Friday, March 18, 2011

Diversity in our National Parks

My birthday is on St Patrick's Day, and yes, I do have the luck of the Irish even though I am not of Irish descent! The question of my cultural background is often my least favorite question to answer, only because it is long and complicated. To sum it up I am a New York City born, Montreal raised girl, born to a Colombian father and a half Yankee and half British mother. My last name is Diaz but my second language is French. I love Colombian empanadas and Bluegrass music. I wear hiking boots with pink socks and my extensive first aid kit sits on a shelf next to three make up cases filled with perfume, lotions and lipstick. In every single National Park I have worked at I am an anomaly. Most of my co-workers assume that I am fluent in Spanish and they often ignore the fact that I have repeatedly said that this is not the case. I am often the only person with brown skin for at least a 50 mile radius and I am pretty sure that I am 1 of maybe 5 Hispanic people who work for Yellowstone National Park.

But to be perfectly honest, in ten years of working for and visiting National Parks, I never really noticed that I was a minority. Growing up in a culturally robust community with a white mom, white brother, brown sister and brown father, allowed me to see beyond skin color or last names. I was simply ME: a member of my community and family. Thankfully, this is still how I dance through life- with the knowledge, acceptance and belief that I can just be ME.

But working for the National Park Service has always presented this former urbanite with personal challenges, which is one of the things I love most about my career path.  In 2003 my supervisor from Everglades NP had accepted a position at Katmai National Park, a world class bear viewing park. I was mortified and I very directly told him "Don't go! You are gonna be eaten by a bear". I was young and pretty convinced that I knew everything!

Me at Katmai with a Brown bear in the background!
 As the years passed I travelled around the country and learned a lot about natural resources and myself.  In 2006 I decided it was time to overcome my fears and I went to work at Katmai. I was still TERRIFIED of bears and while travelling to the park I broke out in a stress rash that covered my back and arms. I jokingly, yet seriously, would tell my husband that if the bears could choose between him or I, they would certainly choose to eat me because I was small and snack size and because my Colombian blood was obviously sweeter than his! Regardless of my fear, I stepped on that plane. Today it is among my highest points of pride. I chose to step outside my comfort zone and while doing so I broke the cookie cutter mold and had the time of my life! 

This week I was lucky enough to attend a special one week event called the NPS-SCA Academy. Thirty diverse students from all over the country flew out to Grand Teton National Park during their Spring Break to learn more about the NPS while also hoping to secure summer internships within the agency. I was selected to go to this event because at the moment I am the only interpretive park ranger who can make it to Grand Teton National Park without a logistical nightmare. While the rest of the park has been plowed the road south to the Grand Tetons is still snowed in, therefore it was easiest for me to  simply hop on my snowmobile and head south. 

While heading to this event I was a little skeptical. I wondered who these students were and how qualified they were. I was nervous that they would arrive in Jackson, WY and freak out due to the cultural shock of the rural west. Most of these students were coming from cities who's population is greater than the entire state of Wyoming! I tried not to fill my brain with these questions and rather perform my simple duties for the week: Share your story and experiences. Inspire them while also helping them to determine if interning with the my NPS was something they actually wanted.

While some people might have presented only the positive and exciting aspects of the NPS, I knew that I had to be genuine with these young adults. They needed to fully understand the challenges ahead of them in order for their summer to be a success. Together with the students, I attended a variety of lectures on the NPS while also recreating along side of them. Tubing in my park ranger uniform I genuinely laughed with them while gaining their trust. Within a few hours many of them were asking me questions and for advise. Getting to know these students was like a breath of fresh air; they were young, funny, charismatic and inspiring. But it was on night 4 that I truly got to understand them. While sitting around the fire, stories were shared. Stories of pain, struggle, failure, loss, and confusion sat on the table next to ambition, dreams and legacy. Above all, I learned that they had all been scared to step on that plane on Saturday morning, but they did it anyway. They stepped on that plane because they knew that in order the reach greatness, they first had to overcome fear. And as these students accept internships at various National Parks across America they will be taking another leap of faith while also breaking the cookie cutter mold and paving the way for those who follow them.  

Another big snow storm had been travelling through the area dropping 3 feet of snow in Grant Village. The road home was apparently a mess and I knew that if I wanted to make it home I was going to have to leave during daylight. Leaving the Academy a little early on Thursday, I reminded the students that my reason for missing the dinner celebration was because I had to snowmobile back into the park.  Many of them laughed and said "Snowmobiling! You're crazy Ranger Sabrina". And they are right, it is a little crazy but all I could do was laugh and smile because I knew that ten years from now it will be one of them riding a snowmobile back home into Yellowstone National Park.  

The ride home was quite honestly a little scary! At 25 MPH, I slowly went over bumps and hurdles while surfing through the deep snow. The stark white powder had blanketed the park making the way hard to see at times, but I wasn't alone. My dear husband had driven to the park entrance so that I would not have to do the journey alone. Together we travelled through the wintery white wonderland while the brown bark of the trees speckled the roadside providing us with a little color. Arriving at Grant we stopped on the road, took off our helmets and happily admired the bright, almost full moon as it was rising against the dark blue sky. It was 8pm on my 32nd birthday and the ranger, who's favorite color is pink, had arrived at home, somewhere far away from where she was born.    


  1. Thanks for the birthday wishes! It was a great day!

  2. Sabrina -- I so look forward to that day when our park service stops rewarding or excluding us on the basis of our last names or skin colors. It's great you have the opportunity to challenge archaic stereotypes in middle America. Keep up your good ranger work. Take Care.

  3. ELizabth, Thanks for your feedback. I think being a park ranger, in general, breaks the stereotype! :-) It such a different lifestyle to choose. I think it is important to show all of our youth these days, that these alternative lifestyles exist.