The National Parks Have a Diversity Problem. This Couple Has Been Working for 20 Years to Fix It.
Updated: Oct 11, 2020
February 27, 2019
In 1995, Audrey and Frank Peterman pulled into Yellowstone National Park, stepped out of their truck, looked around, and wondered: Where are the people that look like us?
As the black couple surveyed the lodge, Frank struck up a conversation with an older white gentleman. The man spoke wistfully of watching Yellowstone change over the years with the addition of new lodges and visitor centers each time he visited—first as a child with his father, then as a father with his children, and now as a grandfather with his grandkids.
“It hit me in the pit of my stomach,” Frank recalls. “I thought I’d been a real good father. But I realized I had not given my kids the heritage of the national park, which is one of the most magnificent things that we have in America.”
Frank describes that conversation as a moment of “reckoning.” Earlier that year, he and his partner Audrey had set out on a two-month, 12,000-mile road trip to experience the natural splendor of U.S. national parks. They started at their home in Florida and traveled up the East Coast to Acadia National Park, where they drove to the top of Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise. They then struck out west, stopping to take in the sawtooth spires of Badlands National Park in South Dakota before reaching Yellowstone. From there, the Petermans drove to Olympic National Park, down to Yosemite, swung over to Zion National Park, and then to the Grand Canyon as they wound their way home.
In Yellowstone, they realized they had seen hardly any other people of color exploring the parks alongside them. “Just as we had not known these incredible beautiful places were out there, so many of our peers didn’t either,” Audrey says. “And we made up our minds to do something about it.” They’ve devoted themselves to the task for the past 25 years.
Long before becoming outdoor activists, Audrey and Frank had strong connections to the natural world. Audrey, who was born in Jamaica, says she never perceived a separation between humans and their environment until she moved to the United States in her twenties. “It was all just one big thing," she says. "It’s just life.” Frank grew up in the wilds of southern Florida and spent summers exploring the Alabama woods. His grandfather and father, a woodsman and a foreman, respectively, both made their livings outdoors and passed down an ethic of environmental stewardship.
So in 1995, when the Petermans set off on their trip, they didn’t have any qualms—but they knew not all people of color felt the same way. A 2011 survey by the National Park Service found that only one in five park visitors is nonwhite; those demographics remained largely unchanged from the previous survey in 2000. When the couple stopped over in New York and Chicago during their road trip, concerned family members asked them if they had a gun to protect themselves from their fellow, predominantly white, campers. And when they returned to southern Florida, other people of color lamented how badly they wished to go on a similar trip, but were too afraid to do so.
In all their travels—Audrey and Frank have now traveled to 184 national park units and 46 states—the couple always felt physically safe. But as they got more involved with environmental groups in Florida, they were often the only black people in the room. Sometimes, others questioned why they were in the room at all. Again and again, they ran into assumptions that black people were either too poor to care about environmental issues or that they weren’t capable of appreciating nature.
The couple began tackling this issue from both sides. First, they reached out to communities of color by drawing on Audrey’s background in journalism to start a park-focused print newsletter. They published stories and photos from their own travels, so people of color could see themselves visiting the parks for a change, as well as profiles of nonwhite historical figures who aided in the conservation of American landscapes. Over the years, this effort evolved into a Huffington Post blog and two books, including Our True Nature—which the Petermans suspect is the first travel guide to the national parks written by a black woman. In further outreach to their community, the couple advises organizations like GirlTrek, a public health nonprofit that gets black women and girls outside and walking to improve their fitness.
Frank and Audrey have also pressed from the other side by working with white-dominated environmental groups. They started the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau to connect environmental leaders with people of color actively working as mountaineers, scientists, birders, climate activists, and more. Through the National Parks Conservation Association, they worked on diversity initiatives at parks across the country, including Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Great Smoky Mountains National Park. And at home in Florida, they’ve worked to involve communities of color in conservation projects in places like Biscayne National Park, Dry Tortugas National Park, and Big Cypress National Preserve.
At the national level, the Petermans were part of the Next 100 Coalition, a group of activists that successfully lobbied former President Obama to sign the Presidential Memorandum on Diversity in Public Lands. The document laid out a roadmap which government agencies could use to make public lands truly accessible and inclusive for everyone who lives in or visits America.
Over the last 24 years, Frank and Audrey have watched the environmental sphere gradually welcome more human diversity. Audrey says that for her, things have changed “180 degrees” because “there are so many outdoor groups of color now across the country.” She points to organizations like GirlTrek that have sprung up in recent years with the sole purpose of getting more people of color outside, along with activists like Teresa Baker, who are creating events that encourage people of color to explore national parks and share their experiences online. As the United States as a whole becomes a more diverse country, Audrey says, it is more important than ever to make sure people from all backgrounds care about the future of our natural places.
Frank is optimistic, but more cautious about the progress so far. “Everything indicates the needle has moved,” he says “Not as much as it should or as rapidly as it should, but it has moved.”
Audrey and Frank know that there is still work to be done, particularly with climate change threatening beloved landscapes and human communities across the country and world. They are still crisscrossing the country, passing the heritage of the national parks to their 19 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Next, they hope to visit Nebraska (one of the only four states they have not visited) to see the migration of the Sandhill Cranes.
“With this existential threat, we can’t be siloed any more,” Audrey says. “It’s all hands on deck.”
Editor’s note: Audrey and Frank Peterman visited the National Audubon Society on Tuesday, February 26, to discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion at National Parks and within the environmental movement. Watch the video on Facebook.