By Sarah Mae Brown
AN EXPLOSION OF LEADERS from marginalized communities are using the power of social media to amplify and validate their experiences and narratives in the natural world. Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and Blackstar Skydivers are among the groups they have created to prove that hiking, biking, kayaking, climbing and skydiving are no longer predominantly activities for a subset of people, most of whom are white. They are introducing a new generation of female, minority, disabled, LGBTQIA+, elderly, plus-sized citizens and others to the magic and transformative power of the outside world.
A common theme for these new nature lovers is to play outside however you would like, something they say makes outdoor recreation and its twin sister, conservation, more diverse and relevant to everyone.
That sentiment is particularly important, given that only 12 percent of jobs in environmental nonprofits, government agencies and grant foundations are held by minorities, despite being nearly 40 percent of the overall U.S. population.
I spoke with five of America’s leading outdoor influencers whose organizations and actions are blazing a trail of equity and inclusion and changing the look of outside adventure.
He calls himself the “Blackalachian.” A fitting name, he says, given that he is known by many long-distance hikers as the African American face of the Appalachian Trail, commonly known as the AT. Daniel White completed the trail in October 2017, and he hasn’t looked back. He describes him- self as a self-taught outdoorsman who did not have many role models of color — so he set out to change that for future generations. He’s since completed the Underground Railroad Bike Trail — from Mobile, Ala., to Owen Sound, Ontario — Camino de Santiago del Norte hiking route in Spain and the Scotland Great Outdoors Challenge.
His YouTube and social media channels document each adventure with an eye on advice, inspiration and troubleshooting for beginners, particularly people of color. He provides tips on techniques, trail recommendations, gear advice, connections and more. He works with children in communities of color, sharing stories about his outdoor transformation and leading day hikes. His next project is a homestead in North Carolina to engage children of color in outdoor experiences.
“I lived my whole life near the AT and never saw people like me doing it,” says White, who grew up in Ashville, N.C. “I want to change that. My road to outdoor recreation was a lonely one at first, but I found a sense of calm and purpose in nature and exposing others like me to it.”
Indeed, the outdoors has changed White. “Before stepping out on the AT, I was a super angry person; angry at the state of this nation,” says White. “As a black man in America, I didn’t have a real sense of freedom or confidence. But with each adventure I meet new people, my faith in humanity is restored and I’m empowered to have an impact. The truth is, you don’t often see dark skin, gold teeth and dreadlocks on the trail, but I’m showing kids they belong!”
FOUNDER OF LATINO OUTDOORS
José González is from Amatlán de Cañas in south- west Mexico. He migrated to California’s Central Valley at age 9. About two decades later, in 2014, he founded Latino Outdoors (LO) after no results turned up when he searched “Latino outdoors” on Google. LO’s purpose is to ensure that Latino outdoor history, heritage and leadership is valued and visible in the American outdoor recreation and conservation narrative.
“What does the Latino outdoor experience look like? This is our focus,” explains González, who started the organization for Californians but now works nationally. “Then, identify the barriers around equality and inclusion specific to Latinos and reduce them.”
LO’s Vamos Outdoors program offers transformative outdoor experiences, such as free hikes that foster outdoor leadership and professional development. LO uses social media and meetups to promote what Gonzales calls “cultura y familia,” an active community of Latino outdoor users, mentors and stewards.
González believes that, as immigrants, Latinos are made to feel like America’s natural environment is not theirs to enjoy. He wants to change that.
“The Latino connection to nature is informed by migration, agriculture and outdoor labor,” says González. “We remind Latinos of their strong ancestral connection to the land, the night sky and the smell of the campfire.”
He says it’s particularly important to remind older generation Latinos about this. “When we tell our parents we want to go camping, they might say, ‘Are you kidding me? The whole reason we left our home countries was so you didn’t have to sleep on the floor!’”
LO focuses on expanding and amplifying the unique Latino outdoor experience often overlooked by the traditional outdoor movement.
“We literally showcase how conservation roots have been ingrained in Latino culture for generations,” says González. “Acknowledging the experiences and perspectives of all communities has value and matters in terms of how brown people are included in the future.”
FOUNDER OF MELANIN BASE CAMP AND TEAM BLACKSTAR SKYDIVERS
Danielle Williams founded Melanin Base Camp (MBC) in 2016 to provide a home base for diversity in outdoor adventure. Using weekly firsthand accounts from black, brown, Asian, indigenous and queer people of color who love the outdoors, MBC works to ensure these groups feel welcome in outdoor spaces. Williams feels it’s crucial to support those who did not grow up with many outdoor experiences.
“If everything’s geared towards someone spending their 1,000th day outdoors versus their first, that’s another form of racial discrimination whether it’s intended or not,” says Williams, an African American outdoor leader and disabled veteran. “Outdoor companies, as well as city, state and national parks, still have a long way to go to demonstrate people of color are welcome.
That means, stop calling the police on us for no reason and start funding infrastructure, staffing and education that supports beginners and first-timers.”
MBC’s Trip Reports offer relatable content on how to get started outside. They include interviews with grassroots activists, environmentalists and educators, as well as conversations on complex issues of race, gender and disability outdoors.
“I’m disabled, so I feel excluded in outdoor spaces pretty much all the time,” says Williams. “I’m currently producing a film at Red River Gorge in Kentucky and can’t physically access the shoot area. Most national parks aren’t designed for people like me and that design isn’t arbitrary, it’s intentional; it’s just not intended for me with trail grades often too steep to traverse on my elbow crutches.”
Williams launched Team Blackstar Skydivers in 2014, after she and five other African Americans completed a star formation skydive in Georgia. They promote diversity in skydiving and strengthen ties with communities of color while highlighting charitable giving and community service. The group has grown to nearly 300 skydivers in six countries.
“As a black female skydiver, I’ve always felt marginalized,” says Williams. “I’ve never jumped regularly with other black women. There’s added difficulty in learning a new thing while being the ‘only one.’ If you make a mistake, it’s more likely to be misattributed to your race, gender, sexuality or disability — whatever makes you different. It’s hard for people who’ve always been surrounded by people who look like them to understand. It doesn’t matter whether you’re learning to skydive or climb — being the only one is alienating.”
Williams says her outdoor odyssey has been lonely but that’s what’s motivated her to be so active in building community with other brown people through MBC and Team Blackstar.
EDUCATIONAL INSTRUCTOR AT INWOOD CANOE CLUB AND CO-FOUNDER OF UPTOWN PADDLING
Nestled under New York’s Westside Highway and in the shadow of high-rises is a powerful little nonprofit boathouse boasting the city’s only kayaking community. The Inwood Canoe Club (ICC) is where Alex Arevalo and other non- motorized boat enthusiasts introduce hundreds of inner city families from the Bronx, Harlem and beyond to the Hudson River.
“These kids have lived on the island of Manhattan their whole lives but never seen the water as a playground,” says Arevalo, a Mexican American who grew up in East Los Angeles. “It’s always been off limits. When they get in a kayak, most for the first time, they see their city in a new light.”
Arevalo starts by teaching basic paddling skills and how to overcome the fear of water. Then, it’s on to ecology, which ultimately leads to stewardship.
“Once they learn how to be on the water, the urban outdoors changes from a hostile place to a safe place of wonder and a place to be protected,” says Arevalo, who often takes them floating in the island’s last remaining salt marsh.
Originally founded in 1902, the ICC now provides the most available access point for kids of color who want to get out on the water. The ICC and Arevalo’s latest outdoor recreation creation, Uptown Paddling, partners with local schools and community groups to offer children, young adults and urban families a chance to experience the Hudson River and engage in its ecology and environmental stewardship. They offer free water safety, paddling instruction, kayaking excursions, practices and games, as well as lessons on water quality, tides, currents and reading nautical charts.
“I was born in Mexico, one of 11 children,” explains Arevalo, whose initial connection to nature was in the form of reading outdoors. “My dad worked all day and my mom all night; there was not much time for outdoor recreation.”
Later, when Arevalo moved east, he became fascinated with the waterways he saw from his commuter train window. “Water-related outdoor recreation was not in my cultural or geographic upbringing. But once I saw this water, surrounding my NYC island home, as mine to explore, I taught myself the ropes and have been sharing that knowledge ever since.”
James Edward Mills
FOUNDER OF THE JOY TRIP PROJECT
As a journalist, equity author and adventurer, James Mills enjoyed a lucrative career in the outdoor industry. Eventually, though, he became disillusioned by its lack of recruitment and representation of people of color.
“Gear catalogs, ad campaigns, films and articles typically presented the outdoors as a place for white people, most of them men,” says Mills, a person of color himself. “I decided to do something about this.”
So, in 2009, he created The Joy Trip Project, a news and reporting hub covering outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, charitable giving and sustainable living, all with an eye on equity and inclusion.
The Joy Trip Project explores the history and achievements of a different sort of outdoor hero — such as America’s first park rangers; more than 400 black Buffalo Soldiers; Sophia Danenberg, the first African American to summit Mount Everest; and Shelma Jun, a top Korean American climber who founded Flash Foxy to elevate female climbers.
“The more I looked around, the more obvious it was that the outdoors has always been far more diverse than we’d been led to believe,” says Mills.
In his 2014 book “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors,” Mills investigates how non-whites are missing from the heritage and legacy of conservation, outdoor adventure and exploration. He found that is wasn’t that these hidden figures didn’t participate, but rather their narratives had been downplayed.
“People of color have been seriously under- served in the outdoor historical narrative and continue to be underserved today from marketing images, to environmental advocacy, to hiring in the outdoor industry, to outdoor and nature-based science education in urban areas,” says Mills.
The Joy Trip Project is working to change that.
So, why is equity and inclusion in outdoor recreation so important? The undeniable link between environmental racism and climate equity provides the answer, he says. It’s no secret that marginalized communities bear the brunt of environmental degradation. When entire groups of people feel left out, underrepresented or unwelcome in outdoor spaces, they are less likely to fight to protect them.
“Are we prepared to do what we need to do to survive on this planet?” posits Mills. “I think we are, but only if everyone truly has an equal stake in the environment. To address climate change, everyone must feel their connection to nature is valued and truly be able to call the outdoors their own.”
Sarah Mae Brown is a journalist who has worked for CNN New York, NBC Moscow, APTV Moscow and National Geographic online. In 2009, she founded the Green Alliance, an organization that works with businesses and consumers on sustainability.