When I was a kid, my brothers and I would get kicked out of our house in Richmond, California, and told to play outside until further notice. In the summer months, that meant being outdoors for hours on end; the only time we were called in before the nighttime deadline was for lunch and snacks. There were never-ending games of chase, tag, and hide-and-seek in the park across the street. Or we’d walk 30 minutes to Point Richmond, where we’d hike the bayside hills, stopping to daydream and enjoy the ocean views. It wasn’t until I was much older that I realized it was serenity that brought us back to these trails so often.
Years later, I felt the same sense of serenity under the ancient sequoias in Yosemite National Park. Over the course of a solo, weeklong trip across the park valley in 2013, I ventured past towering evergreens, soothing waterfalls, snowcapped peaks, and skittish wildlife. While taking in the beauty around me, I started paying attention to the people I encountered, too. Among the droves of visitors, none looked like me. The lack of color in the human landscape was painfully obvious.
After returning home, the observation nagged at me. So much that I reached out to an African American ranger at Yosemite to ask if he, too, had noticed the low diversity on the trails. He explained that it was an issue in most national parks across the country, and he encouraged me to do something to address it. Thus began my quest to draw underrepresented communities and youth into nature.
To diversify the outdoors, we must first get to the heart of the issue: the history of our public lands, which have traditionally been getaways for the privileged. The founding of our national parks, for instance, pushed Native Americans off lands, some sacred, that they’d long inhabited. More recently, our parks were segregated. Take Shenandoah National Park: In the 1930s, signs directed “Negroes” to one area, Lewis Mountain, while the rest of the park—tens of thousands of acres—was exclusively for white people. The rule was finally lifted in 1947, but it sent a message to African Americans that has lasted for generations: Public lands do not welcome you. That legacy affects how African Americans view our place in the outdoors today. We tend not to venture out to the places that society has deemed “wild spaces,” like Yosemite. Staying closer to home offers a sense of safety that these faraway locations don’t.
That has to change. We must loosen the grip of historical exclusion. As climate change and other crises threaten our parks, monuments, refuges, and resources, we need to grow our ranks and build a conservation movement that reflects our increasingly diverse nation. It is time to dig in our heels, work diligently to reconnect people of color with our natural areas, and craft a new message for generations to come: Public lands are everyone’s lands. And if we want future stewards to adopt that tenet and to be moved to protect wild places, they need to see themselves reflected in wilderness—whether it’s on the trail, in social media feeds, or in the pages of magazines.
Since my own eye-opening visit to Yosemite, I’ve made it my mission to encourage people of color across the United States to get out on public lands. Inspired by my conversation with the ranger, I kicked off my first campaign, the African American National Parks Event, in 2013 to encourage families and individuals to explore national parks on a designated weekend in June. About 500 people took part that first year, and participation has grown exponentially since. I’ve received thousands of photos from individuals and groups who’ve participated in the event, along with stories of how they’d always wanted to visit Zion or Yellowstone and had finally taken the leap.
More recently, I started Hike Like a Girl, which encourages families and friends to hit the trails on a chosen weekend in May and document their adventures on social media. It’s an open invitation for women, many of whom have reached out to me over the years, to embark on a hiking adventure that’s been on their bucket list and, of course, inspire each other. And though the campaign is targeted toward women, men often join in as well to spend time with their kids.
I’m hardly alone in my endeavor to diversify the trails. Groups such as Latino Outdoors, Outdoor Afro, The Trail Posse, NativesOutdoors, Queer Nature, The Joy Trip Project, and many others are working tirelessly on matters of equity, racial diversity, and inclusion in nature-based activities. They are providing underserved communities across the country with invaluable opportunities to enjoy and protect open spaces
As for young people, they aren’t just showing up; they’re taking on active roles to lead. They are addressing environmental and political issues and are making their voices heard, through protests, voter-registration drives, and social media. Almost every week I learn of more groups of students across the country banding together to address issues of climate change and social justice. Teenage activists such as Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the director of Earth Guardians and a plaintiff in the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit, are setting legal precedents to hold governments culpable for defiling our air, land, and water.
We have to encourage these youth and include them in our adult conversations on diversifying and protecting the outdoors. The Crissy Field Center, a major community hub at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is doing exactly this by recruiting middle school, high school, and college interns. The candidates, who are mainly individuals of color, get the opportunity to work and play in the second-most-visited National Park Service unit in the country. Internships and jobs are invaluable in creating a sense of ownership of and responsibility for the land.
Progress is gradual, but the transformation has already begun. A lot of the change has been driven by the National Park Service, which is intentionally making sites more accessible and secure for all. It’s reaching across the table to leaders of marginalized communities and increasing youth visits through the Every Kid in a Park program. And it looks like the efforts are working. During my recent trips to Yosemite, some of the very first faces I saw belonged to people of color. They were a welcome sight.
The movement has seeped into the outdoor industry as well. REI, for example, has increased its efforts to show a more representative audience, especially on its website and in its social media feeds. Publications such as Outside have dedicated articles, magazine covers, and podcasts to diversity heroes.
People ask me why I turn the conversation about the outdoors into a conversation about race. Why can’t a nature essay just be a nature essay? The answer is simple. There are boundaries on communities of color, boundaries that we’re now working diligently to erase. It’s hard to convince someone they belong in a place that they’ve historically been excluded from. That’s why I talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion with such ferocity and consistency—not to divide a country more than it already is, but to bridge a gap that’s been in place for far too long.
My hope is that one day we can do away with this diversity movement. But until then, let’s work together to be inclusive in empowering the next generation of environmentalists. Let’s do it so our kids can connect with their land, learn their purpose, and redefine their own “wild spaces.”
This story originally ran in the Summer 2018 issue of Audubon as “Public Lands for One and All.” To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.