Author James Edward Mills discussed his new book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, and the importance of diversifying involvement and increasing minority turnout in national parks and outdoors activities at a lecture Monday.
Mills — creator and producer of The Joy Trip Project, a news organization that promotes outdoor activity and sustainable practices — described his childhood experiences in nature as formative. He recalled one early revelation he had involving a Schoolhouse Rock! episode.
“Here’s this African American kid climbing a mountain. I just thought at the age of six, that this was the coolest thing imaginable,” Mills said.
However, in reality, Mills said the proportion of people of color involved in natural park activities has decreased. He contrasted the scarcity of people of color in conservation efforts today with the Buffalo Soldiers, a group of 400 African Americans responsible for the preservation and protection of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in 1903.
Mills lamented this “adventure gap” — which he described as the “dearth of participation among people of color when it comes to outdoor recreation and environmental conservation.”
One reason for the adventure gap, Mills said, is the frequently incomplete coverage of people of color involved in outdoors activities. He cited Sophia Danenberg, Matthew Henson, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, as members of minority communities whose outdoor adventures have been overlooked.
“There have been indeed people of color involved in these stories [the narrative of adventure],” Mills noted.
However, Danenberg, the first African-American to summit Mt. Everest, never received national coverage for her achievement. Similarly, he said Henson, the first African-American to reach the North Pole, and Norgay, who summited the tallest peak, received much less credit than their white counterparts. Mills labeled Henson and Norgay “silent partners.”
“The narrative has to change if we’re going to change who it is that indeed spends time in nature,” he said.
The lack of diverse role models, Mills said, affects “who we imagine as adventurers,” thus acting as a deterrent to people of color.
The lack of minority involvement in conservation efforts can having far-reaching effects, considering the increasing minority population and a projected “minority-majority” by 2042, according to Mills.
Mills said that, if current trends continue, by 2042, the majority of the population will have apathetic views towards nature, causing national parks to lose funding and conservation efforts to decline.
In order to ensure that the projected majority-minority population spends more time in nature, Mills called for more diverse role models and more complete coverage of minorities involved in outdoors activities.
He also encouraged adults to serve as role models by encouraging early childhood involvement with nature. Mills partially attributes his appreciation for nature to his father, a Boy Scouts leader was also actively involved in the civil rights movement, who often took him backpacking in the San Bernardino Mountains.
Additionally, Mills said governments have a responsibility to increase the involvement of people of color. “We won’t have a sustainable system of government unless state, federal and local governments make these experiences [in nature] available to everyone,” Mills said.
Diversifying involvement in natural parks and outdoors activities can have benefits beyond increasing physical activity and conservation efforts, Mills said. When asked if bridging the “adventure gap” can potentially bridge racial gaps and divides, Mills replied “Absolutely.”
“Nature is highly egalitarian. The tensions that are racially based tend to fall away [in nature] because they are indeed human constructs,” he said. “Mountains don’t discriminate, so why should we?”