While Audrey Peterman was using the communal bathroom at a campground in Washington's Olympic National Park, another black woman walked in. Peterman, five weeks into a two-month, round-the-nation camping trip with her husband, didn't think much of the encounter at the time, but why would she? Two women using the same bathroom at a campground. Big deal. They nodded hello to one another and went about their early-morning ablutions in silence.
As her tour continued, though, Peterman came to realize how extraordinary that chance meeting had been. Except for a busload of black Brooklynites unloading at the base of Cadillac Mountain in Maine, that anonymous woman was the only black traveler either she or her husband encountered during their entire trip in the fall of 1995, which encompassed 12,000 miles, 40 states, and ten national parks.
The glaring absence of other black tourists infused the couple with a sense of mission: to get more African Americans involved in the outdoors and environmental issues. "We had been planning to go to Belize," says Frank Peterman, who grew up in Dania and now lives with Jamaican-born Audrey in Broward. "But when we saw only one other black person in the national parks, we said, 'There's no way we can go to Belize! We got a job to do here!'"
The couple's interest in conservation wasn't exactly new. Both say they have long-held passions for the environment. Several years ago Audrey, who was then working as a freelance journalist, began writing environmental-education articles for community newspapers in both Palm Beach and Broward counties. Frank, a business consultant and former lawyer, counts wildlife photography as his main hobby.
But the Petermans were bothered by the fact that at environmental meetings and in the outdoors, they were the only blacks present. In 1994 they formed a consulting business and offered their services to environmental groups that hoped to increase their profile in the black community. During their cross-country expedition, the Petermans hatched an auxiliary strategy: a monthly newsletter.
The Petermans gathered a bare-bones staff from among their friends, shelled out $3500, and printed 2000 copies of their inaugural issue in November 1995. Pickup & GO!, which bills itself as "a travel newsletter inviting African Americans to the great outdoors," is part travelogue, part how-to budget-travel manual. Articles have included descriptions of the Petermans' journeys through Maine's Acadia National Park, Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park, and Olympic National Park in Washington; tips on selecting the best camping equipment and taking good travel photographs; and musings on the black experience in American history. While unfocused in its ambitiousness -- perhaps to a fault -- the publication is lively and energetic and would send even the most sedentary shut-in on a flight of pastoral fancy.
But what of the fact that many in their targeted audience may not be flush with disposable income? Traveling need not be expensive, the Petermans respond. "Our entire trip cost us $3000," Audrey declares. "And that was a life-altering experience."
The Petermans are currently publishing their ninth issue -- they're a little behind the monthly cycle -- and boast a nationwide circulation of 2000, although only about 200 of those are paid subscriptions.
Efforts like the Petermans' may hold one of the keys to the future success of the conservation movement. For years environmentalists have lamented the absence of minorities within their ranks, but the truth is that environmental groups have done little more than talk about the need to diversify the ethnic and racial representation on their staffs and in their memberships. "I keep seeing the same [minority] faces," grumbles Dr. Quinton Hedgepeth, a Miami dentist who has been the rare black representative on several local and state environmental advisory boards (he is currently chairman of the Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission.) "I don't think the environmental groups have actually put forth much effort in their recruiting."
Frank Peterman further elaborates on the problem: "The black community is not feeling included in certain things, and black people have been hesitant to venture into areas where we don't see people like ourselves." That hesitancy is partially founded in fear. Audrey continues: "Frank tells me that driving through Alabama in the Fifties and Sixties, you had to have a pistol on the dashboard so it was clear you weren't going to go down without a fight."
"Our families were in absolute apoplexy," Frank interjects -- the couple works a conversation with the fluidity and balance of a juggling team. "We stopped off in Chicago, where I have gobs of relatives, and we had a great time, but when we left it felt like we were going off to our funeral."
But their experience on the road was anything but hostile. "The color issue never came up, except that people were so happy to see black people out there they made a beeline for us," Audrey explains.
"We were in Zion National Park in Utah," continues Frank, "way on a back road --"
"And we come around a bend and there's this pretty blond girl hitchhiking and we stopped," Audrey recalls. "She didn't bat an eye: She hopped in the truck --"
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Frank: "And started talking to us like we'd known each other for life!"
"That would never have happened on TV," Audrey observes.
Two organizations have retained the Petermans' consulting firm to spread their conservation gospel in the black community: the National Parks Conservation Association and the National Audubon Society's Everglades Restoration Campaign. "It's a real challenge to go into these communities and say that we have to spend three to five billion dollars to restore the Everglades," says Tom Sadler, spokesman for the Everglades Restoration Campaign. "People will say, 'Why should we be concerned with the Everglades when we have all these other issues like schools and transportation?' Audubon needs to carry the message that the quality of life in South Florida is dependent on a clean and healthy Everglades and environment." Sadler believes it's too early to measure the effects of the Petermans' efforts to date. "It's very much a developing relationship," he says. "Frank is beginning to set up meetings with political leaders, identifying media outlets. Work hasn't been done in this area before, so a lot of groundwork needs to be laid."
While the consultancy and the newsletter are separate operations, the Petermans' enthusiasm for the natural world motivates them in both pursuits. And at their core, they know that to experience the outdoors first-hand is to understand its value.
"When you travel you feel it's your country," Frank says. "You see the beauty of it; you feel the passion for it."
"And," Audrey adds, "you know what there is to save.