The benefits of being outdoors are many—fresh air, exercise, time away from electronic devices—just to name a few. Regardless of the benefits, research suggests a growing gap of youth and diversity invested, interested, and actively participating in outdoor activities.
Not only is it important for the entire population to participate in outdoor activities for the health benefits and natural beauty, we also need diverse voices. Asian, African American, Hispanic and Caucasian, old and young to be employed, involved, and contributing to the environmental conversation.
We all come from very different social and cultural traditions that result in a wide range of differing attitudes, beliefs, familiarity, and interest in the natural world. On The Road Less Traveled, we have seen outdoor adventure change over the last two decades, and for many, it is far less appealing than years gone by.
You may have seen Justin Bogardus, and his funny, effective mock commercial about the health benefits of the natural world: “Tired, irritable, stressed out? Try Nature.” The message offers a prescription of Nature – a non harmful medication that will relieve the crippling symptoms of an over scheduled life. Nature Rx has a point. “Nature has a marketing problem,” according to Justin’s Dream Tree films. Behind the humor of Nature Rx is sound science. Research shows that spending more time in nature improves your health, happiness, and importantly leads to making better environmental decisions.”
Despite years of outreach, there is still a 12 to 14 percent minority representation in environmental NGOs, foundations and government agencies. While big improvements have been made in hiring and promoting women up the ranks, this has not extended to ethnic diversity.
Outdoor activities—things like hiking, visiting national and state parks, and camping—had a 70% participation rate for Caucasians. In comparison, the participation rate for Asians was 7%, 11% for African Americans, and 7% for Hispanic populations. Last quarter, the National Park Service echoed this lack of diversity when they reported that 79% of its permanent workers were Caucasian.
Children are becoming weaker, less muscular, and unable to do physical tasks that previous generations found simple, research has revealed. The findings, published in the child health journal Acta Paediatrica, have led to fresh concern about the impact on children’s health caused by the shift away from outdoor activities.
Martha Kanter, former Under Secretary for Education hits the nail on the head. “Who will prepare the scientists, technicians, engineers, entrepreneurs, and global humanitarians [who] can rebuild our economy and society on a new and greener foundation? Who will educate citizens ready to master these new realities and ensure exemplary stewardship of our planet for now and for future generations?”
Where are minority voices in our National Parks?
Shelton Johnson started his park service as a seasonal worker at Yellowstone during his Master’s program and has since gone on to work at Fort Dupont, the Great Basin, and Yosemite. Johnson said his dedication to national parks comes from wanting to get other kids out into nature.
“I can’t forget that little black kid in Detroit,” he says. “And I can’t not think of the other kids, just like me – in Detroit, Oakland, Watts, Anacostia – today. How do I get them here? How do I let them know about the buffalo soldier history, to let them know that we, too, have a place here? How do I make that bridge, and make it shorter and stronger? Every time I go to work and put the uniform on, I think about them,” he said.
Mamie Parker is the former assistant director of fisheries and habitat conservation at the US Fish and Wildlife service and was the first African American to head a regional office for the agency. For her, it was Marvin Gaye’s song ‘Mercy, Mercy Me’ that inspired her environmental activism.
But when she began her career path, the lack of diversity in the field made her a lonely pioneer of sorts. One day a janitor said to her in the D.C-based office, “I’ve been here almost 40 years, and no African American woman has been in here except to clean this office.”
As active engagement with the out-of-doors has lessened among children (Outdoor Industry Foundation 2008; Clements 2004), and as visits to national parks have declined over the years, the question still remains. How do we best generate a newfound enthusiasm for nature among the nation’s rapidly expanding minority populations, as well as among technologically driven, disengaged millennial youth.
The stakes are high for all of us, especially for those of us working to inspire and launch environmental stewards for tomorrow. Our country is more racially diverse than ever and the environmental challenges are large and complex.
Low participation rates from non-Caucasian backgrounds means we miss out on varied cultural and ethnic perspectives within the setting. It also means missed learning and teaching opportunities and an absence of future voices to protect our National Parks and wild lands amidst a rapidly changing demographic.
Where Do We Begin?
We are fortunate our forbearers put certain legislative, executive, and judicial safeguards in place to help protect wilderness should future political uncertainty challenge our sacred outdoor places. Barack Obama, as did Theodore Roosevelt, understands the value of these places for his own children and future generations – despite political pressures. When our nation’s leaders begin thinking about what they want to be remembered for, they typically do something good for the environment (Dustin and Barbar 1998).
Research has shown that regardless of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, early childhood experiences in nature significantly influence the development of lifelong environmental attitudes and values (Chawla, 1998, 1999,2006a, 2006b; Wells, 2000). Yet, our experience on The Road Less Traveled, along with mounting evidence shows that American children are spending less and less time in the natural world (Hofferth & Curtin, 2006; Hofferth & Sandberg, 2001).
Many educators, environmentalists, scholars, and parents are becoming increasingly concerned about whether today’s “de-natured” children will want to protect and care for the natural environment (EcoAmerica, 2006; Louv, 2007; Pyle, 2002; White, 2004). We need to develop a pipeline for greater inclusion of minority and low-income students, reaching out to and recruiting from minority serving institutions and organizations, and dedicating specific staff and board members to address diversity.
The issue of minority leadership and the future of today’s youth in green organizations, while complex, remains an important order of business for us all. We have been fortunate to meet, support and employ folks from all walks of life over the past 25 years. Yet, like most other outdoor and environmental organizations, cultural and ethic minorities have been underrepresented. The work to expand the world to talented young people and those facing socioeconomic barriers continues.
We all own (yes all of us!) millions of acres of national parks, historic and cultural artifacts, old growth forests, snow-capped mountains, and crystal clear lakes. Our federal public lands and waters belong to all Americans and they are waiting to be explored and protected.
Age and diversity can save our wilderness. More children need to be exposed and brought to the outdoors to learn to love and care for our wild spaces. Get an Every Kid in a Park pass at www.everykidinapark.gov. Whether it’s taking a mental health day to go for a hike, several weeks spent on an outdoor adventure, or a trip to a national park or voting on legislation there are opportunities every day to make a difference.