Outdoors for All
by: Bryan Wolf
This September I will venture to Yosemite National Park. I’ve tallied over 3 dozen National Parks in my life and driven through Yosemite once already. This trip will count as more of a full tick on my checklist with a 5-night backpacking loop including a Half Dome summit. This trip had me thinking about what an amazing experience the park system has been for me. I thought about how lucky I am to have a life in the outdoors. As a child we had visited Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I had the luxury of taking breaks through college and taking cross country road trips that helped blossom my interest in travel. Then, later in life, friends that had grown up in the Boy Scout program had an even greater influence on my adventuring. I am thankful for all of this, but also privileged.
I am and was raised as a middle-class Caucasian in the Midwest. This is important because I realize that my circumstances allowed me to have these opportunities, and I feel like it is important to address those circumstances now. This post is to address inequalities in this country and most specifically in the outdoors. In understanding our past, we hope to make strides for a better future. It may be uncomfortable for some people to digest what I want to say, and as always, we welcome dialogue with all our community.
While there have been amazing strides to making the outdoors more inclusive, there is also a horrific past that delays progress. The following quotes and linked resources summarize this sentiment. There are plenty of people that have already said it better than I, so I will let their voice speak louder than mine. Please read through some of our country’s history below as it pertains to racism and other discrimination in the outdoors. I will then provide further links that outline where we go from here. Finally, I’ve provided info below for how you can make a very direct and immediate impact in your community. It is our goal that we all walk away with a better understanding of the problem and how to move forward.
First let’s recognize the physical barriers that long stood in the way. Researchers and outdoor advocates have identified several barriers to minority enjoyment of public lands. The list includes affordability and access, early childhood experience, cultural factors, discrimination, and historical trauma. Notably we should address that “Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, African Americans were banned from, or segregated at, public recreation sites, including national and state parks.” (“Diversity in the Great Outdoors”) While scouting has been a successful program since the early 1900’s, some troops were not fully racially integrated until 1974 (“The Boy Scout Movement in Black America”). Further discrimination included the BSA’s Declaration of Religious Principle that disallowed participation of homosexuals up till 2014. Please note that our intent is not to condemn these organizations, but to highlight the obvious barriers that have existed for many people and the strides taken to overcome those barriers.
Another barrier is one that is more emotional and psychological in nature. An article by Outside Online added, “African Americans don’t always go where white people do. Swimming? Pools used to be segregated in the South and other parts of the country, so it wasn’t easy to join a team and practice your freestyle kick. Skiing? Not in the cards if you’re poor and live in an inner city. Beaches? In many places, blacks were banned by law or custom.” (“We’re here you just don’t see us” ) Put another way, “Though legal segregation no longer exists and hate crimes are rare, there remains a sometimes mysterious cultural barrier forged in social memory. While collectively we enjoy greater freedom to go wherever we wish, as individuals we might question whether or not we are all welcome when we arrive.” (“Breaking the color barrier in the outdoors”) It would be unfair if we only looked at this as a distant historical problem as well. We still have work to do according to young author Joshua Walker; “Cue, white people calling the police on black people in the outdoors for daring to push their son in a stroller at a local park, pick up trash in their own yard, sell water, mow lawns in the neighborhood, use the pool at their condo, play golf, or barbecue in a local park. That was just 2018. Of course, when asked directly, the response is always that “Nature doesn’t see color” or “everyone is welcome in the outdoors.” Actions seem to indicate otherwise.” (“Why Black People Should Take up Space in the Outdoors”) It is important to recognize the uphill battle we’re against as it only takes a few people to create a stigma for an entire group of people.
This is not isolated to any one activity but spreads across all travel. An article in Rock and Ice this week includes conversations with climber Dominique Davis, “Climbing trips aren’t the carefree escapes from reality for me that they are for you,” said Davis. “I’m Black no matter where I go, and with that comes the reality that the towns many of these crags are located in are not as welcoming and accepting of people that look like me. When there’s a Confederate flag hanging in a gas station, I know I’m not going to risk my safety by stopping there. It has been scary to see the comments on social media and how many climbers are comfortable with keeping racist and oppressive language in our sport. It makes you think about who’s standing next to you at the crag.”
The statistics paint the same picture as you would think. In 2018, an Outdoor Industry Association report found that almost 74% of all outdoor participants were Caucasian. This is down from almost 83% in 2007. Looking at historical designations the Center for American Progress found in 2015, that “although the United States is home to more than 450 national parks and monuments, less than one-quarter have a primary focus on women, communities of color, or other traditionally underrepresented groups. Not a single unit of the National Park System has a primary focus on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, or LGBT, community, and until the recent designation of the Honouliuli National Monument, only two had a primary focus on Asian Americans.” We will see better diversity in our parks if we see an effort of diversity within our parks.
The outdoor community has not had a long history of inclusivity and that is not and cannot be fixed with a single action or in a single day. The truth is that we must face it, admit it and work to make it better. Many families have a love for the outdoors that is passed down for generations. For those that were not allowed access to these resources for generations, we must understand that we need to go to greater lengths to make the outdoors a welcoming place. We should also challenge what we think we know. Including any stereotypes, misconceptions, or fragmented history. Latria Graham writes about this in “We’re Here. You Just Don’t See us” writing “Later, when I had to complete a 50-yard swimming requirement for graduation, I was told that we don’t swim either, the way women were told we weren’t interested in STEM classes. Many people of color have a rich heritage in the outdoors or very much so enjoy it but don’t feel welcome. I urge you to read the included link “This Land is Ours” to further elaborate this point.
We can further promote inclusivity within the outdoor industry through leadership, marketing, and imagery. In a 2018 address to the outdoor industry, Teresa Baker had this to say, “When I hear, over and over from CEO’s, marketing directors and social media managers, “We don’t know what to do,” or “We don’t want to do the wrong thing” or (my favorite), “We don’t want to appear inauthentic,” it makes me wonder how important this issue really is to the industry as a whole.” (“An Open Letter to the Outdoor Industry”)
To this point, our voice is long overdue, but will be silent no more. We hope to make strides in celebrating and sharing the outdoors with all people. That starts with a show of solidarity. July 7th is an “Economic Blackout” day intended to show both the economic power and strength of Black people, but also to put the focus on purchasing from Black-owned businesses. RRT will be closed for the entirety of this day. If you need to buy outdoor gear on this day, consider a purchase at https://slimpickinsoutfitters.com/, a Black-owned outdoors store in Stephenville, Texas.
Now, most importantly, what can we do? We can all play a role in righting the course. I found multiple sources that help us understand actionable steps we can take including, “Diversity, Equality & Inclusion: 26 Ways (& More) to be an Ally in the Outdoor Industry” and “Five ways to make the Outdoors more Inclusive“. A story by ABC featuring Ambreen Tariq (@brownpeoplecamping) had some simple advice, “when you see someone, smile and say hi”.
Here is what you can do right now. Please, at whatever financial ability you are able, donate to the Adventure Crew. For 8 years now, the Adventure Crew has provided FREE outdoor experiences to inner city and often underprivileged kids. This is an organization that teaches children the confidence and acceptance they need in outdoor spaces. This year, with the loss of their largest fundraising event, Paddlefest, your donation will mean more than ever.
“Five ways to make the Outdoors more Inclusive” https://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/rei-2018/five-ways-to-make-the-outdoors-more-inclusive/3019/
“We’re here you just don’t see us” https://www.outsideonline.com/2296351/were-here-you-just-dont-see-us
“Diversity in the Great Outdoors” https://www.resourcesmag.org/common-resources/diversity-in-the-great-outdoors-is-everyone-welcome-in-americas-parks-and-public-lands/
“The Boy Scout Movement in Black America” https://aaregistry.org/story/the-african-american-boy-scout-movement-a-story/
“Breaking the color barrier in the outdoors” https://joytripproject.com/breaking-the-color-barrier-in-the-great-outdoors/
“This Land is Ours” https://grist.org/cities/are-black-people-really-afraid-of-the-outdoors/
“Why Black People Should Take up Space in the Outdoors” https://www.melaninbasecamp.com/around-the-bonfire/2019/4/10/why-black-people-should-take-up-space-outdoors
“An Open Letter to the Outdoor Industry” https://www.outdoorretailer.com/magazine/an-open-letter-to-the-outdoor-industry-on-diversity/
OIA 2019 Participation Report https://outdoorindustry.org/resource/2019-outdoor-participation-report/
Black Out Day 2020: https://www.blackoutday.org
Rock and Ice, “An Apology From the Publisher” https://rockandice.com/climbing-news/an-apology-from-the-publisher/
“Diversity, Equality & Inclusion: 26 Ways (& More) to be an Ally in the Outdoor Industry” https://www.browngaltrekker.com/new-blog/dei26waystobeanallyintheoutdoorindustry
Other Suggested Reading:
“My Immigrant Story” https://www.outsideonline.com/2152191/lets-talk-about-privilege-outdoors#close
“I Would but I’m the Only Person of Color“” https://www.rei.com/blog/camp/i-would-but-i-am-the-only-person-of-color
“The Green Book: The Black Travelers’ Guide to Jim Crow America” https://www.history.com/news/the-green-book-the-black-travelers-guide-to-jim-crow-america#:~:text=First%20published%20in%201936%2C%20the,they%20ventured%20outside%20their%20neighborhoods.