On March 28, the world lost a true champion and scholar of equitable park access, Dr. Nina Roberts. “Dr. Nina,” as many called her, contributed greatly to our collective understanding of barriers to enjoying the outdoors experienced by people of color, low-income people, and other marginalized groups.
I first met Dr. Nina in 2017, in my first days as Executive Director of California State Parks Foundation. I had reached out to San Francisco State’s Department of Recreation, Parks, and Tourism to inquire about hiring an intern at California State Parks Foundation. I found myself on the phone with a woman who, though she punctuated every few sentences with a joke, was dead serious about making impact with her work. With a barrage of rapid-fire questions, she made sure I wasn’t going to waste her time. That was Dr. Nina.
Over the next five years I got to know her better and had the honor of being invited to address students in her class “Recreation Opportunities at National Parks and Protected Areas” class at San Francisco State. Dr. Nina also served as the moderator for a panel discussion of access issues in urban parks California State Parks Foundation hosted in collaboration with SPUR in early 2020. Panelists included Bob Doyle, then the General Manager of East Bay Regional Park District, Sister Stephanie Hughes, a San Francisco-based advocate for park access, Kim Moore Bailey, the CEO of Justice Outside, and Phil Ginsburg, General Manager of the San Francisco Recreation and Park Department and now Vice Chair of the State Parks and Recreation Commission.
Dr. Nina’s field was studying the intersection of diversity, equity, and inclusion with the stewardship and management of parks and the outdoors. She published many journal articles and lectured all over the country on the topic of racism in the outdoors, on barriers that discourage marginalized communities from enjoying outdoor spaces, and was an outspoken advocate for expanding access to national and state parks as the nation’s demographics become more diverse.
In the preface to a column titled “Coloring Outside the Lines,” she wrote:
Coloring Outside the Lines leads me to further action about engaging communities of color outdoors and into the natural world—for those who have not had such experiences, that is. I didn’t say “start engaging” because people of color have been immersed in the outdoors/nature for centuries. From living outdoors, working in nature and fearing the woods, to playing, exploring, and loving nature (and more), people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds have been doing it. We are out there; always have been. For me, this also leads back to a discussion of social permission as well as addressing structural barriers. This column title speaks to innovation coupled with communities of color and arbitrary “lines.” We must expand the conversation.
Dr. Nina was also an avid camper, hiker, kayaker, and biker, and drummer in her spare time. When I heard of Dr. Nina’s death, I went to her private Instagram profile for a dose of the joyfulness with which she approached her work and her life, and the joy she inspired in the people she loved and the people she worked with. So many will miss her. And many more will benefit from her work to ensure that park systems remain relevant and responsive to the needs of all communities.
To honor her legacy, her family is asking we all go to a park:
Today, I ask everyone to please take a moment to visit a park, enjoy the outdoors, feel the sunshine, blow some bubbles....and think of Nina.”