Public parks, nature reserves, and recreational spaces should be sources of joy, adventure, and empowerment for all. But the current landscape is far from equitable. Ninety-five percent of visitors to national parks are white, according to research conducted by the National Parks Service. And it’s not because BIPOC communities don’t enjoy the great outdoors as much as other folks.
They’ve been excluded and underrepresented in these types of spaces historically. That’s the conclusion drawn by organizations running the gamut from the National Health Foundation to the American Hiking Society, as well as researchers at some of the biggest universities in the country.
But, as always, you can bet that there are some powerful activists and boots-on-the-ground initiatives across the country working to make the great outdoors a safer, more accessible place for everyone.
Of course, many of these adventure equity crusaders are the very Black women who have experienced firsthand the systemic racism and lack of equity that prevents BIPOC people from getting more involved in activities like hiking, camping, and climbing.
The number of these outdoors activists rolls so deep that they’ve teamed up as a coalition called Diversify Outdoors, which uses social media to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the great outdoors.
Though only a snapshot of those dedicating their lives to ensure everyone can enjoy the serenity of snowy mountaintops, the adrenaline rush of trail running, or the warmth of a few tents gathered around a fire, here are five initiatives run by Black women who are making the outdoors more inclusive.
In 2009, Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp was weighing the pros and cons of going to business school. When her mentor asked what she’d do if she could do anything, though, Rue’s response caught her by surprise: “I said, ‘I would start a website to connect Black people with the outdoors,'” Mapp shares. “Two weeks later, I launched Outdoor Afro as a blog from my kitchen table.”
Throughout the decade since then, Outdoor Afro has trained nearly 90 Black outdoors leaders in 42 cities across the country to guide thousands of Black community members together on nature-based outings and activities.
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“People feel safe when they are with Outdoor Afro because they are with people who live in the community with them and have similar interests, and are with a leader who looks like them,” Mapp says.
Working within the safety guidelines of the pandemic, Outdoor Afro continues to train new outdoors leaders, promote government policies that support access and sustainability at all levels, and use its massive platform (they reach 55,000 people a day) to continue connecting Black people with nature, wherever they may be.
When GirlTrek founders Vanessa Garrison and T. Morgan Dixon met in college in L.A. in 2012, their combined passion for promoting the health of Black girls and women across the country inspired them to create what is now the largest health non-profit and health movement in the U.S. dedicated to those two groups. Their mission is simple: To empower Black girls and women to practice self-care and find happier, healthier lives by committing to walk every single day.
As of 2020, GirlTrek has inspired more than one million Black women to commit to daily walks outside. Today, cities and states across the country are home to their own GirlTrek communities. In private Facebook groups, trekkers can connect, share how the basic but radical act of walking has changed their lives, find walking buddies, and swap intel on routes and trails they love.
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Though where trekkers walk is less important than the fact that they get out there, GirlTrek’s movement has undoubtedly encouraged Black girls and women across the country to enjoy the health benefits of walking in the great outdoors.
In 2019, 61 percent of their members lost weight, 26 percent lowered medication dosage, and 40 percent saw improvement in health condition symptoms. Throughout 2021, you can expect to see GirlTrek continue to expand beyond the 2,500 cities it has already come to life in and continue to report on the significant ways in which it has impacted the health and livelihood of its members.
She Colors Nature
In 2019, Chelsea Murphy and her husband had a conversation about the lack of diversity in outdoor recreation.She’d been passionate it about her whole life and wanted to introduce her children to the joys of being nature. So she started her Instagram, @she_colorsnature, to connect with the other BIPOC nature-lovers and speak up about how racism shows up in the outdoors.
Throughout the last couple of years, Chelsea’s following has exploded. (She’s got a website loaded with additional resources now, too.) Clearly, her tips about everything from camping to trail running and storytelling about being a BIPOC and mom in the backcountry have resonated with new and veteran adventurers, as well as others thinking critically about their own anti-racism work.
“For SO long Black women have not had a space to be seen and heard in outdoor recreation,” Murphy says. “I am encouraging other women to take up space on the trails and I am also sharing all the things I have learned on my hiking journey!”
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In addition to building her own community in Washington state, Murphy is charging into 2021 with an exciting project that she’s currently calling the Brave Space Film Project, in response to the lack of diversity she’s seen in films presented at mountain festivals. The film aims to give representation to the BIWOC outdoors community and share the stories of those who have found a sense of belonging and sisterhood in nature. Murphy hopes to use the eventual film launch as an opportunity for community events like group hikes and outdoor skills workshops to continue to make the outdoors more accessible and equitable.
As a Black Latina exploring all of the natural beauty around the Los Angeles area, Evelynn Escobar-Thomas often felt alone. To combat the lack of representation and participation of BIWOC in the outdoors, Escobar-Thomas started Hike Clerb in 2017 with the mission of not only creating a community that felt like a safe space but fostering collective healing and joy.
Since then, Hike Clerb’s team of three has worked to equip women of color with the tools, resources, and experiences they need to find comfort and independence in the outdoors. From their home base of L.A., the Clerb facilitates guided hikes to foster community, creates education content to equip others with the knowledge they need to get out there, and even does National Park pass giveaways to encourage BIWOC to explore more.
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Though the pandemic impacted their ability to grow the Hike Clerb community in-person, the team has taken their efforts fully digital, leaning into the @hikeclerb Instagram page to share experiences of their members, share updates and merch, and spread the outdoors sisterhood far beyond the L.A. city limits. In fact, Escobar-Thomas says this digital focus has paved the way for some exciting new projects, which will be dropping in the next few months.
Outdoor Industry CEO Pledge
After following a number of big-name outdoors brands on Instagram, Teresa Baker noticed a frustrating trend: Their marketing seldom featured Black and brown people (if it did at all). From there, she did some digging into what the companies themselves looked like. “The makeup of company leadership was shocking; white and male across the board, and that didn’t sit well with me,” Baker says.
So, in 2018, Baker created the Outdoor Industry CEO Pledge. Brands who sign the pledge commit to four initiatives:
Throughout the last two-plus years, more than 100 brands (including names like Marmot, Merrell, Smartwool, and CamelBak) have signed on as Pledge Partners.
“When young kids pick up an outdoor magazine or browse social media feeds, I want to make sure they see themselves represented. That is the only way they will feel these outdoor spaces are for them too,” Baker says.
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In addition to continuing to work toward equity in outdoors brands’ marketing, Baker plans to spend 2021 advocating for the diversification and inclusivity of the Department of Interior, in hopes that the nation’s approach to land management will shift to once again rely on Native American leadership. “This is how we begin to mend past relationships and create opportunities moving forward,” she says. (Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, the first Native American woman to serve in Congress can bet she’ll be hearing from Teresa Baker!)
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