Diversity Inclusion in National Parks – Rocky Accepts the Challenge

This year marks the inaugural season of the Diversity Internship Cohort, a project initiated to connect interns among different departments and provide opportunities for both community and professional development. The program’s formation was responding to a need for support for interns and bolstering a commitment to diversity. This exciting new project is managed by Steven Ochoa in Rocky’s Continental Divide Research and Learning Center, and as the current Rocky Mountain Conservancy Educational Fellow, I’m excited to be a part of it.

Group of people on a mountainsideIn the past, the insular nature of the park’s divisions meant that interns in one department rarely encountered interns in other departments. Another challenge was the fact that interns who may have still been in college, or just graduated, could find themselves struggling to relate to their colleagues who often had been with the park service for much longer or were in different stages of life. There were also perceived barriers for interns of diverse backgrounds who may not have seen individuals like themselves in the park or have much experience with the outdoors.

It’s a fact that people of color are underrepresented in our society, both as visitors to national parks and as employees in national parks. There are many reasons for this, including the significant roadblocks of just getting into national parks. Having vacation time to visit natural spaces like national parks is a privilege. Having the financial resources to afford outdoor gear for activities like backpacking, climbing, biking, snowshoeing, or even just hiking, is a privilege. Having parents who can pass on knowledge about the outdoors is a privilege. Not everyone has these things and opportunities that are unspoken prerequisites for a visit to a national park.

Man discussing towards people on a hill

Additionally, some of the interns in the group have expressed that they haven’t felt welcome in national parks due to the history of exclusion. The NPS has an ugly history of displacing Indigenous peoples from their lands, and segregation policies in the Jim Crow era effectively barred people of color from national parks. Today, this cohort plans to provide a platform for interns to discuss and find community in the face of such historic barriers. Ultimately, the goal is to create pathways, not only for interns to feel comfortable while they’re here, but also for them to feel comfortable applying for employment in national parks and becoming park service employees in the future.

The cohort is approaching this goal by offering career panels, inviting interns to a federal resumé workshop, conducting anti-oppression training, and facilitating conversations about diversity in the park service. We even had the opportunity to meet with the Director of the Park Service, Charles Sams III, to discuss the cohort and the improvements that the park service is making to become more inclusive and encourage diversity.

But the professional development is only one aspect of the cohort. Community is such an important factor in feeling supported and comfortable in the park service. Ochoa has planned hikes up to Emerald Lake, climbing excursions, a cookout, and regular check-ins to provide opportunities for building stronger connection with others in the group. Through these activities, I have been able to meet incredible people, network with other park employees, and become an ally in creating a more inclusive and diverse community at Rocky. It has been an enriching part of my experience here so far, and I am really excited to see what is in store for the next few months.

Zoe Woods
Sessel Summer Education Fellow


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