The Park and Recreation Profession: Socially or Financially Alluring for Diversity?

February 1, 2015, Department, by Ken Koonce

Do enduring, but perhaps incorrect, perceptions of the park and recreation industry contribute to a lack of diversity across the field?Like, but unlike, the hit NBC television show “Parks and Recreation,” the real world of parks and recreation is a white-male dominated profession. Although there is some diversity, African-Americans, Latinos, females and other demographics are in the minority. And unlike the cast of “Parks and Recreation,” whose salaries stretch well into the high six-figure income bracket, in the real world of parks and rec, six-figure incomes are not common among frontline, in-the-trenches employees.

Having just retired from the park and recreation profession after a 31-year career, I’ve seen from whence I came to where the next generation seems to be heading. As a recreation administration major at North Carolina Central University, I recall statements from professors like, “If you expect the park and recreation profession to be financially rewarding, you may want to get a ‘drop/add’ form today,” and, “In parks and recreation, you will work when your patrons want to play!” With such a backdrop, I knew I wasn’t going to get rich. But, aided by my character, I knew I would be socially enriched and hopefully impactful to those my agency would serve.

My freshman year, I planned to be a high school English teacher; my sophomore year, a business major (I was going to own my own company and make a million dollars). The summer heading into my junior year, I took a personality-trait survey, which revealed that I was a people person. That, along with obtaining a job at the Holloway Recreation Center in Kinston, North Carolina, cemented my path in a park and recreation career. 

Parks and recreation wasn’t one of the “glam” majors that were looked upon with high regard and respect. It wasn’t one of the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) majors that you knew could garner a six-figure income. Outside of our profession, the perception was that anyone could work at a recreation center — you didn’t need a college degree for that! I believe attitudes like this may account for why top high school graduates choose to go into professions perceived as more lucrative and prestigious, such as medicine or law. 

Having conversed with coworkers in their 20s, 30s and 40s, I found the thoughts of those in their 30s and older were very similar to mine — that the love of the people we serve outweighs the need for a big salary, and that we have deep respect for our profession, even if others don’t. But, as one millennial put it, “My generation isn’t willing to put the time in to work their way up the ladder to get into positions that pay six figures. My generation wants fast money and great-paying jobs right out of college. We’re not looking to be long-term employees — we’re chasing the money.” 

In examining the whys and wherefores of the lack of diversity in the park and recreation profession, I look to my experiences as Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation’s representative to our North Carolina Recreation and Park Association’s (NCRPA) athlete divisions for youth and adult sports programming, the Statewide Athlete Committee (SWAC) and the Athlete Director’s Workshop (ADW). I felt firsthand what it was like to be one of a handful of black men attending those conferences. There were perhaps fewer or no black women and few other races were represented. Even at the 2014 NRPA Congress — held in Charlotte, the city where I built my career — white males were the majority. 

Diversity is coming to our profession, but why so slowly? I posed that question to my coworkers, and our summation points included: Low salaries; not a “marquee” career; shrinking budgets mean park and recreation departments are not hiring; lack of advancement or slow growth in the field; people hire employees like them, rather than striving for increased diversity; nepotism; and stigmas associated with being gay, female, etc.

We agree that society is changing and becoming more diverse. So, too, are parks and recreation’s patrons. The world walks through our doors and when they enter, an agency’s staff should be a reflection of that world. Parks and recreation’s hiring processes should be on the cutting edge. There’s no reason our industry should compromise when it comes to attracting the most talented, and socially diverse, candidates possible.

Ken Koonce is the former Recreation Coordinator/Supervisor for Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation Department in North Carolina.