Let’s Make Our National Parks More Inclusive

SCA Board member Ernest C. Wong (inset) and Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chicago

Board member Ernest C. Wong on how SCA can help bring diversity to our parks

Look around a national park and you may see brown bears, blue herons, or Redwood trees.

But you’re less likely to see any people of color.  Statistically, 80% of park visitors are white as are park staffs, even as projections show whites will be in the minority within 30 years.

As the National Park Service counts down to its Centennial, I struggle with the lack of diversity in national parks, and why even our urban park systems are segregated. 

As the son of Chinese immigrants growing up in a predominantly African-American Chicago neighborhood in the late 1960s, my interests were never focused on the outdoors. Even with a strict Chinese (see “tiger”) upbringing, school work, sports and even language escaped me.  I drifted into illegal behaviors and attitudes, establishing street “cred” that had folks avoiding me.

Although barely still in high school, an environmental science teacher recommended spending a summer volunteering with the Student Conservation Association.  My marginal application was accepted and I was assigned to a trail crew building bridges at North Cascades National Park, where I caught my first glimpse of Mount Rainier. It was majestic and magnificent. 

I was just 15 and still had a lot of thug in me.  What I learned, however, was that there were white kids who didn’t care about my color or my past, as long as I pulled my weight.  I also learned that nature is unforgiving and talking smack wasn’t keeping me warm. 

I caught a bug though. An appreciation for our great wilderness struck something in my heart that neither my “businesses” nor my homies could give me.  If I wanted to go back, I had to straighten out.  Kicked out of Chicago Public Schools and placed in a Quaker boarding school, I started to study in earnest, and found myself back with SCA building trails at Rocky Mountain National Park.  I’ve taken a route that other kids don’t have the opportunity to follow.  I’m now a landscape architect with an award-winning firm that is hoping to get the opportunity to design the site of the Obama Library. My discipline is a rare experience to meld my urban experiences with a love of the outdoors.

I deal with race on a regular basis. I deal with the fact that 90% of urban kids will never see a National Park in their lifetime, unless it comes to them. There’s no access, no incentive, no opportunity and certainly no money to choose a National Park over LeBron.  So I’m doing something about it.  I’m designing parks and nature play spaces in marginal neighborhoods. I’m trying to expose kids to something else besides a gun and a pimped out BMW. I’m sitting on the Board of Directors of the same organization that first exposed me to bears and deer and a whole bunch of critters, let alone some fresh air for a change. I’ve asked my two sons, both Chicago Public School graduates, to volunteer with the SCA and bring their friends along.

As an SCA alumnus and current board member, I’ve seen the organization pioneer urban conservation programs for disenfranchised youth, thousands of them in cities across the country. These kids leverage the opportunity, gain the confidence and skills that allow them to flourish outdoors, and advance along a continuum of experiences to successful outdoor careers.

The US Conference of Mayors has named SCA’s urban conservation initiative one of America’s top green jobs programs for youth, and studies by Search Institute, an international authority on what youth need to succeed, reveal that the SCA experience results in a thriving mindset that fuels continuous growth and optimal advancement.

At the college level, SCA and the National Park Service annually engage minority students in the joint SCA-NPS Academy, an apprentice program that provides participants with hands-on training in a wide range of fields in national parks across the US. The initiative aims to build entry-level job candidates as well as a more inclusive park workforce that better reflects the audiences for whom our parks exist. 

In anticipation of its centennial later this year, the National Park Service has made workforce diversity a cornerstone of its plan for the next 100 years, and Director Jon Jarvis states SCA, with its ability to reach into traditionally under-represented communities, is “playing a critical role” in providing ethnically and culturally diverse young people with a professional pathway.

Recently, I went to a memorial service of one of my childhood friends who passed away from an asthma attack.  He was African-American and the one and only time I tried to drag him out to Rocky Mountain National Park, he refused to get out of the car. He didn’t care, cause it wasn’t fixing his sh*t at home. He could’ve used some fresh air, and I’ll miss him. Most of us won’t make it from an urban environment to a snow-covered mountaintop in just a single leap.  But with guidance and direction, we can get there. 

BIO: As the founding Principal and President of site design group, ltd., Ernest C. Wong has been instrumental in the success of the firm and the landscape architecture and urban design profession in the City of Chicago. Under his direction, the firm has won numerous national and international design awards for unprecedented creative design and beautifully detailed urban spaces.