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Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Parks

Planning, Programming and Staffing to Better Serve All Residents

By Chris Gelbach

As park managers strive to better serve their communities, the need for planning, programming and staffing that engages all constituencies equitably and inclusively has never been clearer.

For park districts, effectively achieving these goals often involves applying a broad definition of diversity that includes considerations such as race and ethnicity, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, language, culture, national origin, religious and political beliefs, age and disability status.

Ava Holliday is a founding partner of the Avarna Group, which helps park districts, outdoors organizations and other clients develop and implement equity, inclusion, diversity and relevancy efforts. She often sees organizations, state parks and municipal parks start with this focus on diversity because they desire to both diversify their staff and appeal to a broader swath of the local populace.

"That's all well and good, except that it often comes from a place where they're not compelled to think about why historically—and today—there haven't been as many people of color or queer folks or disabled folks in their parks," Holliday said. "Leading with diversity isn't very effective, and we ask folks instead to lead with equity."

While recreation managers should certainly work to understand and welcome the diverse audiences they serve, understanding and dismantling the barriers preventing people from accessing and using their parks and programming is even more critical. "And then, once they get into the parks and start working for the parks, how can they feel included?" Holliday said. "And then diversity often follows."

Bringing Equity to Park Planning

Achieving equity in parks is impossible without effectively collecting and considering the input of traditionally underrepresented communities during the park-planning process. In many cases, this may require park districts to conduct dedicated outreach to learn the views of groups that may be less likely to respond to a general survey.

For instance, Houston conducted a Master Parks Plan Survey in 2014 that produced results indicating that most respondents wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The city has since embarked on an ambitious Bayou Greenways 2020 project that will ultimately create a 150-mile network of continuous hiking trails, bike paths and green space running throughout the city.

The 2014 survey received criticism, however, since Houston is a highly diverse and segregated city, yet roughly two-thirds of respondents were white and had household incomes of at least $75,000. In response, the parks and rec department funded a study by researchers at Rice University that surveyed African-American and Latino neighborhoods on their priorities for the city's parks. The results found that park users in majority-minority neighborhoods were most interested in better maintained, safer local parks with more and better infrastructure, and less concerned about the improved connections between parks and neighborhoods that the greenways project will ultimately accomplish.

According to Holliday, because gathering community information for park planning is a long process, there are many steps along the way at which people can either be shut out or invited into the conversation. To make sure that all voices are represented during the public comment period, Holliday recommends that you:

  1. Make sure that you truly know the community you serve and the demographics and history of the community. This will help you craft an engagement process that makes sense for those community members.
  2. Understand the other barriers different populations in the community are facing, as well as the diverse ways in which different communities have historically wanted to be outside.
  3. Create engagement tools that are culturally relevant by making sure the public comment period is clear and gives people multiple ways to engage in the process.
  4. Disseminate the information about the project in a culturally relevant way.

"You want the information to be available not just online, not just through words, but if you can talk about it through pictures, different people talking about it, through the mail, through community meetings, that can be really helpful," Holliday said. "To whatever extent different languages are spoken in the community, make sure you can translate the materials. All of that is really important."

To make the public meetings themselves more accessible, Holliday recommends:

  • Making sure they're not during business hours so people who work 9 to 5 can attend.
  • Allowing families and children to attend.
  • Providing a meal if budget allows in return for asking people to give up their dinner and family time.
  • Being clear about next steps and how everyone's feedback from the meeting will be used.
  • Giving attendees a way to stay informed as the process moves forward.

Holliday noted that her organization is currently working with The Wilderness Society on a community and stakeholder engagement toolkit that will be free and publicly available soon, and is specifically focused on ways to successfully get a broader range of people engaged in these public comment periods.

Engaging Underserved Communities

To effectively engage underserved populations in their communities, many park districts and related organizations are realizing the need for proactive outreach.

"What we found in the past sometimes with our community engagement was that we'd tend to get the same people who tend to have disposable time and money to attend our meetings and get their voices heard," said Lisa Goorjian, parks planning and operations program director for Metro, which oversees 17,000 acres of parks, trails and natural areas across the Portland metropolitan region.

As part of an effort to better reach underserved communities, Metro sometimes engages leaders of culturally specific organizations as contractors to provide knowledge and input about their communities. "We're definitely getting some perspectives we hadn't heard before and different community groups we hadn't heard from before," Goorjian said.

In building new relationships with these community groups, Goorjian suggests that parks organizations understand that building awareness, trust and rapport takes time—and therefore to schedule accordingly. To build these relationships more successfully, she also places a premium on providing consistent communication to these contacts from your organization.

"Community members value consistent stable relationships, and sometimes in government, we tend to work in technical areas," Goorjian said. "We're learning that our staff has to be flexible working with other staff across the different work teams, so we're not just passing off different community contacts from one team to the next."

To gain broader perspectives from the diverse communities it serves, East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), a system of public parks and trails in California's Alameda and Contra Costa counties, holds an annual Multicultural Community Leaders Roundtable. The event gathers dozens of community leaders from the Asian, Latino and African-American communities, who represent senior centers, health clinics, faith-based groups, media, chambers of commerce and other organizations from the region.

Building from this outreach, EBRPD started regular outings in 2014 called Multicultural Wellness Walks, working with some of these community leaders to plan the walks. The walks serve to introduce these varied communities, many of which are most familiar with city parks, to the district's larger, more faraway parks in natural settings that include shoreline, redwoods, and lake and hill environments.

"We are reaching out to groups that are not familiar with the parks, and may have some nervousness regarding going far out into big woods like the redwoods," said Mona Koh, community relations manager for EBRPD. "So as part of it, we very intentionally create a safe, fun and interconnected experience in nature for the diverse folks we bring in. We really emphasize safety, so our walks are always accompanied by our volunteer trail safety patrol that are trained in trails and first aid. The walks are always led by a naturalist and a health practitioner."

Some of the leaders from the roundtable events help to bring members from their communities to the walks, which happen five or six times a year. Koh estimates that each walk has average representation from four or five ethnic and religious groups, with roughly 60 percent of participants being Latino and then the other 40 percent comprising Asian (Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Vietnamese), African-American and Middle Eastern (Indian, Pakistani and Iranian) groups.

To effectively engage underserved populations in their communities, many park districts and related organizations are realizing the need for proactive outreach.

After saying "good morning" in different languages, the groups head out for the walk, stopping along the way to make bird calls and engage in other activities like chi gong or Zumba. The groups also eat together at the end. Koh estimates that the first walks attracted 35 to 40 people, and they have grown increasingly popular, with the most recent outing attracting 150 people. The program is effective in exposing different groups to the EBRPD's regional parks that they might be unfamiliar with, while also helping to build bridges between communities.

When it comes to building stronger relationships between a parks department and a specific community for more detailed programming, an individualized approach is often preferred. Metro, for example, has partnered with individual culturally specific organizations to provide opportunities for communities of color and low-income residents to experience nature through its Partners in Nature program.

"The unique part of this program is that we work together with each organization to co-create programming that meets the needs of each specific community," said Goorjian. "We recognize that these organizations know their communities best. Instead of Metro asking each group to fit into our model, we're trying to be flexible in offering different types of partnerships that best serve each community's needs." The program is funded by a parks and natural areas levy that was approved by the region's voters in 2013.

By working with single-identity groups in this manner, parks organizations can give traditionally marginalized communities the opportunity to enjoy deeper, more culturally relevant experiences with nature by giving them the ability to gather in spaces for them and by them.

"Engaging these single-identity groups can also be really positive in that you then have a constituency that you have built some trust with," Holliday said. "And then when it comes to your next planning process, for example, those folks are already bought into your park and may have connections that you may not have had previously, and you can engage a broader swath of people."


Finding community leaders who are themselves passionate about parks and the outdoors is particularly beneficial. "If there's somebody the community already trusts in place, whether it's a priest or physician or a business owner who believe in the mission and vision of the recreation department, now you've got a conduit," said Juan Caraveo, diversity and inclusion consultant for USA Swimming. "Now you've got an advocate in that community who's going to be a voice to promote your programing."

When engaging underserved communities through programming, it's also important to focus on offering high-quality, high-value programs. Caraveo sees a few common barriers preventing underserved communities from learning to swim, for instance. "What our business development department found is that lack of access to the physical pool is not as prevalent as the expense of the programming—maybe they're priced out of those communities," Caraveo said.

In fact, while USA Swimming research has shown that 64 percent of African-American, 45 percent of Hispanic/Latino and 40 percent of Caucasian children have little to no swimming ability, 79 percent of children overall who live in households with incomes less than $50,000 have little to no swimming ability. But providing affordable swimming instruction is not enough.

Over the past two years of travel at the grassroots level as part of his job, Caraveo has also learned through speaking to many families that the quality of the programming is also a barrier. "I've had multiple conversations with families in the park, and I've asked them, 'Do you take your kids to swim?' And they say, 'Yeah, I took them to the city swim lessons. We stopped because we had 10 kids in the class and there was a 16-year-old who had no idea what they were doing teaching the lessons.'"

According to Caraveo, these families say that money is tight, but that they're willing to pay if the programming is good. "I think it would be in the interest of rec departments to really do an inventory of their programs," he said. He recommends evaluating both the pre-hiring and ongoing professional development of staff, whether the department even looks at swim teachers as a professional position, and at student-teacher ratios to make sure they're acceptable. "And ask perhaps the biggest question: If I had a child, would I want my kid to be in that lesson?" Caraveo said.

Fostering Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Staffing

Park districts seeking to be more equitable and inclusive in their hiring and in attracting a more diverse mix of park-goers can have more success with the latter by addressing the former. "If a community can see that the staff is representative and looks like them, it does increase the odds of participation from that particular community," Caraveo said.

In fact, Caraveo often leads with the employment-related benefits of learning to swim in speaking to communities that traditionally under-participate in swim programs. "I don't necessarily speak to them about swimming as a sport, but swimming as a skill that can help develop a workforce for you," Caraveo said.

In lower-income communities where teens will often seek out minimum-wage jobs at age 15 or 16, he emphasizes how learning to swim and joining a swim team can then lead to a young person getting their Water Safety Instructor and Lifeguarding certification. They can then be prepared for a job in park districts that often have a desperate need for additional guards. "Now, you're getting a job that can pay $2 or $3 more per hour than your minimum-wage job. And if that can be in your community where you can walk, even better."

USA Swimming has several programs that can help park districts build this talent pipeline. By becoming a Make a Splash local partner of the USA Swimming Foundation, rec departments can become eligible for grant money for swim lessons and are subject to reporting to ensure lesson quality. Through USA Swimming, departments can also start a USA Swimming community swim team, joining more than 2,800 existing teams across the nation and gaining access to benefits such as coach education and development.

EBPRD, meanwhile, has a variety of initiatives aimed at exposing underserved communities to employment opportunities in the outdoors and conservation. These include a hands-on youth job fair where ages 12 to 21 can learn about different jobs in the park district such as interpretive, recreation, park ranger, maintenance and park police roles.


The EBPRD also has a two-pronged internship program. It includes academic internships tied to universities for which interns can get college credit, and field internships that trade school and high school students can participate in to build skills in park ranger, landscaping and other roles. Additional programs involve projects with at-risk youth who often continue in other EBRPD programs afterward.

To successfully attract interest from more diverse candidates, some parks departments are also reconsidering their job descriptions. "Our job descriptions are written to highlight the fact that we're looking for people who know how to connect with diverse communities," said Metro's Goorjian. "In fields where there isn't a diverse pipeline, we're doing what we can to help diversify that pipeline."

The department is doing that through programs such as its Youth Ecology Corps, where young people from low-income families get experience in natural resource centers. Many of the department's Partners in Nature program also focus on nature education and on exposing youth of color to careers in natural resources.

Metro additionally recognizes the importance of working with more minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses as contractors. It has recently held workshops in both English and Spanish to help these establishing businesses learn the ins and outs of the public procurement process. "We know it's not a level playing field, so we're trying to do things to make it more equitable," Goorjian said. The department is seeing results from the effort, with 17 of roughly 30 new contractors hired coming from minority-owned, women-owned and emerging small businesses.

At the Avarna Group, Holliday often works with agencies to create more inclusive job descriptions and minimize bias in hiring. The group offers a free hiring toolkit online that describes a variety of tactics that can help organizations mitigate gender, racial and other hidden biases in recruiting, marketing, job descriptions, screening resumes, job interviews and candidate selection.

Tackling these and other issues can seem daunting. But they are individual steps that contribute to an ongoing process that results in park operations that can continue to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive over time.

"I think that understanding that the work is iterative can be really helpful for folks — they don't have to do it all at once," Holliday said. "But knowing that they're going to continue to chip away at it and going to continue to learn is a helpful framework to be in."



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