Safia Samee Ali, NBC News, August 7, 2016
As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial this August, the agency is turning its focus to making sure both visitors and staff are more diverse. The National Park Service had record high attendance last year–307 million visitors, to be precise–but fewer than 20 percent of those attendees were minorities.
This is a stark contrast from the country’s actual makeup. According to Census data, minorities comprise nearly 40 percent of the nation.
“We recognize the Park’s need to attract more diverse visitors. Our goal for the centennial is centered on connecting and creating the next generation of park visitors and supporters, and that next generation looks different than before,” said National Park Service spokesman Jeremy Barnum.
At least 25 senators couldn’t agree more.
Led by Sen. Michael Bennett, D-Colorado, the group sent President Obama a joint letter last month asking him to issue a presidential memorandum to direct the “federal land management agencies to broaden the diversity in the sites protected, stories told, communities engaged.”
In a statement to NBC News, Bennett said, “This effort will help increase the cultural and geographic diversity of protected sites and improve opportunity and access for visitors from all backgrounds and communities. It will also help us diversify the workforce that manages our public lands.”
The National Park Service said it has already begun to expand efforts to become more representative of the country, not only with attractions, but also with hiring and outreach. And while most of these initiatives are fairly recent, taking place in just the last few years, the National Park Service is optimistic they will soon be up to speed.
“We are committed to reflect what America looks like and tell America’s story,” Barnum said.
That story recently expanded with additions like the Stonewall National Monument, honoring the LGBTQ community, Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, and Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument and Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad, honoring African American heritage.
Diverse hires remain a challenging issue for the National Park Service. According to agency data, 83 percent of the park’s 20,000 plus staff is white.
“We’ve faced a challenge in retention numbers,” said Sangita Chari, who oversees the National Park Service’s Office of Relevancy, Diversity and Inclusion. Chari attributes the agency’s troubles to the inherent nature of the job, which involves a lot of moving to remote areas–locations that may be culturally isolating.
“Since the organization is so dispersed across the country, it’s challenging to make sure minorities feel welcome, know that they belong, and that they do have opportunities to succeed and advance,” she said.