Newswise — LEXINGTON, Ky. (Aug. 25, 2016) ‒ All summer, Carolyn Finney has been flitting back and forth between Lexington and Washington, D.C., with a fiery hope to impact the future. The University of Kentucky assistant professor of geography and other concerned colleagues, all members of the Next 100 Coalition (http://next100coalition.org/), met over and over again with members of President Obama’s administration to hammer out a plan to assure that all people -- regardless of race, religion, gender identification or national origin -- are welcome in America’s national parks and all public lands.
The National Park Service (NPS) -- and the spectacular 84 million acres it protects -- enters its second century this day, hence the name Next 100 Coalition. Although many, including President Obama, have declared the National Park Service the best idea America ever had, many others say the national park system is flawed because a significant portion of Americans simply don’t feel welcome. Members of the Next 100 Coalition have made public their hopes for the future in their vision statement, Our Public Lands: An Inclusive Vision for the Next 100 Years. (https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bz2cONmEyvRKbklxWEFMOUk3NE0/view?pli=1) A petition regarding the issue has been created as well. (https://www.change.org/p/public-lands-for-all-americans)
A 2008-09 survey by the University of Wyoming and NPS quantifies this feeling of unease among minorities. Non-Hispanic Whites accounted for approximately 78 percent of the visitors to national parks; Hispanics, 9 percent; African Americans, 7 percent; Asian Americans, 3 percent; and Native Americans/Alaskans, 1 percent. http://www.nature.nps.gov/socialscience/docs/compsurvey2008_2009RaceEthnicity.pdf
While whites were significantly over-represented by population in the survey, African Americans were just as significantly under-represented. African-Americans say they don’t see themselves among park employees and guests. The same survey found that African-Americans feel the parks were too expensive, too far from home, and too unfamiliar.
Finney, a self-declared lover of nature and frequent park visitor, took a very long, hard look at the nation’s parks in her first published book, “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.” (http://carolynfinney.com/book.html) Taking it a step beyond specifically visiting national parks, Finney explores why it may seem that her fellow African Americans do not seem interested in nature, outdoor recreation and environmentalism.
Finney argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the great outdoors and determined who should and can have access to natural spaces. During that era, she says, a common phrase was: “Too many trees; too much rope.”
“In the case of race and the environment, it’s not just who we imagine has something valuable to say,” she wrote. “These assumptions, beliefs, and perceptions can be found in the very foundation of our environmental thinking, how we define the ‘environment’ and how we think of ourselves in relationship with the environment. Who do we see, what do we see?"
She sometimes wonders if white Americans have ever seen a black person hiking or pitching a tent.
“I have always been astonished at how often white people are surprised by my presence in these spaces,” Finney said. “For the most part, people are not unkind. Still, it never ceases to leave me with a deep-seated feeling of discomfort, of being different, and feeling decidedly out of place in these outdoor settings.”
Finney herself is no stranger to old and new tales of African Americans who were first to explore the early American wilderness and opened the great outdoors to a nation. She wrote about several African-American “heroes of the great outdoors” in a recent article in Outside Magazine, “It Matters Who You See in Outdoor Media.” (http://www.outsideonline.com/2075586/op-ed-why-it-matters-who-you-see-outdoor-media)
There are individuals like NPS ranger Shelton Johnson, a man of African-American and Native American descent, who tirelessly seeks ways to encourage minorities to visit the national parks and who believes, “one of the great losses to African culture from slavery was the loss of kinship with the earth.” And then, there’s the Jones family of Florida: Israel Lafayette Jones bought three islands in Key Biscayne in the late 1800s and his son, Lancelot Jones, resisted real estate developers and gifted the islands to the NPS. MaVynee Betsch convinced the NPS to protect 8.2 acres of sand dunes on Amelia Island’s American Beach, land that her great grandfather purchased in the 1930s so that African Americans could visit the beach during Jim Crow segregation.
“The parks are about us,” said Finney, “And that ‘us’ has always been diverse, even if those in the positions to write the stories and make the policies have not.
“When I look at the majority of environmental and outdoor media these days, I don’t see me. More specifically, I don’t see a space for me. By seeing people who look different from us in these spaces—with their histories, memories and their possibilities—our story about the parks, and environment in general, can more fully embrace the complexity of the human experience,” she said.
She is making that difference a reality with the Next 100 Coalition, an ethnically and racially diverse group of civil rights, environmental justice, conservation and community activists. The group’s intention is to design the next 100 years of the Park Service to be highly reflective of the diverse population of the United States.
“We have asked President Obama to issue a Presidential Memorandum that addresses workforce diversity, landscape scale conservation, stakeholder engagement, historical and cultural preservation, and access to public lands,” she said. “We want today’s reality to reflect the populations that lived in our national parks before modern man and the diverse population of Americans who helped build the parks as they exist today.”
To view a petition regarding the movement, visit https://www.change.org/p/public-lands-for-all-americans For more information:https://drive.google.com/file/d/0Bz2cONmEyvRKbklxWEFMOUk3NE0/view?pli=1 http://joytripproject.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/08/This-Moment.mp3 https://soundcloud.com/joytrip/the-buffalo-soldiers-story