Opinion

Healing the Disconnect Between a Diverse America and Our National Park System

A few weeks ago I had the amazing opportunity to sit down with the Department of the Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in person to talk about the future of our national public lands and waters.

I am a member of the Greening Youth Foundation’s Historically Black College and University Internship program. GYF works with diverse, underserved, and under-represented youth to develop responsible environmental stewards, and to create service and internship opportunities at land management agencies that can lead to careers in conservation.

Growing up, amusement parks and beaches were the choices for family vacations. Visiting a national park never really got a thumbs up. After this summer, however, I honestly can’t see my life without the National Park Service. This summer, the Grand Canyon National Park became more than a site for my internship; it became my home. It was my own personal avenue to becoming a part of a change that I did not even know needed to happen.

Now that I’m back home I am reminded that so many of my peers don’t have the opportunity to experience the natural and cultural heritage that our public lands provide. It’s hard to think that there are so many barriers that create this disconnect between today’s youth and our parks, spanning from geographic to economic challenges. The mission of the park service and what it offers visitors across the world is unparalleled. We have these spaces, places, and stories waiting to be shared and explored.

President Obama has tried to address some of these challenges. He started the “Every Kid in a Park” initiative which ensures every fourth grader can visit national parks, forests, monuments, and other public lands for free.

But there is another barrier that must be addressed in order to make the experiences like I had at the Grand Canyon relevant to young people — one of diversity and inclusion. The sites and stories told on our public lands do not yet fully reflect our country’s faces.

By 2020, half of the youth in America will be of color. A recent report found that only about a quarter of our national parks and monuments recognize or are dedicated to diverse people. In our meeting with Secretary Jewell, Chenise Caison, a Mosaics in Science intern, told a story about a planetarium program at the Rock Creek National Park. The short film led onlookers through a journey of night skies, constellations, and African culture. She described how captivating and informative the program is until its abrupt stop at the start of slavery. As she spoke, the room was riddled with shock, embarrassment, and concern. How would this stale image of pain make a young black person coming to the park feel? How many kids had been impacted by this dim snapshot of history?  More than likely, they would leave with such a bad feeling that they’d never want to come back. Fortunately, Chenise later got permission to update the program so it would include modern history with diverse heroes, but what if she wasn’t courageous enough to speak up? What if she was never given the opportunity to work at the park at all?

In this centennial year of the National Park Service, a first-of-its-kind group of diverse leaders from civil rights, environmental justice, conservation, and community organizations, the Next 100 Coalition, is calling for a more inclusive system of national parks and public lands over the next 100 years. Because of their hard work, I was able to attend that meeting and let Secretary Jewell know that I, too, share this vision for our public lands to reflect all of the faces of our country. They should respect our different cultures, and actively work to engage all communities. More and more students and young adults that look like me are the future of the workforce, and are becoming engaged in programs like HBCUI and Mosaics in Science. This is definitely a step in the right direction. We are passionate about preserving what we’ve started, and aspire to be effective change-agents in an agency that many of us didn’t have access to in the past.

I am committed to being a part of the solution and I join the Next 100 Coalition in asking President Obama to issue a presidential memorandum that directs America’s federal land management agencies to engage, reflect, and honor all Americans in our system of public lands.

 

Asha Jones is originally from Pearland, Texas, and is a freshman at Spelman College (class of 2019). She is majoring in political science, with a minor in Spanish.

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