Young People of Color Care About Our Parks

Ayomide Sekiteri on how she found her park

Ayomide Sekiteri delivered this speech on the National Mall in honor of the National Park Service’s 99th birthday. Her remarks were part of a celebration that we put on with SCA and NPS supporter American Express. NPS Dir. Jon Jarvis and SCA CEO Jaime Matyas gave speeches that day as well, but Ayomide was the headliner! She is currently serving as an SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador for the National Mall, an NPS site. 

If it was based solely on statistics, I shouldn’t be standing here. I shouldn’t be here talking to you about our National Parks because I am not your typical national park visitor.

The typical visitor is over the age of 50 and white. As you can see…that’s not me. I am 22, African-American, the daughter of two Nigerian-born and raised parents - Making me 1st generation American.

No, I am not the typical National Park visitor.

“I know my history can be found in the national parks and I sense my future can be too.”

But here I am.  I’m here to break the myth that young people, and especially young people of color, don’t care about the national parks or, for that matter, nature.

I first connected with the outdoors at a young age. I spent time exploring my local woods, searching for little animals and small wonders. But as I got older I started spending less and less time outdoors until one day, I just all together stopped.

It was during my spring break of 2014 that I finally reconnected with the outdoors through a position with the Student Conservation Association. While my friends headed off on tropical vacations or stayed at home watching TV, I traveled all the way from Baltimore, Maryland to Jackson Hole, Wyoming to join a group of other young people for SCA’s National Park Service Academy.

People I knew at home questioned, ‘why do you want to travel over 2,000 miles to go to the middle of nowhere?’

But if they saw the sights I saw even just from my airplane window, they wouldn’t have to ask. 

After both their speeches, Jon Jarvis, Director of the National Park Service, had a special gift for Ayomide: One of his official Challenge Coins! (Click on any of these images for a larger version.)

I had never seen mountains so large in person…moose, bison, coyotes, herds of elk. I thought you only saw those animals in books and on The Discovery Channel. Never right there in front of you.  I saw the stars. No I really, saw the stars; shining brighter than I ever knew they could shine.

How could I have been missing this for so long? How could I not know about this?

Before my experience at Grand Tetons, I never could have imagined myself there. National parks were not a part of my vocabulary.  The outdoors?  That wasn’t an option for me, I’d get hurt, mess my hair up, get eaten… oh my!

Previous to this experience I had thought that the enjoyment of nature and our parks was a privilege that belonged to people who didn’t look like me.

Yet, here I was amongst 23 different and diverse youth brought together through a program focused on diversity.  None of us looked like your typical park visitor. I knew I had become a part of something bigger.

Ayomide was interviewed by American Express, a major supporter of SCA’s effort to engage volunteers in service to America’s parks leading up to next year’s NPS centennial.

For the first time I saw beyond the cities, skyscrapers, and pavement.  And I wanted others to know about it too.

From there on, things were different for me.  I wanted to pursue a life that allowed me to see all the magnificent wonders that this nation, and even further beyond had to offer. And I wanted to help keep them magnificent too.

I had realized that national parks and the outdoors belong to every single one of us.  Every mountain, waterfall, canyon, trail, tree ….. We must only be willing to reach out to it.

After my week of NPS Academy training in the Grand Tetons, I traveled once again. This time to Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve in Louisiana where I worked as a National Park Service intern. Since then I’ve graduated from Hood College with a major in environmental science and policy. And currently I am here in DC serving as a SCA Centennial Volunteer Ambassador on the National Mall - promoting volunteerism in advance of next year’s 100th anniversary of the National Park Service.

My experiences with SCA and NPS have helped me immensely on my journey of self-discovery. These experiences have changed the way I see the outdoors, even the way I see myself. A few years ago I could have never imagined I’d be standing here today sharing my story - and celebrating the National Park Service Centennial.

Ayomide with SCA President and CEO Jaime Matyas.

Think about that – 100 years of national parks.  That’s a natural and cultural heritage unlike any other country in the world…The national parks connect many stories and make one that unites all of us as Americans. No matter your background.

I know my history can be found in the national parks and I sense my future can be too.

That’s why I’m here today…..

To prove that young people of color care about our parks…

To explore the outdoors as well as a career…

To show others that that the National Parks belong to everyone, even people that look like… me…

To inspire others the way The Grand Tetons, Yosemite, Valley Forge and the Lincoln Memorial inspire me…

To exercise my right to enjoy these awe-inspiring places, as well as my responsibility to care for them

I’m here because I found my park and I want you to find your park too.

Thank you.

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