Growing up in Duluth, patches of wilderness were around every corner. As a white woman, I had unlimited access to safe, green spaces. I grew up exploring nature in my neighborhood, going camping, and attending summer camps. I never had to wonder whether I would be with people who looked like me, if the social expectations, songs, food, or languages spoken would reflect my culture. Automatic belonging is a privilege.This is one reason I teach a course at Hamline University called “Equity and Inclusion in Environmental Education.” It is designed for educators, but also for those interested in unraveling the complicated history and contemporary barriers that perpetuate the divide between people of color and the benefits of the outdoors.

The Data

Most wilderness visitors and park users are white. A 2013 Minnesota Department of Natural Resources report indicated that, “State Park visitation — like participation in nature-based recreation generally — is concentrated in the non-Hispanic white population. While some 17 percent of the Minnesota population is currently non-white and/or Hispanic, only 3 percent of park visitors” are people of color. 

This is not due to the simple-minded idea that white people are the only ones who enjoy being in nature. Just as housing practices resulted in segregated cities, our parks also have been impacted by discriminatory history. 

A 2017 Washington Post article, “Making national parks more expensive will only make them whiter,” described a book revealing that early 20th century park administrators discouraged visits by African Americans, describing them as “conspicuous” and “objected to by other visitors.” 

Equally as simple-minded is to believe that the statistics are due entirely to the cost of outdoor recreation. People of color, at all income levels, are not getting outside at the same rate as white park users.

The Backstory

Many of us learned about the giants of environmentalism — white men who came up with “America’s Best Idea,” our National Parks. Their purpose was to halt the out-of-control consumption of our natural resources and preserve wild spaces. However, men that Teddy Roosevelt appointed to high offices in the park system, such as Madison Grant and Gifford Pinchot, were also leaders of the eugenics movement that sought controlled reproduction to “improve” the genetic quality of humans. White supremacy permeated their work in creating America’s green spaces. 

Chinese laborers were exploited to build the parks, and subsequently banned from using them. Native Americans were displaced from the land they had inhabited for generations. Even the beloved John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, used racist language to attract people to these spaces. He described the “lazy Sambos” of the Southwest, and assured potential visitors that the “savage Natives” were either dead or moved out of the way and wouldn’t impair one’s visit to the parks.

This elitist mentality was occurring on a city level as well. Central Park in New York City is one example. Previously known as Seneca Village, this area consisted mostly of poor immigrants and African Americans. The village was cleared and destroyed so that upper class residents could use the space to stroll and rejuvenate. Along with city parks, wilderness resorts and camps were created as a respite for elite white citizens to escape the city that was being changed by immigration.

In the Jim Crow era, lynching and other unthinkable crimes were the reality for African Americans. Going into the woods or driving down the wrong street could result in beatings or death. The “Negro Motorist Green Book” was an annual guidebook from 1936 to 1966, created by Victor Hugo Green, to let African Americans know where it was safe to travel.

These historical truths do not negate the accomplishments of the conservationist movement, which put protections in place for our wild spaces. But as with so much of our history, we tend to hear only one story. Every culture began with a relationship with nature that permeated their everyday life. People lived off and with the land until the interventions of colonization, slavery, displacement, and segregation. 

Recognition of history is our only hope to truly heal and move forward. 

Green Spaces Today

Compounding the effects of a racialized history are the current factors informing the experience of many people of color. Awareness is often reported as the first barrier, along with obstacles such as transportation, time, and money. 

Feeling unsafe is reported, because of unfamiliarity with wilderness, but also the racial profiling that occurs in parks and campgrounds. Being the only one that looks like you, as a participant, but also in the staffing and marketing of green spaces and outdoor retailers, creates a void in feeling welcome. 

Systemic issues in city planning contribute. 

A “Mapping Prejudice” project, involving scholars and students at Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota, found more than 5,000 property deeds in Minneapolis alone that had racially restrictive language. In short, non-whites were not allowed to live near parklands.

A summary of the research, published online by “Open Rivers,” reported this: “Neighborhoods fronting parklands exhibit the highest concentration of covenants we have found thus far. While Minneapolis parks were never explicitly segregated, the sheer number of racial covenants surrounding them indicates that access was anything but equal.”

Most people who prioritize outdoor recreation as a contributor to their family’s health and happiness grew up influenced greatly by nature in their childhood. People of color, on the other hand, continue to be disconnected from green spaces because of the long history of barriers and displacement. 

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