Peterman, a native of Jamaica, launched her environmental career in 1995 after a cross-country road trip with her husband, Frank. They took a couple of months off, bought a truck and stuffed it with camping gear. For the first leg of their trip, they traveled from Ft. Lauderdale to Acadia National Park in Maine. At the time, Peterman didn’t know the National Park System existed.
It wasn’t until she reached Yellowstone National Park that she realized each of the parks she visited were part of a system. She also noticed the lack of people of color that visited the parks. And the abundance of international tourists.
“What I found out blew my mind completely,” she said. “You would be shocked that how today there is still so many black and brown Americans — and I think white Americans, too — who don’t even know that we have national parks and that is a shame,” she said. “People were coming from all around the world to see these places, yet many Americans didn’t know about them.”
While in New Mexico, she called her best friend in New York to tell her about her trip. She couldn’t hold her excitement in. Breathless, she began describing the scenery she saw.
But for some reason, it wasn’t translating. Her friend, a highly educated woman who worked on Wall Street, had no idea what she was talking about.
“It struck me so deeply,” she said. “We didn’t know that such beauty existed out there so we could understand why other people like us might not know, and we deserved to do something to change that.”
She started a publishing company, Earthwise Productions, because she knew she wanted to use her journalism background to get the word out. She began by publishing on-the-road email newsletter about her travels. Later, she and Frank published their first book, “Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care.”
“I told people [in the book] there’s a whole different world out there just beyond city limits, and you just have to have the sense of adventure to go,” she said. “And to know it will be welcoming to and safe. National parks are among the most safest places in the country.”
She also wanted people to know that you didn’t have to be an expert outdoorsman to visit these parks. They had hotels, lodges, showers and many other typical vacation amenities.
The couple’s second book, “Our True Nature Finding a Zest for Life in the National Park System,” focuses on the history of the park system.
“If you look at American history, you would get the feeling that only white people participated in the creation of our country, and the national parks show the exact opposite of that,” she said. “Non-white people played an equal and sometimes greater role in the creation of the space that we enjoy today.”
Peterman points to a line that reads “Philemon, with his two sons, Tom and Reed, brought 400 African -American workers by boat from New Smyrna to build the roadbed. She thinks the workers that built the neighborhood she lives in should have more than half of a sentence for recognition of their work.
So far, Peterman has visited 182 national parks, raising awareness about these precious public lands along the way.
She has received multiple awards including the Environmental Hero Award from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Outstanding Citizen Conservationist Award from the National Parks Conservation Association.
But, she says her work is far from over.
“People think that if they just state the [diversity] problem and acknowledge that its a problem, it will change.”
But, it’s not that easy.
She hopes that the word of the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau will spread, and that requests will start coming in. She said collaboration, inclusion and becoming an ally is as easy as picking up the phone.
“When people call us and tell us what they’re looking to do, I can help them decide who is the person they need,” she said. “One person can make a difference. Act in your sphere of influence. Do what you think needs to be done and that’s how change happens.”