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UK Professor Envisions More Inclusive National Parks

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AP Photo/Dino Vournas, File
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In this 2005 file photo, visitors view Half Dome from Glacier Point at Yosemite National Park, Calif.

Thursday marked the 100th anniversary of the United States National Park system, and one University of Kentucky professor is making it her mission to broaden the system’s appeal to underserved communities in the next century.

National parks have been thoroughly mapped, but when it comes to issues of access, community building, and diversity, Carolyn Finney sees plenty of explored terrain.

"These spaces actually tell us a little about who we are, who we were, and who we might be," she tells WUKY.

The author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors is part of the Next 100 Coalition, a Washington D.C.-based group looking to chart a new course for the parks system – one that attracts more African-Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans, and other groups who are statistically less likely to visit or be employed by the country’s 58 national parks.

Working in concert with the Obama administration, the coalition formulated policy prescriptions aimed, not just at driving more foot traffic, but also encouraging the creation of a truly “shared" space where groups from different backgrounds feel themselves  and their stories reflected in the environment.

"When you go to any of these parks, you know, it's easy because there will be this sort of universalized, one big story to tell, but it won't necessarily get at... there's a whole lot of other things that went on here as well," she says.

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Carolyn Finney on the nexus between environment and race.

A 2008-2009 survey conducted by the University of Wyoming and the parks service found that white visitors are over-represented at parks while African-Americans are under-represented. While she says the reasons for the disparity are complex and date back to Jim Crow-era segregation laws, she envisions a future where parks dig a little deeper and unearth their forgotten or ignored histories.

"That does take a skill set I believe the park rangers have and I think that would go a long way for all Americans, and everyone visiting who's not American as well, to get a better understanding of who we are in relationship to each other," Finney says.

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Carolyn Finney on reimagining parks as spaces of reconciliation.

Congressman Andy Barr recently announced a push to include Kentucky’s Camp Nelson – one of the largest recruitment centers for black Union soldiers during the Civil War – to the national parks registry.

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.