Barriers to Minority Participation in Interpretive Public Programs at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore
English, Kelli Y.
University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, College of Natural Resources
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From a political and fiscal standpoint, the future survival of the National Park Service is inextricably linked to its ability to connect all park visitors to the meanings of park resources. Studies have consistently shown that members of traditional minority groups generally do not visit or participate in educational or recreational activities at national parks. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, a unit of the National Park Service, is concerned about the lack of diverse audience participation in their interpretive public programs - particularly regarding Gary, Indiana, a large neighboring community that is mostly African-American. The purpose of this project was to investigate the reasons that residents of Gary do not participate in public programs at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and to develop recommendations for incorporating the needs and interests of minority audiences into National Lakeshore interpretive programming. Focus group discussions with National Lakeshore public program participants revealed that current interpretive program attendees enjoy and connect with public programs in three major ways: they seek a firsthand experience with park resources, want to learn more about the National Lakeshore, and point to the interpretive skills of the park ranger as a major factor in impacting their enjoyment of the experience. In addition, participants identified the intangible ideas of preservation, peacefulness, a sense of wonder, and uniqueness as significant meanings the park holds for them. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore will use this information as a model in attempting to create new interpretive connections with non-park visitors. In-depth interviews and focus group discussions conducted with community leaders and residents revealed four major visitation barriers and perceptions held by the Gary community about the National Lakeshore. Those barriers are: a lack of information about interpretive public programs, a lingering perception of racial discrimination at the park, a lack of appreciation for nature and/or the outdoors, and a lack of interest in National Lakeshore program offerings. Recommendations for addressing these barriers include increasing program promotion efforts and aligning them more closely with Gary information and media sources; creating an expanded outreach initiative to the Gary community, involving all interpretive staff and focusing on 'inviting' the community to the park to make them feel welcome; centering public programs around the concept of building an awareness and appreciation for nature; and providing exciting, provoking, hands-on interpretive experiences - using topics that connect, or 'bridge' the interests and experiences of Gary residents and park resources. One specific pilot program topic (the Underground Railroad) is recommended, and suggestions for other potential 'bridging' topics are included. The results from this research will be used by Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as a guide in developing new interpretive programs and policies addressing the needs and interests of a diversity of audiences. This project will help Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to adequately serve visitors from a variety of diverse communities through interpretive programming, and has the potential to serve as a model for National Park Service units and communities nationwide.