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RIVER LIFE

#TBT: On Communities of Color and National Parks

Beginning this month, Black History Month, but continuing far beyond it, this blog will be taking up issues of diversity, inclusion and equity as they pertain to water and “water landscapes.” By that last phrase, we mean the spaces, often public space and often intentionally designed, that are defined by their relation to water.  A surprising number of public lands, managed by federal, state, and local agencies, are focused around a feature such as a river, creek, lake, or seashore.  We feel that these places are where some of the most important systemic changes–in the ways we treat each other across communities, and in the ways we treat water–will be enacted.

Part of the Throwback Thursday focus on this post, then, looks back to a piece I wrote here a couple of years ago, exploring connections between the calls for justice in Black Lives Matter, and the questions of whether African-Americans feel connected to the outdoors, to parks, and to the “green movement.”  Short answer: not really, but people are beginning to work on it.

Lauret Savoy, a writer and professor of environmental studies, explores the roots of African-American connection (or disconnection) to national parks in an eloquent essay published last year, during the Centennial Celebration of the National Park Service.  She writes that as a child she realized that the national parks she loved attracted few people of color and that most of the stories told by park rangers were not about people like her, “…I began to wonder whose stories mattered and whose ‘public lands’ these were.”  Subsequent historical research into the histories of indigenous people across the western plains and the connections between their removal and the establishment of the parks showed her how fraught the stories of the national parks really are.  Furthermore, her research clearly showed the ongoing presence of “buffalo soldiers,” African-American troops in segregated units of the United States Army, in the formative efforts to maintain park resources.

These stories are certainly not lost on the present National Park Service, although it does take time to change the habits of an established bureaucracy.  Together with national programs such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, the current management of the National Park Service is making an effort to promote the parks as places where diverse communities can go comfortably and partake of the contact with nature that brings so many benefits.  Furthermore, efforts are growing to create a more diverse work force in the parks, as well as other public lands, and to spread the word of the benefits of public lands, so that future generations of communities of color can be champions as well as participants in  these special places.

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