by Cesca Janece Waterfield
When Audrey Peterman and her husband Frank first gazed out over the vast, scenic landscape of Maine’s Acadia National Park, hiked the trails of Yellowstone National Park, and stood beneath the rainforest canopy in Washington’s Olympic National Park, they saw a natural legacy that refreshed their pride in being American.
But what they didn’t see during that 1995 cross country adventure were many African Americans; as visitors, or among national park staff. So with Audrey’s training in journalism and Frank’s professional background in law and business, they established the Atlanta-based environmental company, Earthwise Productions, Inc., whose mission is to increase involvement in the environment, particularly among minorities. They also created Pickup & GO! a newsletter featuring personal stories of people of color enjoying the national parks — hiking, camping, RVing, scubadiving, sailing, skiing and more. They enthusiastically discuss how visits to the U.S. National Park System inspired their own “journey of self discovery, of citizenship, and the understanding of what all Americans owe to our forefathers of every race and color.”
While helping others discover the great outdoors is their principal aim, Audrey, who grew up in Jamaica, knows that the best guardians of the environment are those who take pleasure in it. Together, the Petermans dedicate each day to educating and encouraging all Americans toward awareness of our shared natural legacy – for our enjoyment, and for its protection. www.nps.gov
What is your vision for black Americans?
It’s a vision of Americans re-connecting with nature. We come from nature. It is not just something incidental that we should take for granted. In order to see that take hold, my thinking is that if people are enabled to see the grandeur of our National Park System for example, it will really awaken them to the beauty of the world that we’re privileged to have and inspire us to better help conserve it.
How did your love for the national parks system begin?
Frank and I met almost 17 years ago in Florida. Shortly after we got married, we decided we were going to move to Belize, so we went to check it out. We fell in love with the country. When Frank came back some weeks after me, he told me, “I was talking to a man in Belize. He asked me what the Badlands look like. I was embarrassed to tell him that I didn’t know, that I’d never seen them.” Then the man asked him what the Grand Canyon looked like and Frank couldn’t tell him. So Frank said to me, “We really can’t leave the country and move to another country when we actually don’t know our country at all. How about we take some time off and just drive around and discover the destinations that people come from all over the world to see?” We visited the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, Mt. Rushmore, all these places. I think it was in Yellowstone that it hit me: “Where are all the black people and the brown people?”
Why do you think there are fewer African American visitors to national parks?
When we started telling our families and friends that we were planning to take off with no particular destination in mind, that we’d be camping, they went crazy and said, “Do you know what happens to black people in the woods?” They were afraid of racial hostility, animals, the whole thing. When we got out there, the beauty that we saw — the transformative, all-encompassing beauty, and to see one after the other across the whole country, it was just mind blowing.
That’s why we keep publishing the newsletter even when the money has to come from our pockets. We think it is so vital to have that image of America’s multi-ethnic population out there. So many people have told us, “Black people don’t [camp or hike],” because in the mainstream media, they don’t see anyone like themselves doing these things. Other people have told us, “I’m so glad to find you. I thought I was the only one who loves the outdoors.”
How does your work reward you?
I wake up everyday in bliss. When something bad is happening in the news and I want to take myself away, I go back to the morning I woke up in Yellowstone, bundled up and walked out the door of the lodge at 6:30 in the morning. The receptionist at the desk called out to me, “Watch out for bison!” I walked cautiously to the edge of Old Faithful geyser, keeping an eye out for wildlife, seeing the Big Dipper so close I can almost reach out and touch it, thinking of Mother Tubman following the drinking gourd and screaming out my thanks and praise to God for the opportunity to be in such a special place. And then the geyser goes off, and I’m the only one there to see its first eruption of the day. It doesn’t get much better than that, but I have a ton of similar experiences. So my work is its own reward.
Life is so invigorating, exciting, awesome. I’m very focused on making people aware of how their actions affect the environment and how we need to be stewards of the environment so that our children can have a life, not a planet that’s been decimated and [made] destitute.
What advice can you offer community groups and individuals interested in the environment?
The whole world is diverse. The president, even the chairman of the Republican National Committee is a person of color, so maybe we should talk about how we’re introducing diversity. Environmental groups really have to find innovative ways to break through to the people, so they can tell the people what opportunities are available to them. Community groups need to seek and find the opportunities that are available to them, other than the non-traditional ones. The National Park System, for example, is a source of recreation as well as jobs, careers and contracting opportunities.
You don’t need to go out to experience the world. Just be still and look. Notice the sun rise. Notice the wind and a flock of birds rising in unison. They never bang into each other, you notice that? Notice the small things around, and then after, go out and experience the big things that are out there just waiting to enrich your life.