Outdoors For All ~ An idea whose time has come

Photo by Marissa Hyland

There is a moment in the life of an idea when it becomes a reality. For a few years now I’ve been thinking about teaching a university class on diversity and inclusion in the world of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. Having written a book on the topic, along with more than a few magazine and newspaper articles, I’m considered something of an expert.

Despite having no formal training as a professor more than a decade of research and reporting has given me a wealth of information that is my privilege to share. I’ve had the great honor to present to students some of my ideas and share the rich history of African-American explorers and adventurers as a guest lecturer on collage campuses across the county. So when Paul Robbins, director of the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin Madison, asked in a rather casual conversation, “Have you ever thought about teaching a class?” I naturally said , “Yes!”

The formal offer came after a more lengthy discussion and a serious talk about curriculum, subject matter, a reading list, potential guest lecturers and how many times the class would meet over six weeks during the summer semester. Even after I concluded on the advice of many well-experienced college instructors that three two-hour class sessions each week would be the best configuration, the notion of my actually teaching a class still seemed completely theoretical. When the dates were set in the summer catalog of courses I received from Paul a note of congratulations. “Nelson’s Executive (Broad) voted to approve your title of Faculty Assistant, unanimously on Monday afternoon,” he wrote in an email. “Welcome aboard the Nelson team!”

Despite my natural excitement, it was hard for me to fully appreciate the reality of this appointment. Not a professor with the credentials of a PhD perhaps I’m reluctant to presume too much authority over materials and information that were not a product academic study but rather a lifetime of personal experiences. With the support and supervision of a full-time member of the Nelson Institute faculty, Professor Robert Beattie, I’m putting together the class from the research I did to write my book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. Though he would be the “professor of record” it’s my responsibility to do most of the actual teaching. With Robert’s guidance I aim to learn, at least in principle, how to turn my practical knowledge into a course of instruction.

Following the timeline of the 20th century conservation movement I want to highlight many of the milestones of the Civil Rights struggle during the same period. I’ll Begin with the role of the Buffalo Soldiers in the creation of the National Parks Service and the accomplishments of Matthew Henson in the discovery of the North Pole. The course will detail how Jim Crow Laws and legal segregation, from the 1920s through the 1960s, had denied many African-Americans of opportunities to become actively engaged in efforts to protect the environment. But I also plan to uncover many examples when people of color still found ways to become stewards of the natural world. We’ll explore the black recreation areas at Prince William Forest Park in Virginia, Camp Idlewild in Michigan and Camp Nizhoni in Colorado.

As America’s conservation ethos was being formed throughout the 20th century people of color were indeed part of the movement. During the Depression Era of the 1930s more than a quarter of a million African-American men participated in the Civilian Conservation Corps program, which created public parks and hiking trails across the country. Through the 1940s black soldiers distinguished themselves during World War II in segregated units like the 555th Infantry Battalion, a regiment of black paratroopers who fought forest fires in the Pacific Northwest as the first generation of smokejumpers. We’ll discuss the accomplishments of African-American fighter pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen and the career one particular flight engineer, Charles Madison Crenchaw, who returned from war to become the first black climber to reach the summit of the highest peak in North America, Mount McKinley, now formally known as Denali.

We’ll explore the rise of the conservation movement from the 1960s through the early 1990s. Toward the end of the 20th century environmental justice activists began to make a concerted effort to draw a direct relationship between issues of civil rights and the protection of our natural resources as well as wild scenic places for the benefit of all humanity. Even then we were aware that people of color are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters, industrial pollution, food shortages and lifestyle related illnesses such as heart disease, type-2 diabetes and obesity. Through this course I aim to explore how these negative environmental influences might be mitigated through improved access to nature.

The National Park Service now begins its second century of existence. There is a growing awareness for the necessity of making these treasures of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation more culturally relevant and accessible to an emerging demographic of black and brown citizens who will soon become the majority population. It is my intention through the conclusion of this course to offer students a better appreciation for the root causes of the Adventure Gap and discover practical ways to reverse its effects. We’ll look deeply into efforts of contemporary institutions and programs dedicated to making nature a safe and welcoming environment for people of every racial and ethnic persuasions. We’ll explore the future prospects of improving access to the outdoors for both recreational and professional career development.

As well laid out the framework for this course it became clear to me that it is indeed is an idea who’s time has come. At the moment I saw the campus flier for the class I will teach this summer the idea I had so long ago became a reality.  Now if we can just recruit enough students to enroll, we can get this conversation started. Through this ongoing discussion of diversity and inclusion in natural recourse management it is my hope that we can discover how to make an exciting, engaging and inspiring world outdoors for all.

The course will run through the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies on Tuesdasy, Wednesdays and Thursdays for 4 weeks, beginning June 20 through July 13, from 1 p.m.-4:10 p.m. View official class information in the UW-Madison course guide.

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I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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