Parks for the People: A Comparative Analysis of Diversity Engagement between Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Yosemite National Park

May 5, 2020   /  

Student: Cami Miller
Major: Anthropology
Minor: Spanish
Advisors: Dr. Zareen Thomas, Dr. David McConnell

This research examines how an urban and wilderness national park engage with diverse communities. The goal is to illuminate who visits these parks, why, and what the parks can do to encourage more diversity. I conducted eight interviews with park staff and analyzed each park’s visitors centers. I drew from critical race theory and theories of space in environmental anthropology to help explain how people of color have been excluded from environmental narratives and the creation of national parks which racializes these spaces and affects visitation. I concluded that first, the NPS must do a better job understanding how people of color’s experience with parks is racialized to better engage with these communities. Second, urban parks have the opportunity to adapt what experiences people can have in parks to better meet the needs of a wider range of people. Third, employing diversity is a key factor in improving future diversity.


The purpose of this research is to examine how an urban and a wilderness national park engage with diverse communities. The goal is to illuminate who visits these parks and why and what the parks can do to encourage more diverse visitation. I conducted eight in-depth interviews with national park employees: four at Cuyahoga Valley National Park (urban) and four at Yosemite National Park (wilderness). I asked my contributors to describe the demographics of visitors and employees at their park, what barriers people may face to visiting or working in their park, and what engagement efforts they employ to try and remain relevant to diverse audiences. I accompanied my interviews with an in-depth observation of the visitor centers and museums at each park to analyze what stories the parks are telling. These stories reveal what narratives the parks find important and which ones they use to represent themselves. I drew from Carolyn Finney’s (2014) work on the whitewashed environmental movement to help explain how people of color have been excluded from environmental narratives and the creation of national parks. Using critical race theory, Elijah Anderson’s (2014) theory on the “white space”, and theories of place in environmental anthropology, I found that national parks can be seen as historically racialized spaces which affect people of color’s interpretation of these places and ultimately affects their visitation and employment in parks. I concluded that there is no simple solution to the lack of diversity in national parks, however, there were three key themes that nearly all of my contributors found important. First, national parks must do a better job understanding how people of color’s experience with national parks is racialized. This will help parks be more informed and engage more effectively with these communities. Second, national parks, especially urban national parks, have the opportunity to adapt and change what experiences people can have in parks to better meet the needs and desires of a wider range of people. Third and finally, employing diverse rangers and staff is a key factor in improving diverse visitation for generations to come.

Cami will be online to field comments on May 8:
Noon-2pm EDT (PST 9am-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

80 thoughts on “Parks for the People: A Comparative Analysis of Diversity Engagement between Cuyahoga Valley National Park and Yosemite National Park”

  1. Really awesome work! I agree that this has to all start with diversifying the staffing (especially the rangers) at the parks. Are you planning to present this to the higher ups in D.C. to get this important transition started? Your work could be the catalyst for a very important change. Love you!
    – Dad

    1. Hi Dad! Thank you so much. I am sharing my work with both parks I worked with and my supervisor at CVNP has expressed interest in sharing it with all of the parks in our region. I would love to share it as far as D.C. if possible!

  2. Great work Cami and such an interesting topic! Did you notice a difference in responses from the park rangers depending on their age/time working in National Parks? Perhaps a ranger of a younger generation who has worked at National Parks for a shorter period of time would be more aware of the “white space” theory you mentioned?

    1. Hi Averi! Thanks for the great questions! All 8 of my contributors were very knowledgable and aware of the lack of diversity in parks and are working to change that. I found that age and time working at a park did not affect my contributor’s understanding of the racialization of parks but rather those with their own racialized experiences had the best understanding of this. I interviewed three people of color and their personal racialized experiences in parks showed the most insight into how parks navigate as “white spaces”. This is why it is so important to employ diverse staff and have diverse visitations so that their diverse experiences and perspectives are better shared and understood!

  3. Wow I can feel your love for the national parks through my computer! How does access play into this narrative? Does the urban/suburban nature of CVNP influence the access of people of color to the park? Does the rural nature of Yosemite influence the access of people of color to the park?

    1. Hi Audrey, thank you for your interest in my I.S. and great questions! The location of both parks does play a role in who has access to each park. However, interestingly enough, the current visitation demographics show that CVNP has similar statistics to other wilderness parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone, even though it is located much closer to a wider variety of people. This is in large part because of the lack of public transportation going into CVNP. So, while location can be a large barrier of entry to many people, I found that there are more deep-seated barriers that lead to non-visitation like the historic dispossession of people from color from these spaces.

  4. Yay Cami!! This is a great presentation and I am so proud of you!! You’re going to do amazing things!

  5. This is exciting!! So happy to see all of your hard work pay off!! Love you and miss you! Good luck in your new job and I will definitely be visiting you! So proud!!

    1. Thanks, Maley! I love and miss you too and can’t wait to see you again soon!

  6. Congratulations, Cami! This is very interesting research! What do you think NPs can do to increase diversity in their parks? Thanks!

    1. Hi Eva! Thank you so much! I think one thing the parks can do is adapt their hiring process to become more accessible which will help them hire more diverse staff members. I think this is an important step because it will increase diverse representation in parks which will help future generations see themselves as a part of the narrative of the NPS which will help increase diversity for the future.

  7. Congratulations, Cami!
    This is such an important topic. I wonder if you could say more about how NP are racialized. I don’t disagree at all. Certainly we can see this just in the disparity in who visits the parks. But, I’m assuming there’s much more to how the parks are racialized; can you expand on this?
    Also, can you offer 1-2 specific policy recommendations (in addition to hiring more diverse staff!) for park administrators to improve their accessibility and to improve the experience of minorities who visit the parks?

    1. Hi Michele, thank you for your interest in my I.S. topic! The racialization of parks stems from the historic discrimination many people of color have experienced in parks. From the Native Americans, who were displaced during the creation of national parks to African Americans who were segregated from these spaces and the violence that many have experienced in parks and green spaces today. All of these factors have created deep-seated fear and avoidance of many people of color from parks.

      One of my contributors, a Japanese Chinese American woman, told me her own racialized experience visiting parks and the experience one of her employees had as a Mexican American working in the park. The family of a Mexican employee did not want him working in the NPS because they said that they had worked so hard so that he did not have to labor outside. For his family, employment in the parks was linked to the physical labor that many Mexican immigrants have had to experience to make a living in this country. Her personal tale explained how the Japanese side of her family found discomfort in her desire to camp and travel to national parks. When she was a child, she did not understand this because her Chinese side of the family were avid campers. However, when she was older, she traveled to Yellowstone National Park and discovered that within the park, was the internment camp her Japanese side of the family was forced to live in during World War II. These two stories tell very unique perspectives on green spaces that are not often shared. This shows the importance of understanding the parks from a more diverse lens because if we do not, then the true reasons people do not want to come to these places will never be fully understood.

      In terms of policy recommendations, I think that there should be more regulation surrounding tracking the statistical demographics of park visitors and employees. Cuyahoga Valley National Park has done two studies in the past 10 years gathering statistics on visitors while Yosemite has not done a study since the 90s. And neither park has the data on employees. I think that requiring parks to track the demographics of visitors and employees will allow them to get a baseline of where they are and see what policies are working to help diversify their parks and which ones are not to help them track their progress.

  8. Important and interesting work. Have you looked for parks that have been more successful in engaging with diverse communities? If so, what has worked, and are those experiences transferable to places like Cuyahoga and Yosemite?

    1. Hi Debbie, thanks for your question! I found that urban parks, like Cuyahoga Valley, have a unique opportunity to build longstanding relationships with their surrounding communities. This allows the park to establish relationships with diverse audiences to further improve their diversity efforts. I think that programming like this can be transferable to places like Yosemite to encourage more community engagement efforts, however, their location does provide some difficulties. In the future, as I continue to expand my knowledge of parks as an employee I will be looking for the various methods each specific park uses to engage with diverse audiences.

  9. Cami, thank you for working on this project. I am encouraged that work is being done toward researching the racialized nature of areas such as parks. My question is, are there any specific recommendations you have in mind that the NPS could employ to understand the racialized perspectives people of color have relating to these parks? Thank you again, have an amazing summer and post-undergraduate life!

    1. Hi Brandon! Thank you so much for reading my research and the great question! I think that the first step in helping the parks understand the racialized perspectives of people of color in the parks is to hire people of color! I think that the knowledge that this would bring to the staff when creating programs and developing their engagement models would be extensive. Thanks again!

  10. Super interesting an important project! Are you planning on working the parks after graduating?

    1. Hi Maya, thank you for your interest in my project. Yes, I am currently employed as a park ranger at Cuyahoga Valley National Park!

  11. Fantastic work! Your dedication and effort are impressive. Thank you for enlightening us all on the diversity engagement of these national parks. The way in which you wove history, theory and the current state of the parks through interviews was brilliant!

  12. Congrats Cammi! Did you ever get into the financial side of things? I’m curious with the NPS budget if they have the capability of funding money into these issues and how they would go about it.

    1. Hi Matt! Thanks for the question. I only looked at the finances that were brought up in my interviews. For instance, the NPS provides funding for Historically Black College and University internships which both CVNP and YNP have. The NPS also provides transportation grants that allow the parks to bring in more diverse communities. CVNP uses this grant to bring in community centers, homeless shelters, and summer camps from the Akron and Cleveland areas every summer. Each park also has new positions that were created for diversity outreach and diversity, equity, and inclusion. So it is clear that they allocate part of their budget to diversity efforts but your question definitely makes me want to learn more about this topic. Thanks!

  13. Your passion for the parks is infectious, Cami. Congratulations on completing an excellent thesis. I look forward to hearing about the wonderful work you will do in the parks in your new job!

  14. Cami! Congrats! What an interesting, important and relevant research project. As the country becomes more diverse, hope your conclusions can influence the National Parks to become less racialized. Wondering if the interview question responses from the ranger staff were significantly different between these two parks? (particular related to questions regarding race)

    1. Hi Aunt Peggy, thank you so much! I found that the responses were fairly similar across the board in terms of race and everyone was aware of the lack of diversity in each park. However, the most powerful responses came from the people of color that I interviewed who were able to give me insight into their personal racialized experiences in parks. This is what helped me truly understand how racialized parks have become!

      1. Amazing research. Congrats again, Cami. The National Parks – and all of us – are lucky to have you working to make a difference.

  15. Congratulations, Cami! I love the direction you took your research in compared to your Junior I.S. You’re going to do great things as a park ranger with this research background 🙂

    1. Hi Marissa! Thank you so much. I know I came a long way from junior (sophomore) I.S. to where I am today!

  16. Cami! This is so interesting, thank you for sharing! I’m wondering, was it difficult to find literature on this subject? If it was, that makes it even cooler that you did an extensive research paper on this topic! Great work and good luck at Cuyahoga Valley National Park this year!

    1. Hi Waverly! Thank you so much! I found plenty of geographic, historic, and leisure studies pieces on race and greenspaces, however, there is a huge lack of anthropological research done on the topic which is what made it so interesting from my particular lens!

  17. Congratulations Cami on your astute observation of a lack of diversity in our Parks and well presented paper. You as a park employee are in a great position to be an agent of change over time.We are so proud of you and know you will make a difference!
    Love,Gma & Gpa

  18. Great study. I love the pairing of an urban-proximate park with a very rural park. I can’t help but think that the long history of public imagery about the national parks — particularly those out West — plays a subtle but pervasive role. Think of your soaring photographs from Ansel Adams, or the many images you see of mountaineering expeditions or hunting expeditions or exploration from the likes of John Muir — over and over again, it’s nothing but white faces and white bodies. This has to paint a mental picture in viewers’ minds, from a young age, about who “belongs” in these outdoor spaces. A very stimulating project!

    1. Thank you so much, Professor Mariola! The topic of racial visibility and representation in greenspaces played a huge role in my study. It was fascinating to learn how whitewashed outdoor experiences and the environmental movement are and how that plays into how people of color see themselves engaging with these spaces today. I learned a lot from Carolyn Finney’s book “Black Faces White Spaces” about this whitewashing. Also, I interviewed Park Ranger Shelton Johnson who spoke to me about how his involvement bringing the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers to light is largely to help African Americans see their important role in the creation of national parks! Representation matters!

  19. Good job, Cami. This topic should be of great interest for the NPS staff for future planning. I hope it gets published in the NPS magazine.

  20. Hi Cami

    Well done, such an important area to highlight/focus on!
    Best wishes to you in your new position!

    1. Go Cami!! Congrats on all your hard work, you will do amazing things!

  21. Hi, Cami (from the mom of a COW alum), As someone who has visited the CVNP and loves the outdoors, your work is fascinating and definitely much-needed to build a more inclusive community. This is an important topic not just from the concept of racial inclusion, but spending more time outdoors helps to build a respect for nature and develop stewardship.

    I have seen the absence of people of color at three parks here in Northeast Ohio. Transportation and entrance/program fees are certainly a hindrance to more people of color participating just locally. The exception is summer day camp tours to these local facilities. I would love to see more families visiting.

    I would like to see grants available to get more children participating in tours, programs, and summer camps. I think if you can get more children introduced to local parks, parents will follow. I would also like to see more internships targeted for young people of color to introduce them to careers with the park service. (As an aside, when my daughter was at COW one of her professors introduced her to a summer job at the Cleveland Botanical Garden, where she was an assistant at one of three Urban Gardens. The gardens employed minority high school students to work in the gardens. Unfortunately, they discontinued the program last fall.)

    I am so happy that you will be presenting your work to the CVNP and other regional parks. Perhaps your work will trickle down and encourage more parks to consider how they can bring more people of color to enjoy the wonder of our parks.

    Congratulations on a timely and important Research Project!

    1. Hi Bambi, thank you so much for your interest in my I.S. and great comments! I agree that better public transportation is extremely necessary to allow for more diverse audiences to reach the park.

      I will be working this summer as a park ranger with the community engagement team at CVNP who works very hard to bring in inner-city children into the park! I interned for them last summer and the work they are doing is amazing. They use transportation grants to bring in community centers, homeless shelters, and summer camps to the park for day programs. I agree that getting children engaged early through programs and internships will help inspire future visitation! I hope to see more work like this done in parks everywhere!

  22. Great job Cami! So proud to see your research and I can’t wait to see you in uniform! Well done!

  23. Congratulations Cami!!! I loved your presentation, and I’m so proud of you! You’re going to do amazing things!

  24. So proud of your work and so happy you’ve found your passion for the NPS. Can’t wait to rock the flat hats together! Love you so much!

  25. So proud of you Cami and all your hard work on such an important topic. I love that you were able to tackle a topic so close to your heart. Any ideas on how you think you will be able to affect change as your start your career with the NPS? You have represented what it means to be a true scholar athlete over the last four years and the volleyball program couldn’t be prouder of the way you demonstrated “Excellence in the Classroom and Excellence on the Court”. We know that this is just the start of the excellence you’ll demonstrate as you leap into the next chapter. Congrats!

    1. Thank you so much, Coach Davis! I am so proud and lucky to have been a part of your program for my four years. As I personally begin my journey as a park ranger, I hope to bring change by sharing my research and showing the importance of having a cross-cultural understanding of how people experience parks. This will help us to engage and understand the visitors we work with and hopefully help make the parks more inclusive.

  26. Wow, Cami, it is so great to see more about your important I.S. topic! I was super interested in the implications you shared for the need to increase diversity in parks – that was definitely an “aha” moment for me. Since most of my experience with you has been on the volleyball court, I really loved seeing your intellectual strengths shine through in this presentation – well done!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment Coach Bos, it means a lot to me!

  27. Cami, it’s so great to learn more today about your scholarship, and about some of your roles, goals and values. Complex work, on an important problem. So impressed. Congratulations!

  28. Cami, Thanks for contributing this important study to the virtual IS Symposium. It was inspiring to read the first time around, but also great to see again in this new format. Nice job! And best of luck as you start your new work as a park ranger!

    1. Hi Professor McConnell, thank you so much! I appreciate all you did to help me along the way!

  29. Congratulations, Cami.

    Yours is a terrific IS project with so many important implications for how we share outdoor space. and your work is timely, as the pandemic presents everyone with challenges to recreation, access to nature, etc. This summer we will need outdoor spaces more than ever. All of us.

    You may want to check out the advocacy work of Shanelle Smith Whigham, head of the Cleveland office of the Trust for Public Lands. She is a vocal advocate for access to green space for all. Why not send her a copy of your IS?

    Thanks for sharing your work with us, and welcome to the wonderful Wooster alumni community.

    1. Hi Mary! Thank you so much for the kind words about my research. I agree that now more than ever it is important for everyone to have access to and feel safe in greenspaces. I will definitely check our Shanelle Whigham, thank you for the recommendation!

  30. Hi Cami–

    So proud of you for doing a virtual presentation at IS Symposium. And, can I just say that you did your IS on a project involving the National Park System? You go!! You rock!! I still remember you sitting in my Geology of National Parks class — when was it? Fall 2017?? I’m so excited to see you follow you passion throughout Wooster, and I look forward to seeing the next steps in your journey.

    Again, great job finishing IS, doing this Symposium, and for finishing finals this week. -SJ

    1. Thank you so much, Professor Judge! It feels like yesterday that I took your class! I learned so much and really enjoyed it. I am so happy to be continuing my education on national parks! They’re the best!

  31. Wow what an important and powerful topic! I really appreciate the opportunity to open my eyes to something I had the privilege of not fully understanding. The way you lay out the information was so clear, well-written and effective, I’m so excited to see what else you do in the future and the big changes I know you’ll influence. You’ll make such a great Park Ranger!

  32. Great job, Cami! Good luck with your work at Cuyahoga Valley National Park!

  33. Congratulations Cami! This is a unique and fascinating topic! Mis sinceras felicitaciones!

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