When Angelou Ezeilo steps foot in Grand Teton National Park — her favorite park — her eyes fill with tears.
“They’re just so amazing and beautiful,” Ezeilo says. “And to think that some people can’t see it, can’t experience it — that’s why I do my work. I want to make sure that all people who want this experience have access, and all who want jobs in these places can get them.”
It may seem like many Americans have equal and ample access to outdoor spaces. But the fact is, hidden barriers hinder many groups of people from enjoying these places.
This unequal access extends to national parks. People of color are less likely to visit national parks than their white counterparts. People of color make up 42% of the US population, but only 23% of national park visitors. This disparity impacts Black Americans the most. While Black people make up 12% of the population, they compose only 4% of national park visitors.
Whiteness in America’s greenest places is even more pervasive among National Park Service staff. Less than 20% of the NPS’s 20,000 employees are people of color.
Numerous factors contribute to this rift. At surface level, you need to see it to be it. People don’t feel welcome when they don’t see others who look like them working at and visiting a place—including national parks.
These statistics played out in Ezeilo’s own career path. Feeling unwelcome in environmental, conservation, and outdoor industries, Ezeilo chose from one of the limited career paths she believed was open to her — the law. Yet it didn’t take long for Ezeilo to find herself working in conservation, anyway.
In 2007, Ezeilo paved a way forward. She founded Greening Youth Foundation, an international non-profit that creates ramp-ways for under-represented youth to enjoy nature and find careers in the outdoors.
What is Greening Youth Foundation?
For 13 years, Greening Youth Foundation (GYF) has been changing the face of national parks. The foundation runs numerous programs in the US and West Africa that connect under-represented youth and young adults to the outdoors and careers in conservation. One of these programs places college students in internships with the National Park Service (NPS), Fish and Wildlife Service, and Forest Service. GYF works specifically with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges to place about four dozen students in internships with the NPS every year.
Ezeilo understands the importance of creating these pathways from experience. She loved spending time outside since she was a kid, when she and her family escaped the concrete jungle of Jersey City, New Jersey, for the rugged mountains and clear lakes of upstate New York. These experiences inspired her to work in conservation.
But as a young Black girl, working in conservation or the environment felt inconceivable. She didn’t see anyone who looked like her in those fields.
“I wanted to make sure that there were no more young brown, Black, whatever, people who did not consider this fulfilling career that I had now, because of the way that they looked,” Ezeilo reflects now. “I wanted to make sure they had access to on-ramps to these careers.”
GYF’s 10-week internship introduces students to national parks and careers in conservation and environmental stewardship. Each student is assigned to a national park, where they work on projects on everything from cultural resources and interpretation to biological sciences, to engineering, to business. Interns learn about sustaining public lands and preserving natural resources for future generations.
Creating an Inclusive Culture from the Ground Up
Simply placing a student in a remote internship is not the measure of success, Ezeilo says. You can’t just hire a bunch of people of color and expect them to relocate and assimilate to a place like Jackson, WY. Just as visitors to national parks need to feel welcome, so do interns and staff. Where will they get their hair done? Do they have to go to the employee BBQ? Who can they talk with if they have a question?
GYF answers these questions and works collaboratively with NPS to weave best practices into the fabric of each internship. GYF provides a playbook to the partnering agencies. In addition to their NPS supervisors, GYF interns are matched with a GYF mentor who is there to field questions and assuage their concerns.
Interns are now so high in demand that GYF scores potential partnering agencies and only selects those who best meet its criteria. These metrics include a mentoring plan, work environment, and community diversity.
Ezeilo’s own life experience helped inform why creating these bridges and inclusive environments proves so important. She started her career as an attorney for the New Jersey State Agriculture and Development Committee. She drove her state-owned electric car across southern New Jersey to convince farmers on the brink of financial collapse to sell their land to the state to it could be preserved, rather than to land developers. Ezeilo found the work fulfilling, but also alienating.
“That was my entrée into this conservation field, and it blew me away,” Ezeilo says. “But it was just me as this little brown girl, and everyone else was the white majority. It was very lonely.”
Ezeilo wanted a mentor, and she wanted her own people to mentor. The lack of both left her feeling empty. She was tired of the disconnect she felt when she walked into meetings concerning the environment or farmland preservation and was the only Black person in the room. Rather than dwell on this frustration, Ezeilo reflected back on a lesson she learned in college.
“When I was an undergraduate student at Spelman College,” Ezeilo says, “the president of the college said, ‘I don’t want to hear you guys sitting around complaining about problems that you see. You need to actually effectuate the change you want to see in the real world.”
Greening Youth Foundation effectuates that change by bringing interns from a wide spectrum of backgrounds to communities where they were vastly underrepresented before. In the process, these interns, GYF, and the NPS are helping to change the tone of who is welcome to visit and work in outdoor spaces.
Getting to the Root of the Cause
While the outdoors may blithely look neutral to non-marginalized communities, systemic racism and cultural assumptions permeate outdoor spaces. In fact, many national parks were created by forcibly driving Native Americans off the land for the purpose of providing an escape for wealthy, white city dwellers after the industrial revolution. Even as recent as the 1960s, many people of color were legally prohibited from attending or were segregated at public recreation sites, including national and state parks. While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 required equal access to public places, the vestiges of these discriminatory and exclusionary polices are still felt today.
Ezeilo felt this hostility at a young age. On one family trip to Seaside Heights, NJ, in 1977, a desk clerk turned Ezeilo’s family away from their ocean-front motel — despite the lit vacancy sign. For many Black and Indigenous people, fear and unrest of everything from a history of verbal abuse to violent and deadly encounters outdoors remains top of mind. In Central Park last May, Christian Cooper, an avid Black bird watcher, asked Amy Cooper, who is white, to leash her dog in an area where leashing is required. Amy Cooper called the police to accuse Christian Cooper of threatening her. A few months earlier, Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man who was pursued and shot to death while out for a jog in his neighborhood. Many wilderness areas themselves remain tied to a history of people like the famed naturalist John Muir, who called Native Americans “dirty” and referred to Black people with racial slurs. This persistent discrimination shapes an understanding of nature and who should have access to it.
Ezeilo says she sees this unease every year with GYF’s new crop of interns. Parents worry about their children’s safety at national parks far-flung across the country. Furthermore, low-income Americans face additional challenges to recreating outdoors, such as lack of information about park resources, lack of transportation, and lack of additional income to travel. Since racial and ethnic socioeconomic discrepancies persist in the US, these issues disproportionately affect people of color.
GYF has created a system to support interns and the agencies to help interns feel welcome, included, and heard. This includes a buddy system of placing at least two students in remote parks so students don’t feel alone. Each intern also has a mentor back at GYF’s headquarters in Atlanta, with whom they can bounce questions, concerns, and thoughts.
Sustainable Diversity for Sustainable Parks
Diversifying the interns, staff, and visitors to national parks benefits everyone — including the parks themselves. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that people of color will make up the majority in America by 2044. The longevity of national parks and America’s outdoor spaces at large depend on this demographic shift.
The demand for GYF interns continue to grow because they enrich the agencies and communities they enter. GYF interns see things that others might not. When Shenise, an intern at Rock Creek Park, worked on an astronomy project called Night Skies in Africa, she noticed the kids grew sad after seeing it. She realized it was because the film limited history to talking about slavery. Shenise rewrote the script to go back before slavery, to African Kingdoms, and ended with the election of President Obama. The shift in viewers’ mood and interest was palpable.
A decade into sending interns to the NPS, GYF has come full-circle. Many former interns are now park rangers hiring new GYF interns. Ezeilo hopes this infiltration of Black and brown leaders will help build sustainable diversity within these organizations.
“Sustainable diversity is something that we talk about a lot,” Ezeilo says. “It’s not just plopping in a brown face here or there. It’s talking about how to literally embed diversity into a system that makes sense for everyone as mutually beneficial, and is also long-standing and sustainable.”
Of the 5,000 GYF interns up to 2018, 85% reported positive experiences. These empowering encounters have a ripple effect across populations. Providing internships for Black, brown, and Indigenous students with agencies like the NPS not only empowers those students to pursue careers in outdoor fields, it also assuages parental concerns about the outdoors and helps bring places like national parks within a community’s reach.
Even if interns don’t go into environmental fields, Ezeilo believes students take a lens of sustainability and environmental stewardship forward with them into the world.
“Once you’re connected, that extends to your local park, the lake down the street, the trees in your backyard,” Ezeilo writes in her book Engage, Protect, Connect: Empowering Diverse Youth As Environmental Leaders. “You want to protect them, preserve them. You care what happens in every corner of the Earth.”
At its core, GYF simultaneously opens doors that have previously been closed to many people of color, and also helps transform racially-charged places into positive spaces of inclusion and hope.
How You Can Get Involved
Follow along with Greening Youth interns and staff on GYF’s Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter pages. You can support GYF through its website. And to learn more about Ezeilo and her work at GYF, pick up a copy of her new book, Protect, Connect: Empowering Diverse Youth As Environmental Leaders.