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
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    We are a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education, innovation, and collaboration....
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Come work alongside everyday Montanans to project our clean air, water, and build thriving communities! Competitive salary, health insurance, pension, generous vacation time and sabbatical....
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!