Inside a park succeeding at recruiting diverse employees

Antonio Solorio helps national park reach L.A.’s Latino majority.

  • Antonio Solorio

    ZachBehrens/NPS
 

The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a 157,000-acre quilt of national park, California state park and state beach lands, bordered by the Pacific Ocean and inland valleys. It’s located in the greater Los Angeles region, and during a recent three-day visit to the park, I saw more people of color on trails than I’d seen during most of my life. It was surprising, even shocking, given the National Park Service’s ongoing struggle with diversity. Some 80 percent of park visitors are white; units with high numbers of non-white visitors are extremely rare.

Santa Monica’s diverse visitors mostly come from neighboring Los Angeles and Oxnard Counties, where half the population is Latino. Its programs annually serve 14,000 students from Title I schools, with high concentrations of low-income families, in Los Angeles. The park’s staffing is also diverse — another rarity in an agency whose workforce is 83 percent white. Vanessa Torres, a Latina, oversees the park’s innovative mobile visitor center, La Ranger Troca, and Michael Liang, who is gay and Chinese American, manages the unit’s messaging and is a “centennial ambassador” for the agency at large. But perhaps no one embodies the park’s intentions and successes more than Antonio Solorio. Born in Tijuana, he grew up in East Los Angeles, which has the highest concentration of Latinos in the city — nearly 97 percent. It also is a neighborhood characterized as “park poor,” whose largest open green spaces during Solorio’s childhood were cemeteries. The message, he says, was clear: “You have to die before you get to go and enjoy nature.” 

In high school, a crush and his best friend, David Martinez, coaxed Solorio to the school’s Environmental Club, which also offered free lunches and field trips to the Santa Monica and San Gabriel Mountains. Solorio and Martinez got hooked on the outdoors, ending up doing trail work in a Student Conservation Association program at Yosemite National Park. His mother was worried that he was giving up a decent job at the corner liquor store and risking his well-being to “sleep with the bears,” but Solorio went anyway — and was transformed.

“Something started bubbling up,” Solorio says. “I started thinking about my mom and pops, my siblings, my friends in the neighborhood — how come they don’t get to see these beautiful things as well. When I got back home, I started seeing what was going down in my neighborhood — broken glass on playgrounds, broken homes, businesses that were broke, families that were broken — then juxtaposing  that against all this awesome beauty I just witnessed.”

It’s often said that persistence, the ability to hang in there for as long as it takes, is essential if you want to work in the National Park Service. Solorio was determined enough to take on seven years of seasonal work and internships at various national parks and national forests, while attending Cal State Los Angeles and grad school at Cal State Northridge, hustling two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet. He eventually landed at his present post, leading the Santa Monica (SAMO) Youth Program, which seeks to inspire diverse high-school students to support and steward public lands.

SAMO Youth has had its share of success placing alumni at Santa Monica and 16 other national park units, but its biggest contribution may be redefining what park leaders consider to be successful outcomes of recruitment efforts. Job openings in the agency are scarce, especially for entry-level positions. So Solorio focuses on the public allies SAMO Youth has produced, as well as the legions of those steered into outdoors or public-lands careers, including those outside the National Park Service. The agency still benefits because new advocates are created in areas where demographics are changing quickly, and public support cannot be taken for granted.

Santa Monica Mountains may be on to something: If the National Park Service is mostly powerless to improve workforce diversity, because it doesn’t have jobs to offer and has strict limitations on its hiring process, perhaps it needs to completely re-write the story. In other words, it could start measuring the success of its current programs and efforts not by job placements, but by relationships forged, amplifying those relationships to produce younger and more diverse stakeholders, even if they are outside the agency.

“We see a bigger picture — act locally, but think globally,” Solorio says. “It’s the ripple effects that count.”

This is part of a special report on the state of the national parks.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DISTRICT MANAGER
    The San Juan Islands Conservation District is seeking applicants for the District Manager position. The position is open until filled and application plus cover letter...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Time Arts, a Bozeman-based nonprofit, is seeking an Executive Director. MTA advocates for and produces public artworks that advance social & environmental justice in...
  • BEND AREA HOME WITH AMAZING CASCADE PEAKS VIEW
    Enjoy rural peacefulness and privacy with one of the most magnificent Cascade Mountain views in sunny Central Oregon! Convenient location only eight miles from Bend's...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • RESEARCH FELLOW (SOUTHWESTERN U.S. ENERGY TRANSITION)
    The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA) in partnership with the Grand Canyon Trust is seeking a full-time Fellow to conduct topical research...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • ONCE OR TWICE
    A short historical novel set in central Oregon based on the the WWII Japanese high altitude ballon that exploded causing civilian casualties. A riveting look...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • HOUSE FOR SALE
    Rare mountain property, borders National Forest, stream nearby. Pumicecrete, solar net metering, radiant heat, fine cabinets, attic space to expand, patio, garden, wildlife, insulated garage,...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Want to organize people to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life with Northern Plains Resource Council? Apply now-...
  • CONSERVATION MANAGER
    The Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust (RiGHT) is hiring an energetic and motivated Conservation Manager to develop and complete new conservation projects and work within...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -