Since I’ve been writing about race, diversity and inclusion in the outdoors, my inbox and the various comments sections below my stories sometimes read like braying from a Trump rally.
“We never hung ‘whites only’ signs at any parks.”
“Black people just don’t like bugs and wild animals.”
“Minorities are too worried about finding a job to go camping.”
And my favorite: “We don’t want you people on our trails anyway.”
The nascent movement to get our public lands to more closely reflect the diversity of our country has been arguing, to seemingly deaf ears, that we do not have an aversion to the outdoors baked into our DNA. It is not even as baked into our attitudes as much as some people believe.
In fact, nonwhite registered voters in the U.S. overwhelmingly favor proposals to improve access to public lands, as well as pretty soundly reject some of the reasons, such as cost, not feeling welcome and safety, routinely trotted out to explain why people of color don’t visit public lands in numbers that reflect the diversity of the country’s population. These are according to a poll, released on Tuesday morning, that was commissioned by New American Media and rolled out in partnership with the Next 100 Coalition, which advocates for diversity in federal land agencies and the environmental movement, and to which I belong.
The biggest takeaway from a combination of the poll’s results is that people of color are more engaged with the outdoors, and more willing to be engaged, than presumed. And this opens the door to the high potential of basic outreach and education for increasing visitation and engagement with public lands. Seventy percent of nonwhite has engaged in types of outdoor activities and 57 percent have visited public lands, the poll found, but the levels of either were far below demonstrated levels by the white population in the U.S. At the same time, people of color pegged lack of knowledge about and distance from public lands as the two biggest barriers to visitation, and supported proposed measures for increasing access, such as establishment of more urban parks and more parks relevant to their histories, as well as outreach efforts, by significant margins (77 percent or greater).
Such conclusions are not surprising to those of us working on diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. Just over a year ago, I wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
“The park service should use its resources and partnerships to execute an all-out effort to promote diversity within its ranks and its parks. Its outreach should be tailored to *minorities and delivered where they log in, follow, Tweet, view or listen. The park service needs to shout to *minorities from its iconic mountaintops, “We want you here!” Such a campaign could include educational programs about the importance of the outdoors to a healthy lifestyle, transportation solutions for carless urban dwellers, and advice on easy and safe ways to enjoy the parks.”
(*Note: The use of the word “minorities,” which many of us consider a dehumanizing and subjugating term, is New York Times style).
At the time, the National Park Service had launched what it considered its most significant outreach campaign – #FindYourPark – and included some high-profile nonwhites such as the actress Roselyn Sanchez, but essentially targeted those already engaged with the agency. It did not try accessing communities of color through preferred modes such as Asian American weekly newspapers, Black churches, and Latino radio stations. With the Park Service’s 100th birthday just around the corner, on Aug. 25, the centennial year now appears to be a blown opportunity to improve connections with nonwhites.
There are numbers that especially jump out, among the poll’s other findings, demonstrating strong political will among nonwhite voters to continue preserving public lands and cultural histories:
* Ninety-five percent believe it is important that young people see their cultures and histories reflected in national public lands.
* Ninety-three percent of voters of color believe it is important for the next president to continue to show a commitment to protecting national public lands and the histories they represent.
* Ninety-two percent believe that it is important that President Obama has shown a commitment to protecting national public lands and the histories they represent.
Nine hundred registered voters, divided equally throughout the nation among Asian, Black and Latinos, were polled by telephone, in English and Spanish, in July by Bendixen and Amandi International. Native Americans were not included in the poll because since they represent 0.7 percent of the U.S. population, it was not possible to generate a statistically significant sample. Native attitudes nevertheless remain of high interest because of the amply strained relationships with federal lands management agencies, rooted in the history of this country’s seizure of Native lands and forced assimilation.
It is moderately surprising that slightly more than half of poll respondents (52 percent) agreed that the racially charged history of U.S. public lands – including lynching and segregation as well as imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II – was a barrier to visitation. African-American voters agreed far more strongly (62 percent) that the past posed a deterrent, not surprising, given their prolonged, charged American history that continues even today with police shootings.
Reflecting the concerns about distance and transportation, nonwhite voters said (88 percent) they were most likely to visit public lands if more urban parks were established. The next most effective proposals to increase visitation, according to the poll, were more programs about contributions by people of color to U.S. history (80 percent), outreach to communities of color about public-lands offerings (79 percent), better reflecting the diversity of the country in recruitment and hiring practices (79 percent) and establishing more park unit with cultural relevancy (77 percent).
The results of this poll should help amplify a clarion call to public lands agencies, as well as green groups and outdoor retailers, to stop overlooking communities of color, particularly in the face of this country’s rapidly changing demographics. It helps move the case for better engaging nonwhites in the outdoors from the realm of accumulated, anecdotal wisdom to that of hard data. It reinforces what a lot of us have been saying for years: We’re ready; just come and get us.
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