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Moving Past the Concrete Comfort Zone

Growing up, I was never much of a "Great Outdoors" person. Like any kid in Detroit, I loved going to the local parks, of course, but I never did sleepaway camps or Boy Scout outings as child. I felt most comfortable in the city, and after years of hearing adults half-joke about black folks not having "no business out there in the woods," I figured I probably wasn't missing much anyways.

I found myself thinking about this anew, though, after reading a nice story in the Michigan Chronicle about Shelton Johnson, an ex-Detroiter who is now a ranger at Yosemite National Park and appears in the new Ken Burns documentary "Our National Parks: America's Best Idea."

As a father of two small children, I was especially drawn to this point:

“One thing we forget is that whenever we as parents take our kids to anything, any kind of experience, we are teaching them that this is how we recreate as a family,” Johnson said. “And then when those kids grow up they take their kids because they've been taught that this is what we do as a family. This is how we recreate. So if you've never had a national park visit as a child, you are probably less likely to be a national park goer yourself.”

Like most parents, I've spent much of my time as a dad trying to provide my children with the best educations and nicest neighborhoods possible. And I've also tried to make sure that they travel enough to know that the world is bigger than the boundaries of our subdivision or the city limits. But when it comes to moving them past the concrete comfort zones I'm so accustomed to, Johnson makes me realize that I've got to do better:

“(The parks are) more than just pretty,” he said. “They are more than just beautiful. They are places that can really change the way you look at the world and you look at yourselves.”

He said African Americans need to experience these environments primarily because they've had so much difficulty and sadness in their history on this continent.
“We sometimes have not experienced the best America has to offer and national parks are among the best places in the world,” he said. “So having a familiarity with them and connection with them is a very reaffirming experience.”

So true. And on many levels, so universal, too. Yes, there are many parents — black, brown, white and otherwise — who want their children to have as broad an understanding as possible of the world around them. But sometimes it takes people like Johnson to remind us that our children also need a broader understanding of their place in that world.

(And of course it should also be noted that Michigan boasts some great state parks, too...)

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  • 1

    Shelton Johnson (UM '81, B.A. in English lit) is an inspiring ambassador for the National Park Service and his hometown.

    His 5-paragraph bio at PBS' site [] includes a 1960s snapshot in shorts and sneakers, alongside his parents.

    During the Ken Burns series, he talks about meeting more Europeans than African Americans at Yosemite.

    And at the link above, the ranger is quoted as saying;

    "I can't not think of the other kids, just like me – in Detroit, Oakland, Watts, Anacostia – today. How do I get them here . . . to let them know that we, too, have a place here?"

    Good way to spread that message, Darrell

  • 2

    I wish Ken Burns would come home and do a series on Detroit or Michigan. :(

    I haven't seen his National Parks series yet. Does he cover Michigan's parks or note that Mackinac Island was the second national park after Yellowstone? It was transferred to the state about 20 years later. Or that witnessing the devastation of the forest clear cutting in Michigan to supply the Great Plains with lumber was one of the things that moved Teddy Roosevelt to initiate the national parks and forest systems?

  • 3

    Sadly, Ken Burns series ncludes only National Parks... while omiting National Monuments, National Historic Sites, National Seashores, and National Lakeshores.

    The difference between these is little more than nuance; all are managed by and area part of the National Park Service, and are selected for their scenic or historic (natural or human) values.

    Thus, neither Sleeping Bear Dunes or Pictured Rocks National Lakeshores - both entirely within Michigan -are not a part of Ken's documentary.

  • 4

    "The Concrete Comfort Zone" is a great way to say lack of the discovery gene. I would think that alot of parents don't discover the world with their children. May be due to not enough money. Discovery of our National Parks, with our children is just one aspect of society that is sorley in decline with all of us.

    The discovery of artfull meaning is another also. We as a society are forgetting how to do theses very basic things such as discover a wonder of our planet. Wether it is a National Park, or a Museum.

    Darrell you are right though, last time I was at a national park I did not see one black family at the park, not to say that there were not any because I did not search the park, but I also did not see any one of any race besides white. Funny now that you have made me think about it I will be wondering why don't people of all colors enjoy the great out doors more often.

  • 5

    Several years ago, I had the pleasure of spending an autumn afternoon with Shelton Johnson in Yosemite Valley. As a native Detroiter, transplanted to California, I was mightily impressed by both. I videotaped Shelton's presentation about the history of the Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite. An amazing presentation about nature, history and race. I posted some of it on my blog.

    You can see it at

  • 6

    There's something to be said about that "comfort zone" stuff. My folks took us camping and on trips through mountains and to other cities and towns, but mostly our vacations were in rural or wilderness settings. I grew to love that and was never very comfortable even in suburban suburbia where I grew up -- don't like concrete, traffic, grit and garbage all along the sides of the roads, noise and exhaust all hours of the day and night, and people crammed in everywhere (I guess Detroit doesn't have that last any more) -- it hasn't been until I grew up and took a job that takes me to conferences in major cities a couple times a year that I even began to have the slightest slacking of discomfort in urban settings, and I still don't care for suburbia. Of course, I've learned that since the advent of industrial farming, the countryside is no less polluted than the cities, but at least there is space and room. I could never go back to living in an urban/suburban setting myself after living where the population density is 48 individuals per square mile and there are pretty landscapes outside the windows. I know some folks love the city -- and I am glad for them, and they will be much more adaptable come-what-may than I am.

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