Are Our National Parks Actually "Ours" ?

Today we're talking with Akiebia Hicks about National Parks and minority inclusion in recreation. Although this might seem at first glance like a niche topic, Akiebia explains why minority access and inclusion to National Parks and remote/wilderness recreation should be important to all of us. We're not trying to make this a polarized topic or debate (as things so often are today), but merely shine a light on issues that do have a broader impact but small coverage.

Akiebia is a former colleague of mine at the University of West Georgia, we studied together in our Master's of Public Administration and always used to fanboy over the local overland rigs and crazy jeeps that would wander (seemingly on accident) into our sleepy southern college town. When I first met her she was a park ranger in Alabama and was always excited to share with me and our peers about the cool unexpected things that would go on there. 

Akiebia is now pursuing her doctorate at Clemson University in South Carolina and is studying the effect of minority inclusion (or lack thereof) in National Parks Service jobs and attendance on minority mental health, physical health, and employment opportunities. I hope you enjoy the Q/A below and maybe learn something at the same time, I know I did! 

Q: Real quick, give our readers a background on your work with the parks before your doctoral program

A: Growing up 10 minutes distance from two National Parks, one would assume my childhood consisted of indulging in park culture and history, but it was actually the complete opposite. My first time visiting a National Park was my first day of work at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site (JICA). After working at JICA, I soon realized the National Park Service was my calling.Since then I have worked as a Seasonal National Park Ranger at Little River Canyon National Preserve in Fort Payne, AL, and I was the second staffer at one of America’s newest National Parks (Freedom Riders National Monument) in Anniston, AL.

Q: Obviously you’re focusing on a unique , but important topic, what first inspired your dissertation study?

A: I always enjoyed working at different National Parks since the start of my career, but for some reason, I always felt like there was something or “someone” was missing. It then clicked with me that at every National Park I landed employment; I was always the only minority staffer. It was almost like I was realizing that the great outdoors were not always “great” for everyone. This sad reality inspired my dissertation topic: The Intersection Between Political Environments, Partnerships, Perceptions and Parks: An Examination of Organizational Theories as a Variable to Sustain Diverse Staffing in Parks and Protected Areas.

Q: Where has been your favorite park to conduct research at?

A: My favorite park to conduct research is definitely Joshua Tree National Park.


Q: Is minority exclusion from outdoor recreation a cultural thing? Is it racism? Is it based on income or regional access? Or something else?

A: The unspoken issue with environmental racism and even classism may deter some away from seeking inclusion in parks. Being a researcher and interpreter of history, I am well aware of the active stereotypes that are prevalent in our communities. There is limitless research on the social disconnects Black Americans experience in nature settings, and the assumption that Black Americans do not recreate (Phillip, 2000). However, this assumption proves that most Americans are almost subconsciously defining recreation and leisure as activities that are only enjoyed by White Americans (Shinew and Floyd, 2005). It is imperative to consider socioeconomic disparities or social traumas from a historical lens when speaking on such topics. Many are familiar with the swimming pool boom and the era in which pools were desired in the United States, but few are familiar with the underlying issues that still exist from it. When swimming pools emerged in the United States, the movement consisted of over 2,000 swimming pools being built to the public, and Black Americans were denied entry to these pools (Wiltsie, 2010). The setback for Black Americans to enjoy this luxury, openly presented White Americans with a head start in appreciating swimming pools and knowing how to use them. Historical marginalization can be viewed as a primary reason for the difficulty of encouraging diversity into National Parks where many of these phenomena exist.

Q: How is the research process coming? Have you found the National Parks Service to be cooperative and supportive of your work?

A: The research process is still in its early stages but I was lucky to have a research conversation with David Vela---the first latin(x) Director of the National Park Service.

Q: For people who haven’t thought about this,what would you tell them to explain why minority inclusion in the outdoors isn't just a minority concern. 

A.The need for inclusion is emphasized now more than ever with the projected shift in demographics in America to be expected by 2050 (Pew Research, 2008). While Black American demographics will remain remotely the same, the White majority population will decrease by nearly 20%. If White Americans are the majority of visitors who occupy park settings, what will the future of parks be like when the current majority is no longer the majority? 

Q: With that being said, what concern do you hold for minorities that are disproportionately affected by this exclusion?

A: I think I’m more concerned for minority staff in National Parks. The National Park Service means well but I encountered an unfathomable amount of racism from visitors while employed at parks. After being confronted and harassed while in uniform one day, I silently gave up my dreams of working in the National Park Service and decided to enroll in the Masters of Public Administration program at the University of West Georgia (UWG) which then lead to me viewing my research from a broader lens and enrolling in the Clemson University doctoral program. In fact, many other young park rangers are in my shoes which is why my research is devoted to retention in National Parks with new and minority staff.

Q: Have you discovered anything yet that surprised you?

A: I think the biggest thing that has surprised me is that the earliest park guardians who patrolled National Parks were Buffalo Soldiers. It’s cool to know that we have roots in the National Park Service although this narrative is not always mentioned. 

Q: What specifically do you think makes experiencing the outdoors valuable for all Americans?

A: I think experiencing outdoors is not only beneficial for mental health but opens up doors for many job opportunities that many are not even aware of. Growing up I never knew I could be a park ranger. If I grew up in nature, I would've come to that realization sooner and had more job opportunities.

Q: What resources or groups exist to facilitate minority inclusion in the outdoors?

A: There are many organizations like Outdoor Afro for Black Americans who are interested in providing a normative view of Black Americans in nature. Outdoor Afro is primarily for Black Americans who have discovered their voices in wilderness settings while there remains a missed population of those who do not participate, have not discovered their voices but wish to.

Q: Let’s try to pay it forward, who is another person or what is another organization that really inspires you in this field?

A: I would honestly say the dean at NC State, Myron Floyd inspires me. He does similar work in this field and has published many citable papers on diversity and inclusion in parks.

Q: How can people contribute or help your mission?

A: I think people can contribute by always being willing to listen and learn from POC in their circles.

Q: If someone wants to follow in your footsteps, what is the best way for them to start?

A: I think just diving in and breaking barriers on your own is a great way to start. Search for mentors in your research or interest area because mentors will assist in shaping how passionate you’ll remain in regard to your research. 

If you would like to support Akiebia's research , we've include a donation link here.