The California-based diversity advocate works to get more people out enjoying the wild—so that the wild will endure.
Teresa Baker is on a mission. The Founder of the African American National Park Event, she wants to make sure that more people of color are visiting America’s national parks. More so, she wants to make sure that the parks are hiring more people of color. She feels that this reciprocation, across the outdoors and the outdoor industry, is how both public lands and conservation need to move forward so that they can be powerful national forces in a nation where people of color will make up more of the population in the near future. The event, which is open to everyone, everywhere, will take place June 9-10, 2018 (learn more about it on the African American Nature & Parks Experience. Facebook page). She took the time to talk to us in between trips to Yosemite, her favorite park.
Why did you start this program?
I started it in 2013 because I would be out in the national parks but I would not see a lot of other people like me. I would go hike parks in Utah and not see a Latino or an African American person and I would wonder what the hell was going on. But now, five years later, I am seeing a difference. I am seeing a lot more diversity out in our parks. That’s huge. I think the difference is that we have made a lot of effort to try to change things. I have done years of outreach and connecting with outdoor organizations to include more people in the outdoors. I hope it will continue to be that way and grow.
How important is diversity for the future of the conservation movement and our wild places?
A lot of people will say to me, “You are just stirring up a conversation that doesn’t need to be discussed. Why make race relevant in outdoors?” What they need to understand is that it’s not for me. It’s not really about race. It’s about the environment. If you claim to care about the environment you need to get more people to care. You need to get them learning about it and why parks are important so they can protect these places. The demographics of the U.S. are changing and if we if we don’t get people of color involved now who will be around to care for these spaces in the future?
How did your relationship to the outdoors and the outdoor industry begin?
I have always loved being in nature—hiking, camping, whatever. I just need to get out and allow myself to regroup and do away with all that happens in the city. It’s always been a place of solitude for me. And over the years my passion has grown. Learning about the story of the Buffalo Soldiers was huge for me. They were the first rangers in Yosemite. After I learned about them, I felt that I needed to find a way to get these stories out there.
What is the biggest challenge in your work?
Getting the word out. There are a lot of obstacles that communities of color face when it comes to getting out in national parks. They often just don’t feel welcome. That’s changing a bit. After hearing over and over again that diversity is a problem in the parks, the parks are stepping up efforts around diversity. But we need more more rangers who are people of color. We need more events. We need more outdoor groups. Now, my big focus is on brands. They play such a huge role in outdoor industry and once they get on board the change will speed up.
What brands are doing a good job with diversity?
REI is kicking ass. They are really going beyond what everybody else is doing. I was just in Yosemite with Patagoina. I was invited to talk about what can you do as a brand to encourage other brands to step up. Patagonia is slowly coming around and should definitely be leading the way.
How can we get more people of color in more everyday jobs in the outdoor industry?
I recently reached out to OIA [Outdoor Industry Association] to discuss that very issue. They need to be involved. We have a $387-billion-plus dollar industry but it won’t stay that way without much room for people of color. You can’t sustain that force as the world changes. If you are not taking note and doing something about diversity in your company, you will have issues in 10 or 15 years. We will welcome you if you bring us into your customer base. If you push us away, we will start our own brands. You will miss out.
Should brands be worried about tokenism? Should they only be trying to show people of color if it is deemed “authentic”?
Authentic for me is the wrong word. Don’t be afraid! It’s going to feel awkward at first. That’s ok. You can’t just keep throwing the same images out on social media. You need to take a risk, even if it will feel awkward at first. Until this becomes normal it’s going to feel weird. Who cares if it’s not authentic? Just do it and eventually it will get easier. The fear is that you will make a mistake and people will jump all over you. Just try it. This work is not easy. But to do nothing is not an option. We have to do something to bring about this change. Once the wheel starts moving, it will get easier. So let’s be concerned with trying to do something.
What gives you hope?
There’s so much to be angry with right now. There are so many attacks against the environment. But the fact that I am seeing so many young people standing up and being willing to fight gives me a lot of comfort.