Wanted: African-American campers
State-park use is low among all people of color, particularly blacks. Officials hope a new effort — exposing families and young people to the outdoors — will help African Americans warm up to camping.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Chukundi Salisbury knows better than to try to talk his 60-year-old mother into taking a family camping trip this summer — or ever.
Roughing it, she long ago told him, doesn't sound like much fun to her.
"People like my mom, who grew up in the South building a fire every morning for breakfast, don't see the value in cooking outdoors," said Salisbury, who is black and is trail coordinator for the city of Seattle.
"My mom will tell you: 'I camp at the Marriott.' "
The State Parks and Recreation Commission has assembled data showing that many blacks, for a variety of reasons, are not frequent users of the state's 250,000 acres of parkland, particularly for activities like camping. This, in a state with an abundance of natural beauty — from mountains to lakes, deserts and forests.
For tips on camping, hiking and other outdoor activities, go to: www.seattletimes.com/traveloutdoors.
More information about the state's diversity camping program is available by e-mailing its coordinator, Paul Martin, at email@example.com.
And there's anecdotal evidence, too. One former ranger, who worked at Deception Pass and other state parks that each hosted up to 400,000 visitors a year, reported seeing fewer than 50 blacks over a 10-year period.
Parks-commission officials say that while park use among all people of color is low, it is lowest among blacks. Through their Diversity Camping Program, they want to change whatever is keeping African Americans away: the specter of danger, the fear that small towns on the way to parks are unfriendly to blacks, or that camping and hiking and skiing are activities only white people do.
The goal is to expose families and young people to the vast possibilities of outdoor recreation and show them that overnight camping doesn't have to mean sleeping on the ground and in the rain.
So far, officials have raised $40,000 of the $300,000 in private funds they expect to spend during the next three years. Already, commission staff are making connections with community and youth groups and identifying families and young people to go on these adventures.
The diversity program is part of a bigger push by the park system to better reflect the people of the state — in both staff and users — as it approaches its 2013 centennial.
African Americans are "our most underrepresented demographic — they don't show up on our radar screen, they don't come to parks," said Frank Galloway, diversity-program coordinator with the commission.
"All citizens own these parks, not just whites. Whether you pay to use them, you pay your taxes and they're yours. As our agency moves toward the centennial, we want to understand what people want."
Gear, food, extra clothing
Galloway and other coordinators plan to take 24 families and 40 young people on one trip each a year for the next three years. During that time, officials hope each group will participate in nine outdoor activities, from fishing to kayaking and snowboarding. Campers will be supplied with gear, food and extra clothing, if necessary.
"There are so many things to do in the outdoors," Galloway said. "I find myself — a balding, middle-aged white guy — preaching to people saying, 'Come go camping with me.' "
First up: a family of five from Redmond that has volunteered for a trip later this month. A group of young people is scheduled for an August outing.
Paul Martin, hired by the commission to run the camping program, said that just touting diversity won't necessarily get people to try something new.
"We're taking an educational approach here, trying to break the perception people have built up — that African Americans don't hike, don't camp, don't like the cold and snow."
As it strives for greater diversity, the commission also wants to hire black rangers. It currently has none.
"If there are no black rangers, [black] people going to the park will think there's nothing there for them," Galloway said. "The goal is to reflect society's demographics in our agency."
The program has not been without its critics, from within the department and among those who've heard about it and complain about its lack of equity.
"People are asking, 'Why are you not doing this for me and my culture?' " Galloway said. "We're trying to play catch-up here" among the least-frequent users.
Added Martin, "We're not talking about an at-risk, low-income program," but rather trying to recruit users who can, and likely will, return on their own.
A perceived lack of safety
People don't leave their racial calling cards when they use public parks. But state park rangers know a lack of diversity when they see it.
City and county parks, and even the more urban state parks, have much better luck attracting a range of people, Salisbury noted.
But in rural parks, a general absence of people of color — especially blacks — is evident, officials say.
For one thing, the numbers work against Washington. The 2000 census showed that blacks make up 4 percent of the state's population and less than 7 percent of King County's.
Focus groups in a study released four years ago by the National Park Service offer additional insight about the use of Mount Rainier, North Cascades and Olympic national parks.
Blacks in the focus groups tended to associate parks with white people and expressed concerns about a perceived lack of safety. They also characterized as unfriendly to blacks the small towns they'd need to drive through en route to places like Mount Rainier.
Along with participants in the Korean focus groups, some blacks said they thought of Mount Rainier as a place to be observed from a distance, rather than as a destination to visit.
"It's pretty sad if you live between Yesler and Madison and are able to see Mount Rainier on a clear day, but have never actually been there to see what it's like looking back toward the city," Martin said.
Kevin Henry, cultural-diversity coordinator for the city of Bellevue's Parks & Community Services, who admits to not being much of a camper himself, said many minorities grow up in the city and are unfamiliar with the rural lifestyle.
"Going to these rural parks takes you a bit out of your comfort zone," he said. "When I go, I tend to look around and see if there are other blacks around."
Henry and others say there's also a misperception — born largely of unfamiliarity — about what camping can be.
"There's this idea of camping as sleeping on the ground in the rain and being chased by bears," he said. "Last time I went camping it was in a motor home, next to a community center that served breakfast. There was a McDonald's down the road. For some people, camping is a Motel 6 with no cable."
Salisbury said people who grow up with a tradition of camping — whatever their race — retain an appreciation for it later in life. "I had a fair amount of experience camping across the state when I was in school," he said.
While his mother didn't take him, she also didn't object to him accompanying family and church friends on these adventures.
Later, as regional coordinator for the Student Conservation Association, a national organization, he took teenagers on summer-long camping trips to restore and rebuild trails.
"I had to build this dream to get those kids to go," he said of African-American kids in the program. "Once they got to the mountaintop, it was great. It was just a matter of getting them there."
Salisbury is trying to instill in his 5-year-old daughter the same appreciation for camping he had as a youngster. And he said park officials should "rekindle the fire" for others who had positive experience camping when they were young.
No budget for marketing
Doreen Cato, executive director of First Place School for homeless children, said she doesn't think the issue is race as much as tradition.
The children from her school, most of whom are black, are currently away in summer camp, she pointed out.
"I know people of all races who don't go camping," she said. "Some people value the arts more so than the outdoors."
Cato participated in one of the focus groups that led to the National Park Service's study and remembers many of the comments. "Part of it is not really knowing what all there is out there," she said. "The park has never been pitched."
She remembered a lot of talk about safety. Participants said that too often the only time they saw parks featured on television was when something bad happened there — when someone got lost or killed.
Participants also talked about a lack of marketing for parks on TV, and an absence of images of minorities in brochures and other promotional material.
Galloway said the park system simply doesn't have any money to sell itself. "We have 120 parks and hundreds of thousands of acres and one marketing person, and that person has a missing budget."
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Information in this article, originally published July 3, 2005, was corrected July 6, 2005. A previous version of this story contained an incorrect e-mail address for diversity-program coordinator Paul Martin. His e-mail address is email@example.com.