Leveling the Outdoor Playing Field

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Growing up in Boston, Chaya Harris saw the outdoors as part of her everyday life.

She’d play in the streets until the sun went down and, when her parents had days off, put her bags in the trunk of their car for the 45-minute drive to Myles Standish State Forest, their home away from home.

“It was like we had no rules — you were just there in nature camping,” recalls Harris, who is Black and who was raised in Dorchester, home to the city’s largest Black population. “We’d wake up in the woods, we’d have breakfast, I would roam around all day, and come back when I was hungry.”

"When she returned to a state park or explored other parts of New England’s wilderness, it seemed like she was one of the few Black people around."

She took that love for the outdoors to middle school and high school, running on the track team and playing in soccer tournaments throughout leafy New England. But after she went to college outside Chicago and returned to her hometown to be an elementary school teacher, she began to notice something different about her relationship to the natural world. In the city, she was often surrounded by other Black people like her. But when she returned to a state park or explored other parts of New England’s wilderness, it seemed like she was one of the few Black people around.

Today, Harris is the national program officer and a local leader for Outdoor Afro, one of the largest national nonprofits dedicated to promoting a love for the outdoors among Black Americans. In her position for four years, Harris trains the Outdoor Afro leaders across the country who organize hikes, climbs, bike rides, and picnics for their communities, part of a years-long effort to redefine what it means to be Black outside.

“Black people are using natural spaces, but it depends on how you define the word,” says Harris. “We know adventures in the outdoors are on our doorstep. If you talk about national or state parks, you may see a different story as Black people tend to live in cities and suburbs. But think about the front yard, the community garden, the city parks across the country.”

As the National Park Service and state parks in recent years have tried to recruit Black and other people of color — both to park ranger jobs and to enter their trails as visitors — a host of enthusiast movements have grown as well to promote Black, Latino, Asian, indigenous, and other people of color in the outdoors. Some, like Outdoor Afro, are national networks with paid staff and chapters that focus broadly on recreation of all kinds. Others focus on specific sports, such as running, or have grown on Instagram to simply promote images of diverse people outdoors.

Trees Don’t Know What Color You Are

“When you are in nature, the trees do not know what color you are, the birds will sing no matter how much money you have in your bank account, and the flowers will bloom no matter your gender or political affiliation,” says Rue Mapp, the founder of Oakland, California-based Outdoor Afro, which is now in its 11th year and has 80 leaders in 42 states.

In Richmond, Virginia, Jay Ell Alexander has transformed her love for running into Black Girls Run, a national group of which she is the owner and chief executive officer. With 74 chapters in 34 states, it’s seen more than 250,000 Black women participate in its 5K runs, marathons, and trainings.

“Our big goal is to be women who are motivating other women to make healthy lifestyle choices,” says Alexander. “We change the narrative of what health statistics look like for Black women and the Black community.”

A lifelong runner, Alexander recalls being the only Black person on her team when she first began. “As a whole, the industry is a very white space. We have a lot of Black runners where I live, but that’s just my bubble. The larger picture is different.”

With crowd and sporting restrictions in place amid the pandemic, organizations such as Outdoor Afro and Black Girls Run have often focused in recent months on virtual events. Members of Black Girls Run recently completed a six-week “ERaceRacism,” in which participants ran 200-, 100-, or 50-mile runs anywhere in the world and raised more than $26,000 toward anti-racism causes and uplifting Black communities.

In Denver, Bianca Garcia coordinates as one of 15 leaders across the U.S. for Latino Outdoors, which promotes hiking, bilingual trail maps, and the positive effects of the outdoors among Latino families.

“A lot of people, especially Latinos, have jobs where they do manual labor outdoors. So there’s a stigma that if you are outdoors, it is for work. We’re trying to combat that stigma,” says Garcia, who started hiking during a semester abroad as a college student on the Australian island of Tasmania.

"A lot of people, especially Latinos, have jobs where they do manual labor outdoors. We’re trying to combat that stigma that if you are outdoors, it is for work."

Before the pandemic, one of the largest events for Garcia’s chapter was a sunset hike on the Green Mountain trail, a 1,000 feet-high, 6.4-mile loop east of Denver. The hike was focused on Latina women and took place around International Women's Day.

Currently, Garcia has teamed with bilingual Girl Scouts troops in Colorado to teach virtual workshops on tree identification, nature preservation, and the voting process. Called “Make Your Path,” the series is part of Latino Outdoors’ goal to “inspire, connect, and participate with Latino outdoor communities and embrace culture and family as part of the outdoor narrative.”

As cities and suburbs become more crowded and coronavirus-related health precautions keep more people indoors, the nation’s parks, forests, and outdoor spaces are bound to grow in popularity. And as the nation’s racial makeup continues to grow more diverse, so are the outdoors organizations that cater to the patchwork of Americans.

Here are a few more groups pitching the outdoors to women of color and what they do, in their own words and those of DiversifyOutdoors.com, which catalogs several people-of-color-oriented outdoors organizations.

Melanin Base Camp: Working “together to increase representation and opportunities for people of color in outdoor adventure sports.”

Brown People Camping: A “proud Indian Muslim American Woman diversifying public lands and outdoors, one story at a time.”

Natives Outdoors: An “outdoor gear company that works with indigenous artists and athletes to create gear that supports outdoor recreation on tribal lands.”

Outdoor Asian: Creating a “diverse and inclusive community of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the outdoors.”

Tags: Gender Equality

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Written By

JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

CircleAround will make financial distributions to benefit current Girl Scouts: the next generation of trailblazers who will CircleAround after us. So CircleAround for inspiration, and CircleAround the leaders of tomorrow. CircleAround is owned by One GS Media, a subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA.

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