Black and Green

Quiz time! I’ll give you the answers, you give me the category. Ready? Go!

#128: Camping

#87: Outdoor performance clothes

#9: Making you feel bad about not going outside

Why are African-Americans so underrepresented in our national park system?

Why are African-Americans so underrepresented in our national park system?

If you answered: “Stuff White People Like,” you’re correct! Christian Lander’s website lists these activities squarely between “Film Festivals” and “Picking their own fruit.”

Goofy websites notwithstanding, the stereotype that African Americans don’t “do” nature looms large. And unfortunately, when it comes to our national parks, it’s not entirely false: In a 2011 survey, the National Parks Service found 78% of visitors are white, and only about 7% of its visitors were black, when blacks make up nearly double that percentage of the total American population [1]. That means according to their share of the total US population, whites are overrepresented by 14 percentage points in National Parks, and blacks are underrepresented by 6 percentage points [2]

Some of that, says Autumn Saxton-Ross, program director for a health advocacy initiative at the Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies in Washington, DC, and a recreation leader with Outdoor Afro, is because the costs of admission and transportation to many sites are prohibitive, but it also stems from a time, not long ago, when the parks were segregated along racial lines. Blacks had separate bath houses, picnic pavilions, and in some cases, their own mountains [3].  “What stands out for me, too,” Saxton-Ross said in a recent interview, “is this intergenerational transfer of knowledge. If your parents had a bad experience in a place, they’re not going to want to expose you to that place.” And she says many African Americans are reluctant to join a hiking group where they’ll be the only person of color. Minorities often feel like they have to speak for everyone of their race. “Unfortunately,” says Saxton-Ross, “white people are often thought of as individual, and black people are lumped together. So if a white person doesn’t like nature, it’s just that one person, but if I don’t like nature, it means all black people don’t, either.”

A recent National Park Service ad campaign juxtaposes urban parks and wilderness spaces.

A recent National Park Service ad campaign juxtaposes urban parks and wilderness spaces.

But another issue, she points out, is in the definitions: A lot of people think “Nature” is something that only happens outside of cities, or in remote reaches or at the tops of mountains, but that ignores all the wildlife in our backyards. In Washington, DC, 96% of residents live within a 10-minute walk of a park. [4]

Here’s what some savvy Duke Ellington School of the Arts students had to say about nature.

Why does nature matter (for museum educators)?

Sure, it’s beautiful, it’s calming, it’s restorative, it encourages exercise and good spirits, and all humans, regardless of color, should have access to the outdoors. But why would nature matter to museum educators? I’m glad you asked! It seems to me that the skills that are needed to engage with, and engendered by, the natural world are not only versatile, but essential. Observational skills, the ability to categorize, recognize patterns, understand relationships, use all the senses to obtain data, appreciate what organisms need to be healthy– these are all abilities that define Howard Gardner’s eighth intelligence: “Nature Smart,” and in many ways, they are as important in a science center as they are in an art museum. [5]

We in the museum biz talk a lot about cultural literacy, and the incredible power of museums to bring otherwise struggling students–especially the underserved– up to speed with accessible, challenging cultural programming. Let it be known here and now that I believe another kind of literacy is essential for a democratic and peaceful world, and that is nature literacy. It’s not just about the fact that our planet is warming, and species are vanishing and we need smart, caring scientific types now more than ever; it’s about preserving the connections and experiences only nature can provide. I think, especially for African Americans, it’s also about making new generational memories around the outdoors– memories of Yosemite, and the backyard, bull moose sipping from a melted glacier and a blue jay fighting a sparrow in an oak tree. These are the experiences it will take to reroute minority families toward outdoor spaces, and maybe set off a positive generational orientation toward the natural world.

What now?

Now comes the tricky part: how museums can foster a love of nature in African-American communities… Any thoughts? I must say I can think of a thousand ways for any type of museum to integrate “natural” programming or themes into exhibitions (I bet you can, too; feel free to share below!), but combining the two feels like a challenge. I daresay it requires a multi-pronged approach: removing barriers to access, creative partnerships (schools with farm museums? churches with botanic gardens?), loads of outreach, as well as museums with high African-American attendance (Wright Museum, Lewis Museum) incorporating nature-oriented programs.

Here are a couple examples of places where the links between African Americans and nature seem to be coming together:

Fourth graders take the garden tour

Fourth graders take the garden tour.

The Accokeek Foundation in Maryland features a historic farmstead, and innovative programming that weaves together themes of nature, history and race. Most African-American children who visit come with a school group. They get hands-on experience on the farm, and participate in interactive activities that explore environmentalism’s relationship to human rights.

A detailed owl mural graces a concrete wall in Chicago.

A detailed owl mural graces a concrete wall in Chicago.

Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has an exhibit called “City Creatures: Animal Encounters in Chicago’s Urban Wilderness,” that “highlights both seemingly ordinary encounters and transformative moments of human-animal interaction in the urban wilds, and seeks to document them in accessible narrative and visual form.” [6]

Common mullein, or lamb's ear, is as soft as velvet.

Common mullein, or lamb’s ear, is as soft as velvet.

You no doubt remember Autumn Saxton-Ross from the start of this post. She leads hikes with a group called Outdoor Afro, that hosts outdoor recreation trips for and by black Americans. She noted that trip participants are often eager to hear about the history of a natural space. “We were recently hiking around the Benjamin Banneker House in Maryland,” she says,” and everyone was interested in learning the ins and outs of the complicated ways [Banneker] maintained his freedom. And then we learned about lamb’s ear– you know that fuzzy plant that you never know what it is? And people wonder why, if you can’t eat it, is it always in the garden. Well, we learned that it was used throughout history as a kind of gauze or as a bandage.” It’s outings like this that seem like the perfect pairing of cultural and nature literacy; perhaps people come for one and stay for the other.


As tempting as it is to use the end of a rather wordy blog post to begin a conversation on the problematic category of race, I’ll spare the intrepid readers who made it this far. For those still awake:   it seems like a cruel question, but in a world where all  good brains are needed– immigrant brains and ESL brains and white brains and brown brains and black brains– how do museums decide whose visitorship to prioritize? And once they’re in our clutches, is natural literacy a democratic ideal worth pursuing?







5 thoughts on “Black and Green

  1. patty


    Rachel, thank you for your entertaining and informative audience presentation. It really gets you to see how history and its implications are still alive and well. Changing that mentality or actions does not happen over night.
    One thing that I have heard is that camping is a white person thing: that they camp to not really feel intoned with nature but see how they can survive without much… if only a day. In that feels good and rejuvenating, however this is the case of how some people live today, with barely enough resources. So comments such as “camping to feel poor” or “paying a lot of money to feel/look poor” gets passed around, and there we miss the point.

    As educators, I think emphasizing that art of “pausing” of feeling the elements, can be helpful to connect the bridge of natural and cultural literacy. Of living in the moment, of using your senses (or imaging in your head) to feel another’s perspective, I feel, can make a nice segway of taking in your surroundings.


  2. annastewartgwu

    First, I am excited to explore that first website because it seems hilarious! I think you tackled this topic really well. There are so many factors at play that is seems kind of daunting to try to diversify parks. Honestly, I think the most effective method is going to be time. As America becomes more multicultural, nature areas will too! As more leadership reflects the changing face of America, more people will feel welcome in areas they have historically been banned from. A first step might be creating more nature based school programs to get kids interested in nature from the start!


  3. joshamaxwell

    I particularly liked your topic of study, as it sits near and dear to my heart concerning audiences we might not always think of. I am very intrigued by the questions of who do we serve? Who do we choose to serve? And why do we choose them? I believe that we, as educators, can afford to be the advocates and dreamers that push for the underserved, we’ll have to do our best to convince marketing that its not just a waste of resources.


  4. Allison Van Gilst

    This post really got me looking around parks more when I visit to see who is there. As a white girl who spent most of my childhood at our local park I realize now that there was not much color there. And, perhaps part of the reason is that my neighborhood is mostly white – which can be a discussion in itself – but I think it also has a lot to do with what you are talking about here. It never really occurred to me to think about why park visitors are not more reflective of the demographics of our country. Groups such as Outdoor Afro really excite me as I think that skin color does not change one’s opinion on whether they like to be outside in nature. This really is an intriguing post as I see it doing more than just asking us about how to get all people engaged with nature, and the important conservation reasons behind it, but also because it brings to light the fact that we as a nation are not past the negative race relations we have faced throughout our history.


  5. mmarines

    I really loved that you chose this topic because it’s something I never thought about and now I wonder why I hadn’t. I’ve always loved being outdoors weather its hiking, camping or just walking my dog around the block. Nature and the outdoors, as dumb as it sounds to say it, are a universal things we experience. Not necessarily seeing the great wonders of the world but just being a part of nature. I really liked your point about making nature relevant to urban communities. One thing I’ve experienced since moving to DC was being frustrated with the lack of ‘nature’ I encounter. But nature is everywhere, not just in national parks, and that is an amazing experience we, as museum educators, can expose people to.



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