LAST YEAR, I SPENT a week in Yosemite with Shelton Johnson, the eloquent park ranger dedicating his life’s work to getting more African Americans into the national parks. Currently, African Americans make up 1% of people visiting our parks, a number Shelton tells us is beginning to change.
Truth be told, this wasn’t a story that I sought out, mainly because I never noticed it as being an issue. I was hired by the National Parks Conservation Association to be the cinematographer for the short film directed by Amy Marquis. I went into the project completely unaware of how it would affect me and my outlook on who is coming to the parks and experiencing nature.
Less than ten minutes into the interview and Shelton had already made a strong impact on me. We discussed his connection to nature, the Buffalo Soldiers, the ties African Americans have to the early history of the parks. I suddenly felt very passionate about an issue I’d known very little about. As the week went on, we traveled to LA where we met up with Amazing Grace, a church group made up of older African American men and women. They were heading up to Yosemite, and for a lot of them it was the first time they’d ever been to a national park.
Seeing the wonder and amazement in their eyes in the shadows of El Cap is an image I’ll never forget. To be there, experiencing the wilderness with people for the first time, was the moment that what had been a contract video job turned into a passion project.
The film played at the Banff Mountain Film Festival, and I was there to represent the team that made it happen. Standing on the stage for a short Q&A session, I was convinced there would be crickets, a fear I have every time I step foot on stage. But looking out at the audience, hands filled the air, inspiring a lively conversation. This seems to be an issue that many of us are aware of without much knowledge of what we can do about it.
The question that kept coming up throughout the weekend was, Why this is the case? When did the shift happen that saw African Americans become infrequent visitors of the parks? It’s a complicated question because there’s no clean soundbite to sum it up.
Shelton brings it back to slavery, articulating the aftereffects it had on a population. Understanding the ripple effect and how it got us to this point, I believe it now boils down to opportunity and interest. If going to the parks wasn’t something you were brought up with, it probably isn’t something you expose your children to, and so on. For many African Americans, the wilderness is an unknown, and it’s easy to fear what we don’t know.
So where does that leave us? When I looked out at the audience at the festival, we all looked pretty similar. It’s important to acknowledge that. As an industry, we can support organizations that are getting intercity African Americans into nature. We can get our friends to come on trips and expeditions with us. We can ignite that interest by showing that in this case, the unknown isn’t so scary, and in fact is quite accessible and positive for our well-being.
Shelton ended the interview with this final thought: “If Martin Luther King were alive today, he’d be first and foremost to say that we as a people need to go to Yellowstone. We need to go to the Grand Canyon. Because if this is America’s best idea, and we played a role in its creation, how dare we not choose that for ourselves.”
The Way Home: Returning to the National Parks was directed and produced by Amy Marquis of the National Parks Conservation Association, filmed by Sarah Menzies, and edited by fellow Matador Ambassador Alexandria Bombach of Red Reel. Learn more about efforts to bring more diverse visitors to the parks here.