In the final days, our POC-in-chief delivers

Obama’s monument designations set a blueprint for diversity and inclusion in federal public lands.

 

Barack Obama is the reason I met Audrey Peterman, who has been advocating for inclusion and access in U.S. public lands for more than 20 years. When the last of their children graduated from college, she and her husband Frank, a longstanding, influential civil rights activist, embarked on 12,000-mile, 40-state road trip to “discover America.” What they discovered, mostly, were national parks and their overwhelming lack of diverse visitors.

That didn’t stop Peterman. The native of Summer Field, Jamaica, and U.S. citizen since 1996 has visited 179 units of the National Park Service, from Acadia to Zion. She and Frank also founded Earthwise Productions and the Diverse Environmental Leaders to raise awareness of public lands, with a focus on Americans of color.

Audrey and Frank Peterman in Denali National Park. Audrey Peterman has visited over 170 National Park units.
Courtesy Audrey Peterman.
It took President Obama to re-energize Peterman, inspire me to found The Trail Posse to encourage and document diversity and inclusion in the outdoors, and connect the two of us.

Obama also was our conduit to Maite Arce, who founded Hispanic Access in 2010 to connect Latinos with partners and opportunities to help develop a healthy environment, economic success and active civic engagement. He led us to Angelou Ezello, who started Greening Youth Foundation in 2009 to connect more youth and young adults of color to the outdoors and careers in conservation. And because of Obama we connected with Jes Ward of cityWild, which began in 1998 to advocate for and provide access and employment opportunities in the outdoors for youth.

“I thought the Obama presidency would give African Americans in particular a sense of belonging that we have lacked, and that under his administration all Americans would come to know about our parks, our history in them, and come to value them as vacation destinations and part of our legacy,” Peterman says.

Early last year, the lot of us joined with more than 30 other civil rights, environmental justice, conservation and community organizations to form the Next 100 Coalition to advocate for greater inclusion of diverse communities in public lands. Our most urgent endeavor was to ask the man who inspired us to issue the Presidential Memorandum on Diversity in Public Lands, which he signed Jan. 12. The sweeping document sets in place vital mechanisms to ensure access, relevance and inclusion in public lands, outreach and engagement efforts, and workforce diversity and youth workforce initiatives.

It was Obama who brought us together because being the first African American and multiracial president makes him the first Person of Color (POC) in the U.S. – our POC-in-chief, if you will – and therefore the first president who could truly understand and share the vision of the Next 100.
 
The Next 100 Coalition shares Obama’s belief in the crucial connection between communities of color and other marginalized groups to public lands and therefore to the future of our country. The demographics of our country and the impacts of climate change are on parallel tracks. It is imperative that our constituents are connected to public lands and therefore, as the projected non-white majority in the U.S., have the commitment and political will to mitigate the impacts of global warming, which we feel first and disproportionately.

Obama has recognized that reconnecting the disenfranchised involves more than hanging a “Welcome” sign at existing parks and monuments. It requires creating units with geographic and cultural relevance. Three of the five national monuments Obama designated today help tell a more complete story of our country’s civil rights and post-slavery past. The Obama administration has created, expanded or re-designated 25 national parks, monuments and preserves that have cultural relevance to marginalized groups; many, by being near urban centers, also offer better geographical access.

A statue in Kelly Ingram Park at the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument.
Alan Spears/National Parks Conservation Association


The memorandum and designations set in place a blueprint for a new normal that accommodates, fosters and celebrates the ways that different groups connect with federal public lands. Like the healthcare system, those advances could suffer the misfortune of being characterized as Obama legacy items. That would be a shame because the Next 100 Coalition is trying, simply, to establish a lasting human legacy, and believe that should outlast any one president.

In pursuit of support for today’s presidential memorandum, we have spent months reframing the discussion about communities of color and our connection with nature. We have insisted, through a first-ever poll of voters of color, meetings with public lands agencies, Twitter chats, forums with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Conference, and dozens of op-eds and radio and television appearances, that we already are outdoors. We just haven’t been connected to public lands in the “traditional” manner as defined by mainstream, white America.

I have confirmed such through my own work as a journalist, while traveling much of the West to document race in the year of the National Park Service centennial.

For a year, I followed Nancy Fernandez as she fell in love with public lands, struggled to gain permanent employment to steward them and, at the last minute, earned a job with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In Colorado, I watched Shelton Johnson hold the World Ranger Congress in utter rapture with the story of the Buffalo Soliders, the African American precursors to them all. In Southern California, I met Antonio Solorio, a Mexican-born ranger who administrates the groundbreaking SAMO Youth program connecting high-school youth of color to public lands. His colleague, Michael Liang, is gay, Chinese American and a “Centennial Ambassor” who has impacted National Park Service messaging from coast to coast.

I had my eyes opened wide in Tucson, where a large Latino community abuts Saguaro National Park, but seldom visits it. Cam Juárez was a planner and project manager outside the Park Service when he agreed to take on the challenge of connecting his community with Saguaro. Juárez is a miracle, really. He has birth defects that caused shortened upper limbs and missing digits, and a cardiac condition. His mother was a single parent and a migrant farm worker in California’s Central Valley, where she likely was exposed to pesticides associated with defects suffered by her son and now her grandson as well.

Juárez has a weakened heart, but it is large. And it was emboldened by his president.

When he ran for a non-partisan school board position, Juárez was on the same ballot as Obama in 2008. He and his wife Montserrat worked on both Obama presidential campaigns. His son Julian was conceived during Obama’s 2008 run.

“Yes, I had hope under an Obama administration,” Juárez says. “The Park Service gained a plethora of units under Mr. Obama, including a National Monument for César E. Chávez, one of my other heroes. President Obama helped to change my perception of the federal government's ability to demonstrate efficiency and efficacy.”

The POC-in-chief has both seen us and changed the way we are seen. From Juárez to Peterman, the people I’ve encountered under Obama’s watch are remarkable for the mark they’ve made on this world – regardless of race. And this was a day for all of them, for those who came before them, and for all who are to come.

As my Next 100 colleague, Angel Peña of the Conservation Land Foundation, says, “We are the ancestors of our own.”

Contributing editor Glenn Nelson is the founder of The Trail Posse, which documents and encourages diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.