Tackling the Issue of Inclusivity and Diversity in the Outdoor Community

“We can continue to pretend that parks are for all or we can acknowledge and change the reality that to be Black or Brown outdoors might not be safe and could cost you your life. We must demand of ourselves to do something different.” Lise Aangeenbrug, Executive Director of Outdoor Industry Association

“Nature is for everyone.” It’s a common refrain amongst the tree-hugging, granola-crunching dirtbag community that feels most at home in the great outdoors. But while nature itself certainly doesn’t discriminate, the organizations that preserve, maintain, and market outdoor adventure are hardly exempt from the effects of racial inequity that pervade American culture.

The aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minnesota police officers in May has served as a universal calling-to-account, and there’s no special exemption for the outdoor adventure community. For non-BIPOC outdoor lovers, it’s vital to acknowledge that this systemic inequity runs rampant in our nature-loving subculture, even if we can’t see it. In fact, that’s exactly the point. The flagrant examples of racially-motivated aggression are only possible because of the myriad microaggressions leveled against Black and Brown people sharing national and public parks, hiking trails, waterways, and other outdoor spaces.

Outdoor Afro

So what does an inclusive outdoor community look like? It’s a tricky question to answer, as it’s likely to vary according to individual taste and context. One big part of it is learning to be as aware of the potential for racial injustice as BIPOC are forced to be.

To get better insight, I spoke with Yanira Castro, a spokesperson for Outdoor Afro. This national not-for-profit was founded by Rue Mapp in 2009 to create and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature. Fittingly, our conversation focused not on advice for would-be allies (that’s the allies’ job to figure out, not the Black community’s job to educate), but on the importance of nature for the Black community as a place of refuge, connection and healing.

“If you’re a Black professional and working in a corporate environment, much of the time you can’t be your authentic, whole self. You have to do a little code-switching in how you act, how you dress, etc. People have held back, been told they couldn’t, they shouldn’t, that they’re not welcome. But in nature, you can be freely who you are, 100 percent. That’s really special.”

Contrary to stereotype mythology, the Black community has deep-rooted connections with the landscape of this country. However, the social and marketplace marginalization of this community has, for many years, persuaded individuals that they are alone in their love of the outdoors. Yanira says that when Rue Mapp started the organization, it was with the simple goal of connecting with a few other Black outdoor lovers. The flood of responses she received proved that the problem wasn’t with Black people not liking nature — it was with the visual representation employed by outdoor brands and organizations.

Outdoor Afro

Not seeing themselves reflected in the marketing for outdoor brands conveys a subtle but clear message to the Black community that this activity or lifestyle isn’t for them. The same message is absorbed by white people who do harbor racial bias or bigotry, reinforcing their hateful viewpoint. The result is an uncertain, potentially dangerous context for would-be BIPOC adventurers. Where white people venture into nature with a healthy fear of bears or avalanches, Black and Brown people also contend with fear of their fellow outdoor lovers. For them, a weekend of fly fishing or even just strolling through a public park on a birdwatching quest, could mean anything from alienating looks and whispers to full-blown assault.

To be blunt, that’s really shitty. Time in nature is a human right, and impinging on someone else’s freedom to enjoy nature ought to outrage every like-minded outdoor lover. Especially since, according to Yanira, experiences in nature have a profound ability to heal and restore the injustices Black people experience on a daily basis.

“We have these moments when people are feeling free, when they’re feeling safe, when they decide they have more confidence and take that back to their professional lives, it allows them to go to their boss and ask for that promotion, or start their own business. Nature is a place that pushes you to be your better self, and invites you to come back if you didn’t make it the first time. I love that thought for our community — literally and figuratively lifting people up to be their best selves and make them feel like they belong.”

Outdoor Afro

Yanira has heard too many stories like this to tell them all: A Boston school teacher who found the courage to get herself promoted to principal, a father of six who realized his dream of taking his family camping, a group event in 2016 where people gathered to mourn the many police murders of that year. “People screamed, read poetry, recited the names of people who had been killed. We were doing what Black people had done for centuries. ‘Go lay your burdens down by the riverside’ means dealing with your grief in the outdoors. We felt the weight being lifted off.”

One of the most moving examples involved Yanira herself. While guiding a group hike up Crowder’s Mountain in North Carolina, she saw one woman struggling to keep up. Her backpack was overloaded, her asthma was acting up, and she revealed to Yanira that her boyfriend had discouraged her from coming on the hike, telling her she wouldn’t be able to make it. When they got to a trail section that involved scrambling over boulders, the woman flinched. “She said ‘There’s no way I can do that.’ I said no, you can do it — you go first and I’ll push you up as needed.” When the boulder section gave way to the crest of the mountain, Yanira says the woman unexpectedly lifted up her arms and screamed, as though the boyfriend could hear her, “I knew I could do it! You told me I couldn’t do it without you — I don’t need you!” Yanira tears up recounting the story, still moved by nature’s ability to break someone down and instantly rebuild them stronger than ever.

As Outdoor Afro has grown, they have added a new core component to their mission: Helping outdoor companies see inequity and shift the work that they do. “They come to us for consulting, for models, for imagery. We know the shift is there and we’re proud to have been a catalyst.” These companies, with their vast social reach, their millions of funding dollars, and the influence they wield over policy, play a vital role in shaping the character of the outdoor community as a whole. Yanira says the team at Outdoor Afro holds these companies rigorously to account, not only for the diversity within their marketing imagery, but also in their practices and partnerships. “We look at who are their partners, and their foundation arm,” Yanira urges. “Who are they in bed with? Who are they giving money to? Who are they collaborating with? That gives a good sense of where they are.” Even the brands that have checked the “diverse representation” box don’t get a pass. “How are they dealing with haters? Are they letting the comments just slide, or going back and saying ‘That’s not something that we condone on our pages.’ Some brands will say ‘We don’t deal with comments’ and I’ll say ‘Well, maybe you should.’”

It’s somewhat ironic that all that work is intended toward a goal of making their work obsolete. But according to Yanira, the ultimate mission for Outdoor Afro is for this whole “equity in outdoor spaces” thing not to be a topic anymore.

Outdoor Afro

“The goal,” says Yanira, “is for this to not be something people have to make an effort to think about. A bunch of black folks going outside is not special, not extraordinary, not scary for folks. That would be something that would make me really happy.”

The question remains, what can non-BIPOC outdoor lovers do to support, encourage, and help protect the Black and Brown adventurers in their community? Alas, there’s no playbook for this, just as there isn’t one for Black people in how to handle racist aggression. It’s a matter of, as the phrase goes, “doing the work.”

The work starts with awareness — educating oneself on the inherent danger of being in nature while Black. Examples of this are not hard to find. A Google search will yield personal blog accounts, interviews, even scholarly papers on the fraught lived experiences of BIPOC in outdoor settings. Learning not just statistics, but stories, will start the self-education process.

Having those stories in mind will increase your ability to sense potential threats to others’ safety and dignity when you’re in the wilderness. These clues are often hiding in plain sight, such as a Confederate flag sticker on a car parked at the trailhead. At this point in history, and within this climate, brandishing this type of symbol can’t be shrugged off as a mere expression of heritage — it’s an unequivocal signal of intent to do harm. Those who are protected from this harm by their skin color have a moral responsibility to help protect those who aren’t. So keep your radar keen for fellow outdoor adventurers whose race might make them a target, and prepare yourself to intervene, verbally if nothing else.

And sure, this awareness isn’t exactly a fun addition to your day in the wilderness. But ignoring the welfare of fellow outdoor adventurers because it doesn’t suit your plans is textbook white privilege. If you saw another hiker or camper about to make a serious tactical mistake, or for that matter, if you saw a white adventurer being accosted or threatened, you wouldn’t just stand by. So why would you do that if you witnessed a race-based aggression in the outdoors?

The easy answer is that it’s uncomfortable. Extra uncomfortable, in fact. But again, the Black community has been dealing with that discomfort throughout their history in the United States. Being an ally requires sharing the burden of that discomfort.

Another key point for allyship lies in how you engage with outdoor brands and organizations. From National Park administrators to clothing and gear brands, and everything in between, there is an enormous network of industry around our love of nature. And let’s be real: One of the fun parts of being an outdoor adventurer is curating and sharing your favorite destinations, gear, and experiences with the wider outdoor community.

We all know that votes with your dollar count as much as votes in an election. And we might as well add votes cast via social media. So reserve your dollars, as well as your follows/likes/shares, for organizations and brands that take tangible action toward racial equity. It’s a lot easier than it might sound. Take a look at your latest outdoor outfitter catalog — how many people of color do you see in the images? Do the same review of their Instagram feed or blog. Are they featuring stories from BIPOC athletes? Do they include equal representation of BIPOC brand ambassadors? If not, it’s time to call them to account. This can start with a pointed comment on their feed, but it can (and should) go a lot further. Tag a few BIPOC outdoor accounts in your comment, so they cannot plead ignorance. Let them know you’ll be transferring your brand loyalty elsewhere until they correct the problem. And then take action — shop for your next jacket or pair of boots with a company that is rigorous and intentional about diversity in their brand representation.

Outdoor Afro

As for National Parks and other public spaces, the audit might require a little more effort, but it can also be fun. As you’re researching trails or campgrounds for your next outing, dig a little into the history of your destination. Depending on where you’re headed, you might find that there is a significant history of Black and indigenous people on that land. Given that this is the United States, some of that history might be pretty rough. But as history, it deserves acknowledgment in public, tax-funded spaces. Once you know that background, take a look around during your visit — is that history being acknowledged? Do the park rangers mention it during their tours? Is there an exhibit in the visitors’ center? Are there plaques or signs posted around park grounds? If not, it’s your responsibility as an ally to speak up. Raise your hand during a tour and ask about the history you’ve learned. (Do this even if no BIPOC are present — the point isn’t to be performative, but to effect change.) When you get home, write a strong email or make a phone call to park administrators, and blow up their social media with pressure to include this history as part of the park’s infrastructure.

Again, this matters to the BIPOC outdoor community. After centuries of their history being all but erased from the broader American cultural narrative, seeing it commemorated in a public space lets them know that they are seen, valued, counted — that this space is for them.

Finally, the conversation around racial equity in the outdoors isn’t limited to defusing threats. It’s also about recognizing the value that the BIPOC community brings to the outdoor community as a whole. The people of color you see out in nature are not an anomaly. Their lived experience gives them a perspective on nature that the whole scene will benefit from. The power of time in nature to heal, empower, and inspire is magnified by the perspective of those who have endured individual and generational trauma, systemic injustice, and the daily grievances that come with being a non-white/white-passing person in the United States.

As I listened to Yanira’s story about the woman on Crowder’s Mountain, I related to that exhilaration of feeling my strength, confidence, and sense of purpose renewed after a close encounter with the monolithic power of nature. But on the heels of that relatability, I had to recognize that the problems and worries I bring to nature are nothing compared to the realities faced by BIPOC. I come to nature burdened by native anxiety and insecurity, relationship struggles, maybe a bill or two that I don’t know how to pay. The woman in Yanira’s story went burdened by generational trauma, racially-fueled violence, and an entire political system designed to keep her poor and powerless. Who makes a better spokesperson for the power of the outdoors? Who more deserves to be a brand ambassador? Whose story would you rather listen to?

That leads me to the final action step we can take as white allies in the outdoor scene: Support the work being done by Black and Brown outdoor adventurers. Find and follow them on social media, so that their numbers are unignorable by the big brands. If they represent a big brand already, use their discount code when you buy gear. Share their imagery and stories with others. (And for the love of God, don’t make the mistake of calling attention to yourself when you do it.) Some argue that this is tokenism — that’s just white-centric smoke and mirrors. Is it tokenism when you tell everyone you know about a great indie band, an underground fashion label, or an amazing restaurant hidden in a suburban strip mall?

It’s about damn time, folks. We can no longer blithely claim that the outdoor industry is immune to racial inequity. Nature doesn’t see color or class, but the people who spend time in natural spaces, and the organizations that profit off this time, unequivocally do. As Yanira succinctly puts it, “The more people do the work, the less we’ll have to talk about it.”

After centuries of barred access and open hostility, inclusivity requires extra effort on the part of non-BIPOC. It’s not enough just to open the door, as it were — those who have always enjoyed easy access need to mark the door clearly, offer a personal, sincere welcome, and exert pressure on those who are resistant to change. A larger and more diverse outdoor community can only mean more investment in our shared natural spaces, leading to a greater voice for the community as a whole in preserving and stewarding nature for all of us to continue enjoying.

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