documented, it's hardly a celebratory feeling you get when visiting some of these historic sites that deal with issues of slavery. Perhaps not so depressing as visiting German concentration camp sites, for example, but it all factors in. Let's get Harriet Tubman NHP up and running. It will help, but we seem to have documented the brutal realities of slavery in such a way that none of us feels ashamed about it any more. Are there any parks that really truly document what it was like to live in slavery? Or have we put up a few shackles and diaries on the museum display wall and called it a day?

How many anglo Americans seek out African American historic sites? How many of us consider that to be "their history" and not "our history". Start there. Get ALL Americans into the Dunbar and Carver sites. Visit Frederick Douglass' home. That's where you start. My kids will know just as much about Frederick Douglass as they will about Francis Scott Key. It's OUR history.

This is not simply a national park problem. This issue is going to take the effort of local, state and federal agencies. I feel like, in order for minority groups find value in the National parks, they first need to find value in their local parks, and state parks. Maybe they already do... but I would guess that proportional to other user groups, their level of use is still low.

The effort to encourage minority visitation needs to have a grass roots feeling. It should start in churches, schools, other social groups, and like I said earlier, it need not be about bringing minorities to national parks.... just to a natural park setting. Getting from there (local, cheap, easy to get to) to national parks should be an easier step.

Celebrity appearances only go so far. Kids and parents see celebrities do all kinds of crazy things...I fear many would just see "Snoop Dog" in the park as a stunt and nothing more. But, if an elementary school went out to a local natural area, opening the kids eyes to nature... that is powerful. If parents of young children can be convinced, by those individuals they judge as trustworthy (like a church leader), to bring their family to some local park event, that has the potential to leave a powerful impression.

Basically, I feel like there are going to be generations of minority adults that may never find the national parks appealing, and trying to get them to connect with the parks is going to be expensive and difficult. However, getting children, young families, and community groups to connect may be more effective. And starting with baby steps to the local parks, state parks, or even nearby national parks will help build a new generation of support for the parks.

National Parks should make an effort to reach out to the youth, schools, community groups, churches.... but I think it's so much bigger. This calls for national groups from the Sierra Club, the National Forest Foundation, and other big names, along with local and state park groups to get involved.

Jon Merryman,

I worked at the OFI Gift Shop several summers ago and the pay rate for a job was the same for both Americans and international students. Xanterra doesn't pay international students less. Based on what I saw, I don't blame Xanterra for hiring international students. Their work ethic was generally better than a lot of the young Americans I worked with. I saw a lot of Americans, including a couple of my co-workers, get in trouble with drugs and alcohol. Xanterra could hire disadvantaged youth, but they would have to be over 18 because any younger would present a whole new set of problems. I'm sure it would be a wonderful experience for some disadvantaged youths, but I think most will have problems living in some of the remote parks like Yellowstone.

What about focusing on hiring people that can simply do the job? Seems like customer service in this country in general has declined since we started focusing more on the color of skin, background, etc. than on the skills of the employee.