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Teresa Baker and Midy Aponte co-authored this piece after discussing the need and importance for our respective communities to work together, on values based on inclusiveness, toward our common goal of environmental justice. As our country moves quickly to a minority majority population, people of color must continue to assume and build upon, their position at the table and offer powerful and valuable commentary for the betterment of our society. Teresa Baker is an OutdoorAfro leader and founder of the African American National Parks Event. Midy Aponte is president of the Sánchez Ricardo Agency. Both are are talented speakers in the Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau

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My thoughts on diversity in our natural spaces.

By Teresa Baker

I have always been an advocate for getting out of the cities and into nature, especially for communities of color. As an African American, I feel that nature is the core of who I am.  All too often the cityscapes that African Americans grow up in are void of what can foster a wider view of the world we live in. This was the foundation behind the thought and creation of African American national park day.

Having visited several national parks in my life time, Yosemite, Sequoia, Muir Woods, the Golden Gate National Rec area, Point Reyes and Yellowstone, to name a few,  I’ve always been aware that African Americans are underrepresented in the national parks, both as visitors and as employees. To contribute to changing this reality, I proposed an event, African American National Parks Day. It is a day when African Americans across the country are encouraged to get out into the national parks for hiking, educational presentations, and other pursuits.

The greatest obstacle I faced in developing African American National Park Event was how to get the word out. Knowing that the conversation was ongoing through various organizations on the lack of participation in our national parks by people of color and not seeing any movement in changing that realty, reaching out to these organizations didn’t seem reasonable. My thought was then, social media outlets, Facebook specifically. I created a Facebook page and African American National Park Event was born.

Growing up in Northern California I had ample opportunities to connect my local community to open spaces. I achieved this by reaching out to local community centers and various after school programs. It was only natural that I would eventually connect with other community organizers who were doing the same type of work, such as Audrey Peterman.

As I continue to grow in my role as an ambassador to the outdoors, I feel my genuine love of nature and my commitment to bridging the gap between the African American communities across this country and our national parks will fit in well with other organizations whose focus is on diversity in the outdoors.

Race matters, but customs do as well. When we grow accustom to something we tend not to feel a need for change. I think this is the larger of the problems we face when dealing with lack of diversity in the outdoors. You have some people who honestly do not see the problem because they have grown accustom to seeing the outdoor through a specific lens. To add color to that lens will take them out of their comfort zone.

As human beings we gravitate to that which is comfortable, without realizing the impression we leave when we ignore all others. We must begin to break through these walls so that we can begin the work of change.

I’ve come to relate this issue to Brown versus the board of education, integrating black faces into a white school system. Schools were purposely segregated and it was an accepted practice. But when the legal system said ”no more”, people fought tooth and nail to keep the system as it was, they felt it was an infringement  upon their rightful place, to have black faces in what they considered, “their spaces”. So when I hear there isn’t a need to act on the problem of diversifying outdoor spaces, it takes me back to the 60’s and the fight that took place to diversify our public school system.

The lack of black and brown faces in our outdoor arenas is an issue that many are not comfortable addressing. The longer it goes un-addressed by those who simply say “it’s not an issue” the wider the gap grows between communities of color and the conversation on conservation in this country. We need more faces at the table on conservation, not less. And right now the faces that will soon be the majority in this country are missing from that vital conversation.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on him not understanding”. A quote by Upton Sinclair and shared with me by Audrey Peterman. It certainly lends itself to this topic.

A Personal Evolution to the Outdoors

By Midy Aponte

Until a few months ago, I had always been an East Coast kid. Born into the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, but raised in the bustling streets of Miami, Florida, my exposure to natural spaces was limited to elementary school field trips (and church summer camps). I remember boarding my school’s yellow bus to Everglades National Park as a third-grader, and, in sixth grade, slugging through Biscayne National Park with my other four-foot tall friends.

My exposure to the open spaces picked up once again when, in college, I enrolled in an “Ecology of South Florida” class while attending Florida International University (FIU). Each Saturday, I’d attend an 8:20am class either at FIU’s University Park Campus, or a preserved Florida treasure (i.e. Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, Bill Bags Cape Florida State Park, etc.)

Life equips you in big and small ways. I have always been an advocate for the Hispanic community. But, with the exception of a few outings to explore the fall foliage while I lived in Washington, D.C., I had little interest for the outdoors. Never thought there was a connection to my community, as the issue of the outdoors always seemed “a separate thing” from my daily experience, and outside of my personal history.

That is until I was tapped to lead a national non-profit fund whose mission was to merge the preservation of Latino history and heritage as seen through our nation’s national parks, with strategies to increase visitation rates of Hispanics to our national treasures.

Now, while I understand that other Latinos may have grown up with a differing experience, my perspective of the outdoors had been incredibly limited. Thinking that they were a place to take “under-privileged” school kids to (like myself), and believing that I, having grown up as an inner-city Latina, was nowhere near equipped to recreate in them. My experience leading the fund would quickly change that.

Soon I learned that a very small percentage of national historic landmarks preserve and commemorate the contributions of diverse communities, and honor the history of African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders and LGBT communities. (A reality that is quickly changing under the Obama Administration.)

Soon after came the development of the National Park Service’s Latino Scholars’ Panel theme study: “American Latinos and the Making of the United States,” which provides the most comprehensive review of contemporary American Latino history including, Latinos’ contributions to: American Democracy, Commerce, the Law, Militaries & Wars, Media, Spirituality & Religion, Food, Sports, Academics, Science, Literature, and on and on.

And then came countless meetings throughout the country, exploring, discussing and visiting with historians, scholars, thought leaders and civic influencers with a deep desire to uncover, and protect public lands on which these diverse histories were made.

Had I known in my youth that Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, a Spanish admiral and explorer settled on the swampy lands of St. Augustine in 1565, and that nearly 200 years later Juan Bautista de Anza would lead an expedition through northern Mexico, which then was called New Spain (and now is Arizona, New Mexico, and California) to establish the city of San Francisco in 1776 (concurrent with the War of Independence), perhaps my understanding of our public lands might have been better informed; and I would have felt that this land is my land, too.

This understanding led to the creation of the @American_Latino Expedition. A popular social media and public awareness campaign that brings multicultural bloggers from all walks of life to visit national parks they’ve never imagined going to – all the while uncovering the deep-rooted diverse histories buried in their soil.

It’s exciting to witness groups like Latino Outdoors, Green Latinos, Hispanic Access Foundation, Americas for Conservation + the Arts, Outdoor Afro, African American National Park Event, the Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau, and so many others, paving new and exciting ways to reach multicultural and diverse audiences, while merging the connections between preservation, conservation, history, heritage and policy. Collectively, they are pushing toward a powerful tipping point. One that reminds us that to change the status quo, we must not wait to be granted permission to do what we know is best, but instead, we must harness the power, lessons and stories discovered in those buried histories and do it anyway.

Question & Answer session: 

Asked of Midy:

What is the connection between preserving history and outdoor spaces?

There is so much about our nation’s history that has not been fully told. The histories of people of color  — our collective blood, sweat and tears that toiled this land and too contributed to its development – can be found from “sea to shining sea and in the purple mountain majesties” we so revere. Be it the San Gabriel Mountains in California, the San Luis Valley in Colorado, the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington or the Everglades in Florida, the preservation of these lands, and the stories embedded in them, allow for a new kind of awareness and appreciation. To visit them with an understanding of what occurred on their soil so many decades and centuries ago, is to step into the footprints of our ancestors and grieve for their experience, or pay homage to their contributions.

How did you come up with the idea for the Latino Expedition?

I was brought on as the Founding Executive Director of the American Latino Heritage Fund of the National Park Foundation to build its initial infrastructure while solidifying its national presence. My role included conceptualizing initiatives that brought forward Latino history and heritage as seen through the national park system.

I identified an opportunity for Latino communities to learn more about each other’s histories through the landscape of our national treasures. For instance, how can a Latina of Dominican decent learn more about Chicano history in LA? How can a second generation Mexicana learn about the Escalante Expedition in Arizona? And how then, can we bring these treasures to the people and share a collective experience? That birthed the idea. The rest unfolded on social and continues today in the good hands of the National Park Foundation.

Do you feel we need to combine efforts with other groups of color?

Yes. We know that our society is a richly textured composition of all types of people, experiences and cultures! But unfortunately, our knowledge of each other’s’ histories may be limited to incomplete history books and current developments as witnessed through the Media. The question is, do we really understand one another? Are we fully open to learning and experiencing the storylines we share? And are we stepping together into the footprints of our past, and discovering the threads that bind all of humanity? I will never forget when Audrey Peterman brought you and I together, along with 22 other diverse environmental leaders at the Grand Canyon this summer for our first meeting as the Diverse Environmental Leaders National Speakers Bureau.  Together we broke bread one evening: a group composed of Caucasians, African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans and members of the LGBT community.  Too much attention is given to diversity at times, without understanding the second part of that equation – inclusion. Celebrating diversity leads to understanding the differences that make our cultures’ unique – inclusion leads to experiencing them together.

Do you feel you are making a lasting difference in the Latino community?

I hope so. But, I am not alone. There are countless leaders in the Latino community who are dedicated to representing the community well, and moving us forward.  I get energy from witnessing their contributions and work; and I’m inspired daily to do more.  The following quote captures the sentiment well: “How long should you try? Until.”

Asked of Teresa:

What inspired you to create the African American National Park Event?

I was inspired to create African American National Parks Event out of frustration at the conversation and lack of action. For years I would listen to the conversation and read the articles of the absence of African Americans in our national parks, but I never saw follow-up, I never saw such organizations as the National Park Service, in action to change what they themselves perceived as a problem. So after several trip into various national park units in California and engaging in conversation with people about the absence of people of color in our national parks, I decided that I would be the one to address the problem, with action. Thus African American National Parks Event was born.

Do you feel we can do a better job of learning each other’s’ histories?  Why do we “separate” ourselves?

I think it’s only natural to want to learn about ourselves and the story behind our existence.  For people of color in this country, our history in the public school system has always been one that was over looked or mentioned in a negative light. Once we begin to research on our own or have our stories told by older family members, we start to rejoice in the greatness of who our ancestors were.

The fact that people of color sometimes neglect acknowledging other culture’s, is not a knock on those cultures, but rather an excitement that we find in acknowledging and showcasing our own. However, as we become more aware of the world around us and the contributions that people of color as a whole have made to this country, we must begin to feel comfortable in researching and speaking on that culture’s as well.

For me personally, I love history and learning of the contributions made by others. As I learn I begin to connect the dots, which ultimately leads me to a better understanding of my own culture.

What do you think is the most pressing environmental issue affecting the African American community?

The greatest environmental issue facing the African American community is global warming; however, this issue is not just an issue in the African American community, but every community across the globe.  We all have a desire to exist, yet the conversation of conservation for the most part, is not being had in communities of color.  We must change this; we must start making our presence known in these conversations. If we continue to accept being left out of the discussion, we must also be willing to accept the decisions that come from those discussions.

Who is your strongest ally in the work that you do?

My strongest allies are those who feel as I do, that people of color are just as vital to these open spaces as those who have already made their marks. What I’ve learned in this work is that I alone cannot change the tide of exclusion; it will take those who feel as strongly as I do, to bring about lasting change. It will take communities of color, working together towards a goal of change that will turn the tide of devastation that we collectively have reaped upon this earth.

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