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Audrey Peterman #FloridaWoman on a mission to save our public lands

February 13, 2018

story and photos By Rebecca Burton

Audrey Peterman, a headstrong environmentalist and journalist who lives on a sailboat with her husband in Ft. Lauderdale, was tired of the same old excuses when it came to diversifying the environmental movement.

She has heard excuses time and time again like. . .

"Black people don’t like nature."

"Black people don’t care about the environment."

"We can’t find any black experts to talk about these topics."

Peterman has heard these excuses many times before. She’s served on the National Parks Conservation Association, the Association of Partners on Public Lands and the National Parks Promotion Council. She has been involved in many organizational strategic planning meetings to increase diversity and inclusion.

To her, the solution was simple. Through her career, she has established a network of environmental experts, many of whom were minorities and people of color. If this network were easily accessible to mainstream organizations, then it would be easy to collaborate and form allies. In her mind, it would be a shortcut to inclusivity.

In 2014, she founded the Diverse Environmental Leaders Speakers Bureau (DEL), a “one-stop shop” to finding minority expertise.

“DEL coalesces a wide range of talented and accomplished environmental professionals of color who can help shift the environmental conversation in America to become more inclusive and equitable at all levels,” says the Bureau’s website.

Peterman founded it strategically two years before the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service, which one of the Bureau’s main sponsors. She thought she would be flooded with requests.

Four years later, requests are barely trickling in.

“There’s resistance, and I don’t know why,” she said with a frustrated tone. “It’s as if people want to keep the outdoor recreation arena a white sphere. That strategy is self destructive. Increasingly the government is turning against the public lands system, and now we need more of the public than ever to save them.”

In other words, lack of diversity could mean the demise of our public lands.

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.”

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