Diversity through Nature – by Tony Thomas

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America is one of the most diverse countries in the world. However, places that could benefit greatly from more diversity are our state and federal parks. Diversity was not always widely accepted in parks, and although tremendous strides have been made, there is still much work to be accomplished to break barriers and stigmas regarding minorities, recreation, and leisure.

February is Black History Month. I believe this is a perfect time to create dialogue about parks, accessibility, and diversity. As I mentioned earlier, state and federal parks were not always a place for inclusivity. Many parks, pools, beaches, and recreational spaces were segregated well into the 1950’s. Nature and the opportunity to enjoy leisure activities with friends and families should bind all of us together. Regardless of your income, where you live, or what your ethnicity is, we can all find solace and enjoyment in nature and recreation.

Due to segregation and state laws such as Jim Crow, many minorities could not take advantage of recreation and leisure activities on state and federal land. In my opinion, the effect of segregation still reverberates today. The National Park Service estimates that only seven percent of its park users are black. A contributing factor to this could be that generations of minorities of all different ethnic backgrounds have not felt welcome at state and federal parks, and therefore stay away. This mindset could be passed down from generation to generation, and hence the reason why minorities still show little interest in visiting parks.

This problem can be addressed through education and an open mind. Educating everyone regardless of race, class, or level of ability is paramount to help draw more visitors to parks. It is a wide-held belief that nature can benefit you mentally and physically. Having an open mind is just as important to help remove those barriers and stigmas. I have worked with hundreds of children from disadvantaged backgrounds and many of them don’t seem to want to spend time in a state or federal park. Many of them do not think it is not the place for them, simply because they have not been exposed to the benefits of visiting parks.

Although we do not have a state or federal park, The City of Manassas Park is an inclusive community that encourages individuals from all backgrounds to visit our parks and facilities. We encourage you to have a picnic at Signal Hill Park, walk a trail at Costello Park, or spend time in nature with family and friends at our special events!

The more that we expose youth of all backgrounds to the benefits of nature, the greater the possibility that they will uphold the importance of conservation of green spaces, while also increasing the diversity and awareness of local, state and federal parks and facilities.

Tony Thomas is the Recreation Services Supervisor for the City of Manassas Park, Department of Parks and Recreation. He can be reached at 703-335-8872 or via email at t.thomas@manassasparkva.gov.

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