A Q&A with Teresa Baker, Founder of the African American National Parks Event
California outdoorswoman Teresa Baker doesn’t just love national parks. She encourages thousands of people around the country to love them, too. For two years, she has been the driving force behind a series of successful events encouraging people of color to spend a weekend exploring nature and history. Teresa’s project, the African American National Parks Event, has already grown in size and influence—and she wants to see more people of color involved with the parks, not just as visitors, but as employees and advocates, too.
Update: On June 25, Teresa participated in NPCA’s Google Hangout, The Legacy of Buffalo Soldiers and Our National Parks. See a recording of the conversation for more on the African American National Parks Event, the Buffalo Soldiers, and the importance of connecting diverse communities with the outdoors.
Q: What inspired you to organize the first African American National Parks Event?
A: I created African American National Parks Event last year after constantly hearing about the absence of African Americans in our national parks and not really seeing any action following the conversation. I decided, “I’ll put something out on Facebook and see how people respond.” It was pretty clear people were interested in getting out into our parks. I created the Facebook page, and here we are a year later.
Q: About how many parks and people participated this year?
A: Right now, I have counted 37 parks and at least 2,300 people. I have not come up with a final number yet, but it’s definitely larger than last year.
Q: As part of the event in the Bay Area where you are based, participants retraced the trail of the Buffalo Soldiers from the Presidio to Yosemite. Can you tell me why you chose to make the Buffalo Soldiers part of this event, and how it went?
A: Last year, I was trying to come up with a project for African American National Parks Day. I thought of the Presidio where over 450 Buffalo Soldiers are laid to rest. I reached out to the Golden Gate National Rec Area [that manages the site] and asked if they would participate by putting on a program around the Buffalo Soldiers, and they said yes. We had probably 100 people gather to hear stories on the Buffalo Soldiers, and we toured the Presidio where there are still stables that the Buffalo Soldiers used in the early 1900s.
This year, I went back to the National Park Service, to one of the rangers there, Kelli English. She and I had talked briefly before about doing a retracing, but I had thought, “That’s just too much to take on.” When Kelli mentioned the idea again, I thought, “That’s possible; we can make it happen.” I went back to the staff at the Presidio and we started organizing around September of last year.
We had over 200 participants. We started from the Presidio and made our way along the trail into Yosemite, where we camped out overnight. It was an awesome experience.
Q: How did you get to Yosemite? That’s a long way, isn’t it?
A: Yeah! We thought of every way possible to make it happen: horses, bikes, hiking. Finally, Robert Hannah, the great-great-grandson of John Muir, said, “Teresa, the easiest way to make this happen is by bus.” We caravanned with buses and over 80 motorcycles along the trail.
Q: Had most of the participants heard of the Buffalo Soldiers before the event, or was this a new experience for people?
A: A lot of people in the Bay Area are familiar with the Buffalo Soldiers, but not a lot of people know about the history of the Buffalo Soldiers in our national parks. Being able to tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers being [some of] the first park rangers was really something people took to heart. They now have a connection at Yosemite with people who look like them—which is the whole point of African American National Parks Day, to get African Americans to understand the legacy we have in our national parks.
Q: As a middle-aged white woman, I go to national parks and see people everywhere who look like me, so it’s hard for me to imagine what it must be like to go to a park and not feel represented there. Can you speak a little more about this experience?
A: I go to national parks all the time. Here in the Bay Area, we have six different national parks and monuments, and I don’t see people who look like me when I go. When I go to the Presidio, that’s totally different. There are people from all walks of life at the Presidio. …. In that setting, you see people of color all the time. When I go to Muir Woods or Muir House or Eugene O’Neill or Rosie the Riveter, I don’t see faces that look like mine. So I can understand when people tell me they don’t feel comfortable going to national parks because they feel they’re the only one. Part of the reason I created African American National Parks Event was so that people would have, on this particular weekend, other people around them that look like them, so the level of comfort would rise and they would see the need to get out into the parks beyond just that weekend. A lot of the conversation [at the event] was about the absence of African Americans in our parks and how [participants] would return to Yosemite, because now they have a connection.
Q: Are there ways parks can be more welcoming?
A: It’s important to have a better representation of the demographics of this country in our national parks. If there’s anything the National Park Service can take from this, it’s that they need to have more diverse employees in our national parks, not just in what they define as urban areas, but in all parks, so that when African Americans are there, they see other faces that look like theirs.
Q: What about the outdoor industry more generally? Do you think it has made strides in representing diverse audiences and customers?
I think the outdoor industry is starting to recognize the absence of people of color, and I think they’re making an attempt to change that reality. Outdoor retailers such as REI were supportive of this event and provided gift certificates and bags that I sent out around the country. Yosemite Conservancy, they were partners with me. Range of Light, they were partners with me. There are a lot of organizations that see the need and understand that as the population changes, in order to keep up with that change, they have to do something different. There’s still a lot more that needs to be done, but I’m encouraged by the efforts I am seeing.
Q: What more can be done?
I think the way to bring about change is to get people out of their offices and into the communities that they’re trying to engage. The National Park Service has the ability to go into cities and talk about the parks, not only as an outdoor arena but as a place of employment. It would be good to have the National Park Service partner with city parks that have a diverse audience. Partner with them once a month or something so people see National Park Service employees engaging with the community. I think that’s one way that change can happen, to see the National Park Service outside of the [national] parks and in the communities they’re trying to engage.
Q: How did you first get involved in the outdoors? Did you grow up hiking and camping, or is it something you learned to appreciate as an adult?
I’ve always been an outdoor person, playing sports, hiking, camping, exploring. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I started understanding the importance of our national parks. As an adult, I understand the need for conservation. That’s another aspect of getting African Americans out into our open spaces, so we can all begin to engage in the conversation on conservation. We’re not at the table because we’re not in the parks. It’s something that has always been in my life, and that I’ve always wanted to share with friends and family, but now I see the need to get that message out as widely as possible.
Q: Do you have other thoughts or insights to share from the event?
When the community is engaged and feels like a part of something, they’ll show up. They’ll promote it on their own. This is 100% community-driven. We had people in Hawaii, Michigan, southern California, and all around the country participate. I think the National Park Service can take something from that. They can see people engaging in something that’s important to them because they were asked. That’s one thing I hope from all of this, that the National Park Service becomes even more involved, not just in the conversation, but the doing.
Q: What’s in store for the future of the African American National Parks Event? How are you going to top this?
By engaging more people. The event took place almost two weeks ago, and every day I’ve had some media outlet reach out to me to do an interview of some sort on this topic. I’m just hoping that the project continues to grow and more people become involved and the National Park Service sees the need to help promote this.
The most I can hope for is that one day it’s just commonplace to see all Americans out in our national parks and everyone will feel comfortable. That’s the ultimate goal.
Follow the African American National Parks Event on Facebook and watch NPCA’s Google Hangout, The Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers, to learn more about Teresa’s work, the legacy of African Americans in the park system, and ways more communities of color are engaging with our national parks.