How Black creators are tearing down barriers to the outdoors

People of color, particularly Black Americans, have long been kept from outdoor spaces. These creators are trying to change that.

A Blackpackers group outing.
Courtesy of Patricia Ann Cameron
Originally Published: 

There is a tendency by the outdoors lovers and “adventurer” types to imagine nature as a boundless and borderless space that anyone can wander into. There are no bouncers at a park entrance, after all. But, if they turn their eyes from the majestic sights and natural beauty that surrounds them to the people that accompany them in these spaces, they might start to notice something: The outdoors is shockingly white.

It’s something that Danielle Williams, the founder of Melanin Base Camp, didn’t recognize until she found herself returning to the outdoors as an adult seeking community. “When you’re younger, you don’t notice as much. You’re just running around with all the other little kids,” Williams tells Mic. “It wasn’t until I was older and trying to reconnect with the outdoors as an adult that I first noticed I might be the only person who looks like me.”

Williams, a 10-year Army veteran, was no stranger to the outdoors. But the idea of exploring nature recreationally was very different from hiking every day as part of her job. When she decided she wanted to try skydiving, she started to notice the lack of diversity that surrounded her in that space — and the way that absence enforced a sense of exclusion.

“The more experience I got, the more frustrating it became, because everyone kept mistaking me for a student,” she says. “No one believed that I was actually a skydiver. I would go to new location and have to repeat training that no one else had to repeat.” Williams could show up with all of the equipment in hand, prepared in the way only someone experienced in the sport would be, yet she’d still get treated like she wasn’t a “real” skydiver. “Nobody took me seriously, and it was in part because of my gender, but more so because of the color of my skin.”

This is not an isolated experience. In the United States, the outdoors have overwhelmingly been experienced and enjoyed by white people. According to data collected by the National Parks Service, nearly 80% of Americans who visit national parks are white. Just 7% of visitors are Black, despite Black people making up 15% of the U.S. population.

Of course, it hasn’t always been this way — this is just a fun reminder of what colonization’s done to sacred spaces. “Most groups of color — people who are Black, people of Latinx origin, especially those who are Native — have always been a part of outdoors,” explains Patricia Ann Cameron, the founder of the Colorado-based Blackpackers, an organization dedicated to addressing the gap in representation in the outdoors.

A Blackpackers group at a climbing gym.

Courtesy of Patricia Ann Cameron

Cameron says she didn’t know what she was missing out on until she was taken to Camp Shady Brook, a YMCA camp just outside of Colorado Springs, Colorado. After seeing what the camp had to offer, Cameron decided that she wanted her son to have the same experience and relationship with the outdoors that other Coloradans did. So, she tells Mic, she started teaching herself how to do all the outdoorsy stuff that, for others, simply comes with being a kid with access to nature.

“I started Googling how to backpack and how to camp,” Cameron says. She taught her self to fish, and she started acquiring gear, too — working overtime to make more money and purchasing used equipment to get herself started. Like many people who find joy in the outdoors, she wanted to share it with others. But the same barriers she ran into were affecting others in her community. “I wanted to have more friends come with me, but they all said the same thing: They didn’t have the gear to go out.”

National parks, wildlife reserves, and other places might be free to visit, but they are also revenue generators. There are entire industries built around these spaces and exploring them, and it can cost a pretty penny to acquire things like backpacks and hiking boots and water filtration systems. And the outdoors industry largely ignores people of color in its marketing.

“You can be able to afford a sport, you can have access to gear. But if it’s not a welcoming space ... you’re not going to go back there.”

“Why are outdoor communities and outdoor retailers and media not talking about hunting or fishing or other activities that people of color are more likely to be represented in? What about foraging or harvesting plants for medicinal or religious purposes?” Williams says. “A lot of this just isn’t really covered under the traditional spectrum of outdoor activities.”

There are hidden costs, too, like transportation. “When people say the outdoors are free, I always ask them what they mean by that,” Cameron says. “Because you look at southeast Colorado Springs, and we don’t have the same trail systems or transportation systems” compared other parts of the city. People lucky enough to live closer to parks might not consider how much it can cost to get there — and people of color are three times more likely than their white counterparts to live in places where there is no immediate access to nature.

Even when money isn’t an issue, the communities themselves can create barriers that nature otherwise wouldn’t have. “When I talk to white people, they tend to automatically think the barriers are all financial, which is just not the case. You can be able to afford a sport, you can have access to gear. But if it’s not a welcoming space, if you don’t feel included, you’re not going to go back there,” Williams says.

As an example, Williams says there is a lot of “hidden knowledge” when it comes to the outdoors. “If you’ve never made a reservation for a campsite, you might not know how to do it. If you’ve never hiked in certain area, you might not know that you need a permit,” she says. “It’s just not helpful to assume that that information is available to everyone.” There’s also the reality that if something were to go wrong, Black and brown Americans can’t rely on receiving the same protection from authority that white Americans do — which might make the idea of, say, camping in a remote spot, a bit more daunting.

Cameron is making it a mission to demystify these things for her community. Through Blackpackers, she offers gear rentals and events to teach people how to use equipment and experience new activities. “I think everybody wants to be outdoors,” she tells Mic.

“A lot of the times our participation or leadership or involvement are not being acknowledged because we don’t fit the traditional narrative of the white outdoorsman.”

Williams, meanwhile, has refocused her efforts in the outdoors from increasing participation to increasing visibility. “People of color are already out here. We are already active in the outdoors, and a lot of the times our participation or leadership or involvement are not being acknowledged because we don’t fit the traditional narrative of the white outdoorsman,” she says.

One of the ways that Williams has pushed to reshape who we see enjoying the outdoors is through social media. In 2018, she launched Diversify Outdoors, an organization that seeks to promote diversity in outdoor recreation. Since launching the coalition of influencers and advocacy groups, she says the hashtag #DiversifyOutdoors has been used more than 120,000 times on Instagram alone.

This, too, pushes back against a narrative that has gained steam among the mainstream (and mostly white) outdoors community: that social media is ruining things, because it brings in more people who aren’t as experienced and thus may not be aware of some of the implicit social contracts that exist.

“There’s a very vocal minority on the internet that is just very angry,” Williams says. “They are moralizing this false binary of people who were ‘here before.’ And when they say ‘here before,’ they're not talking about Native Americans — they’re talking about themselves. They’re talking about people who grew up privileged to have access to safe green spaces in their community.”

But for people who are new to the game, social media is an especially useful tool for connecting and learning, because it’s everywhere. “It’s been great for sharing information, for sharing technical knowledge, for finding mentors, for finding friends, and for just feeling empowered,” Williams says.

So much of the outdoors remains inaccessible to people of color, and particularly Black Americans due to historical injustices and systemic racism. Housing discrimination has pushed Black communities farther from nature and green spaces. A lack of generational wealth as well as job discrimination leads to income disparities that leave families of color with less disposable income and time to take vacations and explore the outdoors.

The lack of access to those spaces has been created artificially. By taking up these traditions, sharing knowledge, and increasing both access and visibility in these spaces, creators like Williams and Cameron are helping to remove those barriers — and once again opening these spaces to the people who helped create them in the first place.