In my last post, I mentioned how the great outdoors suffers from a lack of diversity - both racial and economic. You visit a national park, sleep in a campsite, raft a river, climb a mountain or even just go on a hike and, chances are, the majority of the people you'll run into are white.
That diversity gap, which was the topic of our fellowship seminar yesterday, is something that our speaker, James Edward Mills, is very familiar with. He's worked in the outdoor industry since 1989 in a variety of roles - guide, outfitter, sales rep - often as the only African-American around. He's also a freelance journalist and his latest project is a shiny new book called The Adventure Gap: Changing The Face of the Outdoors.
That face - as I mentioned - is largely white. But US demographics are shifting and by the year 2042, it's expected that the majority of the country's population will be made up of people of color. Protecting our natural treasures means engaging more diverse communities in caring for the outdoors and Mills argues that one of the first steps toward this is creating good, multicultural role models who can inspire a more diverse group of kids to get outside. But where to find those role models?
Well, you can start with unearthing them from long-forgotten history.
Here's one example - the Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American members of the U.S. Army cavalry regiments, which were formed in 1866 to fight in the Indian Wars. In the early part of the 20th century, 400 of these soldiers were tasked with patrolling national parks, including Yosemite and Sequoia. They were some of the nation's first park rangers - laying trails, patrolling forests, building roads - before the park system really even existed. It's a story that Mills - an outdoor adventurer since he was a kid - hadn't heard until he sat down with filmmaker Ken Burns in 2008. And if he hadn't heard it, you can bet that an inner city kid probably doesn't know that story, either.
Another example - Matthew Henson. His name likely doesn't ring any bells but that of his traveling companion will - Captain Robert Peary, leader of the first successful expedition to the North Pole. Henson was born in Maryland in 1866. At age 12, he went to sea and spent six years learning navigation and sailing. Upon his return, he started working at a furrier's shop and one of his customers was Peary, who took a liking to Henson and hired him as his valet. Henson quickly became an integral part of Peary's expeditions - the two of them explored Greenland and made multiple attempts at reaching the North Pole. Finally, in 1909, they were successful - but because Henson was African-American, his contribution was overlooked (in fact, for years, the success of the entire expedition was doubted because there was no white person other than Peary to verify the story).
As for modern role models?
Well, there's Charles Crenchaw - the first African-American man to summit Denali, the highest mountain in North America, in 1964, just seven days after the Civil Rights Amendment became law.
There's Sophia Danenberg - the first African-American and the first black woman to summit Mt. Everest, in 2006.
And there's the group at the center of Mills's book - the first, all African-American team to make an attempt on Denali. Spoiler alert - after enduring major avalanches and some unseasonably warm weather, they didn't quite make it, after being driven off the mountain by a lightning storm. But as the expedition's website says:
...the ultimate objective was not just to make mountaineering history, but to build a legacy by paving a way for young people of color to get outside, get active, get healthy, become passionate about America’s wild places, and chase their own Denali-sized dreams.
While every member of the Expedition Denali team was an experienced outdoorsman (or woman), they also were community leaders - in education, journalism, business, mountaineering, with youth groups and outdoor organizations. And when they finished this adventure, they went back to their lives as representatives of what can adventures can be had in the great outdoors - no matter your race.
And building a broader coalition of outdoor enthusiasts doesn't have to involve something as arduous (or as expensive) as climbing a mountain. Hiking, walking, observing nature - those things are all free, or close to it, and usually more accessible. Role models play a part here, too - it can be as simple as taking a kid to explore a nearby park or forest, helping them fall in love with a place, not just for now, but for a lifetime. That's something that should happen in every community - regardless of race or economic background - if we want people to feel like these beautiful spaces belong just as much to them as to anyone else.