The Sierra Club and Our National Parks:
Diversity and Youth in the Parks
Stories by Debbie Chong
Parwana Mohammad | Bill Vanderberg | Douglas Chien | Melissa Aguayo | Bill Spruill | JR and Shirley Crothers |
Josselyn Bonilla | Jorge Pinto | Arturo Sandoval | Japhy Dhungana
Parwana Mohammad enjoys the view from the top of Yosemite's Vernal Falls. Photo by Shelby Thorner, used with permission.
Parwana Mohammad, 15, was born in Afghanistan, grew up in Pakistan, and immigrated to Campbell, California with her family at age 11. Though her name means "butterfly" in Farsi, she was not exposed much to the natural world and outdoor activities until she visited her first national park at age 13.
"My friend Jenny took me camping and backpacking in Yosemite in the summertime. When I got there, my mouth dropped wide open because it was so beautiful," says Mohammad. "Sitting by the river, where it's quiet and peaceful, with beautiful surroundings, there's nothing to distract me, nothing else to think about - just my life, the struggles, how far I've come, how different it is now, and how grateful I am. The people who live where I did in Pakistan and Afghanistan are not likely to have these experiences, so I should use them to enlighten myself and make something great of my life."
Based on her experience, Mohammad feels that exposure is key to cultivating an appreciation for nature. "I think one of the reasons you don't see many people of color in national parks is because they don't interact much with people who grew up doing outdoorsy stuff," she says. "I think they would like it once they go, but they need someone to take them there and show them what there is to do and see."
Bill Vanderberg, dean of Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles, leads his students on a hike, exploring the beauty of the national parks. Photo courtesy of Bill Vanderberg, used with permission.
Bill Vanderberg, 56, is a leader of the Sierra Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors (BBTO) program, which introduces youth of all backgrounds to the natural environment.
"My first National Parks experience was at Yosemite in 1999," remembers Vanderberg, who is African American. "What impressed me was the majesty of it all - the size, the scale, and the lack of obvious human impact." At the time Vanderberg was a social studies teacher at Crenshaw High School in South Los Angeles. Inspired by his trip, he began bringing students from Crenshaw's Eco Club to Yosemite. When Building Bridges was established the following year, Vanderberg became one of its first leaders and has been involved with the program ever since. Vanderberg is now Dean of Students at Crenshaw High and continues to visit the National Parks regularly, sometimes with his students and other times with his partner Pearl West.
Vanderberg believes that programs like Building Bridges are important in giving young people of color opportunities to experience the outdoors and develop an appreciation for nature. "In the past three or four summers, Pearl and I have visited over fifteen National Parks and we can count the number of African Americans we've seen on two hands. We need more programs that bring young people into the parks. Building Bridges has been very successful this past year, and programs like it go a long way in creating future conservationists."
Vanderberg looks forward to the upcoming Ken Burns documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," especially the film's feature on Buffalo Soldiers, African American soldiers who enforced laws against poaching and logging in the early days of Yosemite National Park. "The National Parks" airs on PBS starting September 27 at 8 pm PST/EST. Tune in to learn more about African Americans' important contributions to our nation's wild legacy!
Read more about Crenshaw High's trip to Yosemite from the Club's Building Bridges to the Outdoors program, and in Sierra magazine.
Douglas Chien embarks on the North Kaibab Trail into the Grand Canyon in 2003. Photo courtesy of Douglas Chien, used with permission.
Douglas Chien, 38, works for Sierra Club's Illinois Chapter and Building Bridges to the Outdoors, a Sierra Club program that provides opportunities for youth of all backgrounds to connect with the natural environment.
"Growing up, I lived on the outskirts of small and midsized towns in upstate New York, Indiana, and western Illinois," says Chien, who is of Chinese and Japanese descent. "After school, I'd go home and play outside in the fields and woods." He became involved in environmental activism as a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and now he works to provide opportunities for young people today to experience the outdoors like he did as a child.
As a Building Bridges staff member in Chicago, Chien works closely with local Boys and Girls Clubs to lead youth on weekend excursions to local forest preserves and on annual trips to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. "The highlight of the [Indiana Dunes] trip is a solo night hike where the kids can't use flashlights, so they're surrounded by pitch black. A lot of the kids have never been alone in a place that dark before. They do the hike and rave about it afterwards."
Chien also enjoys visiting the national parks with his parents and his partner. One of his favorite memories is a trip he took with his parents to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore in Michigan. "Our family got lost, wandered down a dirt road, and ended up at a beach area, where the sun was setting and the waves were crashing against the shore. It was beautiful."
The U.S. has over 365 National Park Service Areas, each with unique natural features and history. "There are so many different parks," says Chien. "Whatever your interest is, there is bound to be one that interests you."
Explore some of our national parks on the Sierra Club's interactive map!
Melissa Aguayo loves to go bouldering in Joshua Tree National Park. Photo by Saira Gandhi, used with permission.
Melissa Aguayo, 23, developed an appreciation for the outdoors on a family trip to Yosemite at age 10. Despite their young age, Aguayo and her siblings and family friends eagerly trekked to the top of one of Yosemite's waterfalls. "It was a long walk and it was super misty. Near the very top it was too slippery and dangerous for us kids, but I remember I'd wanted to keep going." She also enjoyed listening to an interpreter's talk on Yosemite's ecology and history. "I was so impressed with the height of the trees and the history of the park that my mom bought me a book about it afterward!" she laughs.
As an undergraduate at UCLA, Aguayo made several visits to Joshua Tree National Park with friends and classmates. "At Joshua Tree I like to go hiking, play soccer, jam on the conga, and enjoy bonfires," says Aguayo, who is Mexican American. "It was there that I tried bouldering for the first time. Bouldering is using your hands and feet to climb to the tops of boulders. If you're successful, the view from the top is amazing!"
Aguayo currently works as Speakers Bureau Manager of Heal the Bay in Santa Monica, California. Heal the Bay works to restore and protect the health of Southern California's coastal waters and offers youth marine education programs. "There are so many people in Los Angeles County who have never even been to the beach," she observes, "and for them, the national parks are so far out of their world that they don't think it's possible to go. But I know that kids love to be in nature, and we need to provide opportunities for them to visit these places."
Learn about the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings and Building Bridges to the Outdoors programs, which work to provide opportunities for children and youth of all backgrounds to experience the outdoors.
Bill Spruill appreciates America's history and natural splendor at Mount Rushmore National Memorial. Photo courtesy of Bill Spruill, used with permission.
Bill Spruill, 69, worked forty years for the National Parks Service (NPS) before retiring in 2007. In 1967, Spruill began his NPS career in Washington DC working for the U.S. Park Police, a unit of NPS that manages federally-owned land in urban areas. He became the first black pilot for the NPS and the Department of the Interior in 1972 and the first National Aviation Manager for the NPS in 1991. "NPS pilots fly approximately 20,000 hours a year in support of NPS missions," says Spruill. "We use airplanes and helicopters for search and rescue, law enforcement, fire management, and animal and other resource management needs."
Now retired, Spruill enjoys the national parks as a visitor and has fond memories of many of the parks. "Every one of them has its own unique story to tell. However, Yellowstone is one that stands out to me. It is rugged, yet romantic and beautiful. It has canyons, mountains, beautiful lakes, abundant forests, wonderful geysers, and of course, the animals that inhabit it -- bears, buffalo, wolves, deer, elk, and others --so many things to see and digest."
As a former NPS employee, Spruill has observed a need to increase diversity in the National Parks Service. "There aren't many minorities working in the parks," he says. "Many national parks are geographically remote from urban, culturally diverse areas. It can be tough to live and work in a lot of these parks and maintain ties to your culture and ethnic community." Despite these challenges, Spruill and other people of color have played integral roles in the stewardship of our national parks and are paving the way for people of all backgrounds to enjoy America's rich wild heritage.
JR and Shirley Crothers
JR and Shirley Crothers take in the grandeur of the geysers at Yellowstone National Park. Photo courtesy of JR and Shirley Crothers, used with permission.
JR and Shirley Crothers hail from Atlanta, Georgia, but since retirement they have spent many days on the road visiting America's national parks. "I've always wanted to travel cross-country," says JR, 65. "So after Shirley and I retired in 2004, we bought an RV [recreational vehicle]." They embark on trips as a couple and with fellow members of the National African American RV'ers Association (NAARVA).
Shirley, 59, enjoys keeping a journal of their adventures. "One morning we entered Yellowstone, and there was a long line of cars. I didn't understand why it was moving so slowly," recounts Shirley. "It turned out that over thirty buffalo were walking down the middle of the road! They were so close that we could reach our hands out the window and touch them! And I realized that even though the national parks are there for people to enjoy, we need to remember that they are also animals' homes."
JR and Shirley encourage Americans of color to visit the national parks. "A lot of people wonder what you can do at the parks, since on TV you usually just see people hiking," says JR. "But it's much more than that. You can also visit museums, rent a cabin, and go fishing and skiing."
"For a family, it could be pretty costly to travel to the national parks," says Shirley, "but you can save money and time by renting an RV. It has a kitchen, so you can bring and cook your own food. It has a bathroom, so you don't need to worry about finding rest stops. And it has a bed, so you don't need to pay for a hotel."
Shirley and JR have found that a little planning goes a long way. Research your park of interest online, read a book about the park, and ask people who have been there before for advice!
For tips on how to make your next trip to the national parks both affordable and enjoyable, check out the Sierra Club's National Parks Tips!
Josselyn Bonilla holds a crab claw at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo courtesy of Josselyn Bonilla, used with permission.
Josselyn Bonilla, 20, is a senior at Mission High School in San Francisco. Originally from El Salvador, Bonilla immigrated to the U.S. at the age of seventeen. She is involved in Mission Graduates, a nonprofit organization that prepares K-12 students in San Francisco's Mission District to complete a college education. One of Mission Graduates' programs is Outdoor Challenge, which trains youth in outdoor leadership and life skills.
"My sister Astrid told me about Mission Graduates, and I decided to go on one of its camping trips to Point Reyes National Seashore," says Bonilla. "We camped along the beach and toasted marshmallows. The sky was clear and we could see the stars. The next day we hiked up a mountain and I took photos of the flowers we saw. When we reached the top, we could see everything -- trees and grass and the beach below."
Bonilla credits Mission Graduates for sparking her interest in nature and introducing her to the national parks system. "If it wasn't for Mission Graduates, I wouldn't even know what Point Reyes is. People who recently immigrated don't know about these places and it's hard to get information or advice."
She has observed that many youth today lack exposure to nature, resulting in a fear of the outdoors. "Once I invited kids from school to a camping trip and they told me they were safer at home playing video games."
But even a day outing can have a positive impact. Inspired by her first camping trip, this past summer Bonilla took her family to Point Reyes National Seashore. "We had a picnic and did a little hike, and my brothers really liked it!"
Ready to explore? Find local outings near you and check out the Sierra Club's national park tips.
Jorge Pinto hits the trail in Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy of Jorge Pinto, used with permission.
Jorge Pinto, 16, is a senior at Mission High School in San Francisco. Born and raised in San Francisco by parents from El Salvador and Peru, Pinto enjoys outdoor excursions with family members. "My dad was born in Peru and he loved going up and down the Andes," says Pinto. "He influenced my brother, who took me on my first snowboarding, rock climbing, and backpacking trips."
Pinto is involved in Mission Graduates, a nonprofit organization that prepares K-12 students in San Francisco's Mission District to complete a college education. Through the Mission Graduates Outdoor Challenge program, he has participated in urban hikes, day hikes, and rock climbing.
On a recent trip to Yosemite, he spent a week hiking and camping with limited access to plumbing and electricity. "It was mind-blowing and totally changed my perspective of life," he recalls. "I learned the value of living in a city [in the U.S.] and having everything accessible. [Modern amenities] are not that accessible in other countries."
Pinto has also discovered that nature offers a sense of peace and refuge that is often absent in urban areas. "Here in the city you can't see stars," says Pinto. "You'll see one if you're lucky, and even then it might be a plane. Out there, it's a whole other world. You see the stars in the sky and it makes you want to stay up all night. It's all these beautiful lights, like Christmas."
Learn more about Mission Graduates and the Sierra Club's Inner City Outings and Building Bridges to the Outdoors programs, which provide opportunities for youth to explore and be inspired by the great outdoors.
Arturo Sandoval enjoys horseback riding in Carson National Forest, New Mexico. Photo courtesy of Arturo Sandoval, used with permission.
Arturo Sandoval, 61, is the founder and president of the communications and organizational development company VOCES, Inc. and of the Center of Southwest Culture, which works with Latino and Native American communities to promote cultural education and economic development.
Since he was young, Sandoval has had deep connections to the land of New Mexico. "I grew up in Española in northern New Mexico. Our home was close to the boundary of the Santa Clara Pueblo, a Native American reservation with its own land that was deliberately kept undeveloped. Relatively speaking, my family was poor. We had no TV until I was 10 or 11 and had few toys or distractions, so we spent a lot of time in the Pueblo-owned area playing and using our imaginations." As an adult, he remains engaged in outdoor activities, making frequent trips to go hiking and horseback riding on his private property near Carson National Forest.
"My first experience in a national park was in Bandelier National Monument," remembers Sandoval. "It preserves and interprets pre-Columbian people's lives in high valley canyons. I was about sixteen years old and I was incredibly inspired by the architecture. The pre-Columbian people were able to integrate architecture with landscape in a way that was very unified and didn't intrude or jar with the surrounding landscape. I've been going to that park for forty years."
Sandoval believes that people of color have a deep interest in history and place and would enjoy visiting the national parks. "I don't feel that economics is a stumbling block. The disconnect is that there is not enough education to entice them to come and marvel at what the parks have to offer. It's a matter of providing education so they can value parks."
Learn about some of our most famous national parks with the Sierra Club's interactive map and photo slideshow.
Japhy Dhungana climbs the south face of Charlotte Dome in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Photo courtesy of Japhy Dhungana, used with permission.
Japhy Dhungana, 25, is a freelance travel writer and a Sierra Club Outings leader. Born in South Africa to a Nepalese father and Filipino mother, Japhy grew up in Nepal and immigrated to Long Beach, California at age fourteen.
"When I moved from Nepal, I had no idea what wilderness in the U.S. was like," recalls Dhungana. "I thought the U.S. had no mountains. My high school science teacher corrected me and told me about the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Yosemite."
That winter Dhungana enrolled in the Sierra Club's Wilderness Travel Course to experience the Sierras and visited Yosemite the following summer. At the encouragement of his instructors, he underwent leadership training and earned certification as a Sierra Club mountaineering and backpacking instructor.
"Climbing, hiking, and backpacking in the outdoors has become so part of my blood that I've been going back frequently ever since," says Dhungana. "My experiences in the Sierras have been amazing, and I'm passionate about sharing it with lots of people."
Dhungana has noticed disparities between the demographics of America and the demographics of park visitors. "On my last trip to Yosemite, I didn't see a single other person who was non-white. People were kind of shocked to see me, since I look so different."
Factoring in gas, food, entrance fees, and campsite fees, "a family could easily spend $300-400 for a weekend trip," estimates Dhungana, "and that doesn't even include equipment! So it's no accident that low-income families decide to go somewhere local like Santa Monica Beach instead of a national park."
New to the outdoors scene? Sierra Club Outings trips are led by experienced leaders. Trips are open to members and non-members, and local day excursions are often free or low-cost. Get started with the Sierra Club's upcoming international and national trips and local outings. Or plan your own trip with our national parks tips.