The national parks belong to us all, but not everyone feels welcomed. This is the message that I constantly hear when I speak to African Americans about visiting our national parks. There is an inherited assumption that visiting national parks is not an “African American thing”, so we tend to avoid the parks as an act of solidarity.
As I ventured out and would come across other African American’s in the parks, which is rare, but it does happen on occasion, I would intentionally stop and ask of their experience, the response is always the same. We love it, it is so peaceful and beautiful, “but are we the only one’s out here”, followed by laughter. Then there are times when I’m out in the parks for hours, not having seen another face that looked like mine, then all of a sudden making eye contact with another African American, who looked just as stunned as me. We acknowledge one another with a nod and simply continue along our way. Knowing we just experienced an unspoken connection. A kindred occurrence that rarely takes place out in nature.
So after encountering this reaction time and time again and seeing all the campaigns geared around African American participation in the national parks, I thought to myself, what would the reaction be if I started my own campaign, my own push to get African Americans out into our national parks? Would African Americans respond to the call or would they ignore my request just as they had with previous campaigns?
Thus the African American national parks event was born.
If you are unaware of the African American National parks event, it is a day that I designed to have African Americans across the country, congregate in one of their local national parks, monuments or sites, to show that as African Americans, we do care about and support our natural resources.
I believed that this event would generate participation by the masses, but I knew I had to approach it differently. I’d seen campaigns in the past by the NPS, but those campaigned missed the target simply because the campaigns were not generated in the correct publications or on internet sites that have an audience of African Americans. The previous campaigns launched, did not speak directly to the audience they were geared towards, thus, the message was not received.
My strategy was a little different. I reached out to publications African American’s read, I reached out to bloggers that write about the African American experience, I posted to webpages that African Americans visit and lastly I created a Facebook page dedicated solely to my event. Based on the involvement and the attention the event drew, I think my approach hit the target. African Americans responded to my call and headed out into national parks, sites and monuments as I had imaged they would.
One unexpected outcome of the event was the involvement by several national parks to put on programs around the event. The Presidio of San Francisco put on a program around the Buffalo Soldiers, in honor of African American national parks day. Other parks around the country followed suite and had guest speakers and various programs all geared around the event.
Through all the comments and pictures posted on the Facebook page, people felt welcomed and connected to our national parks on a level that wasn’t there before. The overwhelming response has been, “I wasn’t the only one”, which had been a barrier before.
I think the message is out there that as African Americans, we too belong, but we must feel welcomed and comfortable in an environment that doesn’t have such a diverse crowd. Hopefully with this new campaign, that reality is starting to change.
I invite you to visit and join the Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/African-American-National-Parks-Event/355974594517522. Plans are already in the works to make next year’s event, even bigger.