The Importance of Diversity in the Outdoors

Environmental and Earth Science 150 explores both the physical processes that have shaped our public lands and the environmental issues that both created a need to preserve the national parks and that affect the parks today. In previous teachings of this course I found that these topics could not be discussed without also including issues of society and culture. Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not traditionally topics of focus in science classrooms, but it is extremely important that we include topics such as race, ethnicity, gender, and accessibility as they relate to environmental science, the outdoors, and our public spaces in our conversations and actions especially in today’s environment.

The primary question that comes up when we think about the environment and preservation of our outdoor public spaces is “who?” Who is most affected by environmental changes and hazards? Who are our public lands for? Who has access to clean drinking water and air and natural spaces? Who has interest in preserving our wilderness? By 2043, the population of the United States will no longer be majority white, and traditionally underrepresented populations will make up the voting majority. If we are to continue to preserve and conserve our wild spaces, we need to make these spaces accessible, safe, and welcoming for all people.

This semester, EES 150 has made an intentional and dedicated effort to have these conversations. Our conversations were prompted by articles about environmental racism, sovereignty and sanctity, obstacles for people of color in the outdoors, sexual harassment and assault in the National Park Service, and accessibility for differently abled persons. We created a safe space to have open, intentional, respectful, and vulnerable conversations. Throughout the semester we kept coming back to topics around safety, representation, and cost as obstacles to a diverse outdoors.

The course culminated in a conversation with Teresa Baker (African American Nature and Park Experience), Queta Gonzalez (Center for Diversity and the Environment), and Andrea Lankford (former NPS law enforcement, author of Ranger Confidential), women from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints who are working to bring awareness to and increase diversity in the environmental sciences and outdoors. The engaging conversation covered topics around safety, inspiration, obstacles, and how to be engaged in this field. Baker emphasized that not knowing what to do is not an excuse for doing nothing.All three women agreed that they are not doing the work they do for themselves, they are doing it for the next generation. They encouraged students to find their thing, whether it is around diversity or climate change, to take action now. That taking action now, even small things, creates representation for the next generation, which will in turn create more action and representation for the next generation.

One student asked how to stay doing what you want to do when it is clear your peers and superiors don’t believe you can, and don’t want you there. Lankford talked about ignoring those who say you can’t, but to keep your own personal safety in mind: if a situation is toxic, it is ok to get out and find an organization that will appreciate your talents. Often you make more change from the outside than from inside, especially with government agencies.

Baker impressed on us the need to use our voices to “call people out” around issues of inclusion and diversity. While Lankford and Baker talked about more aggressive approaches, Gonzalez represented a more “level-headed” approach encouraging students to be calm but firm in their convictions.

When the class met with Ranger Shelton Johnson in Yosemite this fall, he told us that the main way we can incite change is to become “comfortable with your own discomfort.” When we start to notice that something is making us uncomfortable or defensive, it is information for us about where our privilege is and where there is room for change.

Gonzalez defined inclusion as all of the ways that we are similar and all the ways we are different. She encouraged us to be vulnerable and take the time to learn these qualities about each other in order to understand each other better. She pointed out that as our conversations were demonstrating, there is no one approach for taking action and making change but it is important that we do something.