On Taking Risks and National Parks

The national parks are our treasures, and I remain grateful for the multiple ways my organization, Outdoor Afro, and many others like it, have successfully partnered with park staff, scholars, and volunteers to help shift the visual representation and physical presence of who gets outdoors.  Engaging more people around the country with the tremendous assets of our national parks serves to provide increased awareness and much needed future support of our precious resources.

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Matthew Ryan Williams for The New York Times

I’m writing this in response to our friend, colleague, and Outdoor Afro Leader Teresa Baker’s open letter to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis.  We are especially proud of the efforts of Teresa, and others, who inspire many people as a passionate leader in our parks, following in the footsteps of Frank and Audrey Peterman, Shelton Johnson, Dr. Nina Roberts, and many more professionals and community advocates who have done the work and research for decades.  The vital work of these essential leaders often occurs behind the scenes so our national parks and other public lands will be even more welcoming and relevant into the next century.
Since Outdoor Afro began connecting more people with our national parks, and to the outdoors broadly, we are thankful to have inherited a family of NPS staff who we have not only come to consider as allies and thought partners,  but also friends. These professionals have led us to many NPS resources available that call out the cultural, historical, and recreational park experience in nature. We are proud to be a partner who helps share these opportunities through social media and a committed national outdoor leadership team.
Furthermore, when I have the privilege of working in Washington, DC at the Department of Interior, the managing agency of the NPS, our work is respected and heard.  We maintain a valued space alongside an important variety of bright and committed champions who effectively move the needle forward, often through a bog of a slow-moving federal process.
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NPS Ranger, Kelli English, Courtesy of KQED

However, there are indeed times when community organizations and the NPS do not feel aligned and there may not be a level of synergy that is desired.   Without knowledge of the past, sufficient information about current efforts, or having a desired level of communication, such impediments may lead to unnecessary dissonance. Strategies abound and solutions are possible, many of which have been implemented year after year.  Nonetheless, recent public comments in response to Teresa Baker’s open letter to NPS Director Jon Jarvis have drawn out many ardent concerns.   The emergence of such discussion merely supports, and reveals, the continued need for action and to show greater progress.
In our mutual passion and focus to connect all people to our parks across the nation, it’s true that sometimes we do not agree or have the right staff capacity. We have differing tactics, strengths, and communication styles. Yet one thing is abundantly clear:  we are all on the same side.
At Outdoor Afro, we have come to learn though our experience that meaningful connections to the natural world for everyone involves stepping out of comfort zones, relentlessly building new relationships, and most importantly: taking risks.  For an outdoor participant, this might mean overcoming the fear of sleeping overnight in the wild, or welcoming others who may not look like you. For park professionals, it might mean finding common ground and building new alliances with a community organization that may not share your cultural background, or perhaps stepping up as a lone change agent in your workplace or local community.
Outdoor Afro CEO at Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

While some might choose to amplify imperfections of the National Park Service, we might also be reminded that there is no single agency, organization, company, or community that cannot afford to do better.   Additionally, we must be cautious to not blame or attack individual leaders but remember bigger issues needing to be addressed are systemic and involve multiple decision-makers.  Therefore, perhaps a more generative start of our analysis might lead with a question such as: “Are the national parks headed in the right direction?”  And, based on what has been accomplished in recent years with Outdoor Afro and many of our community allies, we believe they are, knowing there is much more we can all achieve and contribute.
Around the corner in 2016, America will celebrate the NPS centennial anniversary – and with an eye toward empathy and compassion we, at Outdoor Afro, are filled with tremendous hope.   It is our conviction that we can, and should, continue to strengthen our work together to sustain all people, and our parks, for another 100 years and beyond.
Rue Mapp
Founder and CEO