Mercy Shammah's quest to decolonize the great outdoors

Mercy Shammah in a blue and white checked shirt and backpack in the outdoors
Photo: Shawn Linehan

For many of us, “the outdoors” brings to mind people — mostly white, straight, cis men — backpacking, climbing, rafting, or engaging in some other arduous, type-A activity in nature. But Mercy M’fon Shammah traces her love of the outdoors to walking. As a young girl in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she looked forward to evening strolls with her mother along the Arkansas River, and she savored the solitude of the desert on her walks home from middle and high school in El Paso, Texas. “It just felt like you were exploring,” says Shammah, now 37 and living in Portland, Oregon. “I was all by myself just walking, and there’s something really beautiful about that.”

To this day, she still enjoys a long walk, not to exercise or challenge herself, but to clear her head — and she believes it’s just as valid a way of being outdoors as spelunking or mountaineering. As the founder and executive director of Wild Diversity, Shammah wants to expand our notion of what the outdoors looks like. Launched in 2017, the Portland-based nonprofit creates safe, welcoming spaces for BIPOC and LGBTQ people in the outdoors through workshops and outings led by members of these communities. For Shammah, it’s a matter of equity: Amid the constant assaults on their right to exist, marginalized people deserve access to the rest and rejuvenation nature can provide.

In theory, anyone can enjoy the outdoors. But the data reveal that not everyone does. Asian and Latinx Americans each accounted for less than 5% of visitors to national parks, while Black Americans made up less than 2%, per a report published by the George Wright Society in 2018. Since these spaces take money and effort to reach, most who visit them are socioeconomically privileged, too, Shammah adds. That the outdoor industry is “very centered in getting outside in the most expensive way possible,” with costly gear and admission, further restricts access. “The idea that the outdoors is accessible is laughable.”

Photo: Mercy Shammah

The statistics are unsurprising, considering the racist history of national parks, which involved displacing indigenous people so white men could recreate to their heart’s content, leaving a legacy of alienation among BIPOC in these spaces. The threat of discrimination can also make BIPOC and LBGTQ people alike fear for their safety, especially given the remoteness of these spaces and the bro culture of many adventure groups, adds Shammah, who is Black and queer. And when these communities experience harm, land managers tend to take little action.

The prevailing narrative is that BIPOC aren’t outdoorsy because they’re poor, and that scholarships are the solution, when the reality is that “we have to redefine what the outdoors look like from a more culturally relevant perspective,” Shammah says. She points out that the stereotypical outdoor activity usually revolves around conquest or competition, possibly because those who participate in it don’t face enough hardship in their day-to-day lives.

But for BIPOC who deal with challenges every day, whether microaggressions from their boss, or harassment by the police, they might seek the outdoors to relax, Shammah says. “For those who are not obsessed with challenging things, or conquering things, or obsessed with this kind of like, masochistic way of being in the outdoors, what is left for them?”

If anything, marginalized people may even need the outdoors more than most, as a respite from a white, heteronormative society, so they can not only survive, but thrive, Shammah tells Mic. There’s evidence that nature can lift our mood and alleviate anxiety, among other mental health benefits — which BIPOC and LGBTQ folx deserve to access.

Her journey to supporting these communities through Wild Diversity began with her decade in the roller derby community, much of which she spent coaching. When she moved to Portland in 2010 to play in one of the top 10 teams in the country, it was the roller derby community who helped her find a job and housed her amid staggering unemployment. The experience inspired her to support others in the same way. She later taught carpentry, working with nonprofits that helped women, trans, and nonbinary folx navigate the cis, straight male-dominated trade industry.

While enjoying the relatively easy access to nature afforded by her new home, Shammah percolated on the idea of supporting people in the outdoors for a while. But the 2016 presidential election — and Trump’s continual devaluing of BIPOC and LGBTQ people — solidified her passion to enable these communities to access the same sense of restfulness and renewal that she gained from her time in nature.

She started with running a drive to build a library of binoculars, compasses, and other gear to loan participants in Wild Diversity’s adventures, so they wouldn’t need to spend money on expensive, brand-new gear. Today, Wild Diversity, along with partners who already host youth events in their communities, organize not only the usual camping and backpacking trips, but also mushroom forages, bird walks, and even workshops on how to make your own hair oil or use a compass.

The truth is, BIPOC do connect with nature. They do spend time outdoors. They just might be doing it in ways beyond the narrow, white-centered narrative. Someone who wants to summit a mountain isn’t more outdoorsy than someone who wants to chill at a lake. “They’re both getting outside and doing what feels good for them,” Shammah says. It’s why Wild Diversity offers so many activities — “to support our communities wherever they’re at and whatever their needs might be.”

The irony is, BIPOC voters are much more likely than their white counterparts to prioritize the environment. Yet the conservation movement is overwhelmingly white. “The first things they want us to do is a trail cleanup,” Shammah says. “You basically are getting these brown bodies working in these spaces they don’t have a relationship with, and don’t have access to.” On the other hand, if they actually felt welcomed in these spaces, they’d be more likely to fight to protect them. She wants to see more BIPOC on conservation and outdoor bills, as well as at outdoor conferences, speaking on subjects beyond diversity and their worth in those spaces. “They’re experts in a lot of fields.”

Amid the pandemic, Wild Diversity has had to scale back on its outdoor programming, from backpacking trips every weekend last summer to zero this summer, since social distancing is impossible on the trail, Shammah tells Mic. These days, the organization focuses on camping and paddling trips with families and quarantine pods, walkable workshops to negate the need for carpooling, and water safety pop-ups on local rivers to pass out life vests. Shammah and her team have also expanded their online content, including videos on outdoor preparation.

They also want to devise creative ways of showing up for their community in the fall and winter, while still keeping them safe. Even if the Pacific Northwest rain drives most people indoors, recreating in the rain is possible, and beautiful, with the right gear. “The last thing you want to do is spend COVID indoors in the rainy season,” Shammah says.

Despite these challenges, Shammah believes Wild Diversity’s work is more important now than ever. Amid growing demands for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, “we’re seeing a lot of exhaustion with the Black and indigenous communities specifically,” she says. She wants Wild Diversity to serve as a reprieve for members of these communities engaged in often-tiring racial justice work. “I think learning how to relax in that way is a tool they could use when they need it, when they feel overwhelmed. I want to be part of supporting that.”