April 13, 2021

An Inclusive Environment

Parker McMullen Bushman Explains Why Zoos and Other Outdoor Spaces Should be Fighting for Inclusivity


At Denver Zoo, we pride ourselves on welcoming all stripes—but there’s always more work to be done. We caught up with Parker McMullen Bushman, founder of Ecoinclusive and Kween Werk, to talk about equity, inclusion and accessibility in the conservation and outdoor recreation spaces. Read on to learn why she feels Zoos can be a force for inclusivity in the outdoors, and why that’s so important for inspiring future generations to help save wildlife.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

You’re currently working on a digital version of the historic “Green Book,” this time focusing on inclusive outdoor spaces. Why is it so important to have inclusive outdoor spaces?

The original Green Book was where people would send in reviews about certain spaces, whether or not they were safe and welcoming for Black people. This newer version is going to be for every everyone, right? We've nicknamed it “Woke Yelp.” We want to give people the opportunity to go and talk about their experiences and spaces and say whether or not they felt a welcomed, safe, and celebrated—not just tolerated. I truly believe that outdoor spaces can be as inclusive as we make businesses, and that how they treat marginalized people should be readily available information.

Outdoor spaces are often not as inclusive as we’d like. Can you tell us about some of the racialized experiences marginalized people face in nature?

People say that nature isn’t racist, and if you feel perfectly safe in nature, you may not have the context to understand. Nature itself isn’t racist, but there are people that bring their racial biases with them when they’re in these outdoor spaces. There’s an assumption about what people who hike look like, and who “belongs” in those outdoor spaces. And with those assumptions and biases, we might react to people who we aren't expecting in those spaces differently. I’m often asked when I’m hiking if this is my first hike, if I know what I’m doing, because they just don’t see a lot of people like me in these outdoor spaces. I have a friend that leads tours for kids of color into the outdoors. They've been told frequently when going into those spaces, “Oh, I come here to get away from people like that.”

And then there’s generational trauma surrounding outdoor spaces. My grandmother used to tell me, "Don't go into the woods by yourself.” She was remembering a history of when people were taken into the woods to be lynched.

Why is it so important for young people, especially young BIPOC kids, to have safe access to the outdoors, and to be exposed to animals and nature?

I don't know what it is about humans, but it's easier for us to build empathy, and connection with animals. We want to personify them all the time. And I think that that connection, and that love and amazement that we see, when we see animals, is a building block in wanting to protect the lands that these animals use that are their homes. If you can learn about it in a book, see it in person, build that connection, it widens understanding.

And in particular, how do you think zoos are a driving force for connecting communities to wildlife?

If you are someone who is maybe from a lower socio-economic tier, the Zoo might be your closest experience to wild animals and wild places. Some families don’t have the resources to just drive out into the mountains to see sheep or elk. The Zoo provides that entry point for kids to be able to see and begin to make those connections, and to understand the kind of wild and beautiful and just unique animals that populate. And once they make those connections, and realize that habitats are in trouble, then it just widens that perspective and understanding about why it's so important to protect these wild spaces.

When talking about the goal of making these spaces more inclusive, how can organizations who manage outdoor spaces help?

Organizations have to be willing to look at themselves and say, “What policies, archaic holdovers, do we have that do not promote inclusivity?” And then organizations need to think about how do we put our stake in the ground and say that policies and procedures around justice, equity, diversity, inclusion and accessibility are important to us as an organization, and important enough that we're taking a stand on it. Make sure that we don’t allow people to come into our spaces, be sexist, be racist, be oppressive to other groups based on their identity. Organizations need to let folks know that kind of behavior won’t be tolerated.

How can people make a difference to make outdoor spaces more inclusive?

Read, learn and listen. Often you won’t know that there's an issue until someone tells you. I know so many folks who say something along the lines of, "I never knew the outdoors is my safe space. I never knew that other people didn't feel the same.” I think it's important for us to understand that other people have different experiences in the spaces that maybe then maybe we can start to educate ourselves and care about other people's experiences. We can all do our best to make sure that when we are using these spaces, that we try to be as welcoming and as open to people who are different from us, and with an understanding that everyone deserves access and to feel safe.


Thank you to Parker McMullen Bushman for sitting down with us. Click the links to learn more: Ecoinclusive, KWEEN Werk, Inclusive Journeys.


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