Though open for all, Black Americans and other people of color remain underrepresented in America’s public lands. Suston reaches out to James Edward Mills, journalist, author and National Geographic Explorer, to learn more about the ongoing racial equity movement in America’s outdoors culture.
Even in its national parks and public recreation areas, the United States of America has a long and sordid past when it comes to the safety of its citizens and visitors who are people of color. Though incidents of racially motivated violence or abuse are indeed rare, Black men and women are too often subjected to mistreatment simply because of their cultural identity. In the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020, the tragic deaths of George Floyd and Breanna Taylor at the hands of police officers and the murder by three white men of Amhaud Arbery for simply jogging down a public street, have prompted protests of outrage world-wide. The Black Lives Matter movement has fostered an awakening to the reality that not everyone is treated equally – that includes the outdoor community.
To help people of color enjoy the privilege of spending time outside is part of a much broader movement toward social justice that gives everyone the opportunity to take up space in natural settings without fear.
Blackpackers give a helping hand
Though Black Americans represent 13 percent of the U.S. population, this community accounts for only 2 to 7 percent of National Park visitors. Access to nature, it seems, lags behind many of the other social advances, such as voting rights, fair housing and employment equality, achieved during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. In the modern era, activists are now working to correct some of the disparities that result in the under representation of people of color in outdoor recreation.
“I don’t tell people, watch out! You’re Black in the outdoors,” said Patricia Cameron founder of Blackpackers, a Colorado-based organization that encourages equitable access to nature.
“I’d rather tell people to express how there is still a lot of equity work and justice work to be done in this space.”
Cameron and other leaders aim to create social environments for people of color that are comfortable and free of inherent risk. They offer the security of a communal experience shared in a group setting with those of a similar cultural background. In addition to making outside spaces physically safe, organizers of outdoor outings also account for the limitations of transportation, access to gear, technical skills and familiarity with local areas. Especially families are important to bring out, shares Cameron:
“Because if you take the kids out and get them all hyped about skiing or snowboarding and the parents don’t fall in love with it like the kids do, that experience will go home to nothing, and the family won’t be able to foster it.”
Sharing a common ground
Part of the movement to diversify outdoor recreation is to address more of the explicit reasons why a person might not want to experience an activity like backpacking, skiing or camping. Advocates for equity in the outdoors are coming to understand that access to natural areas requires more than unlocked gates and well-marked trail signs. In addition to a sense of welcome, those who visit must also feel that they are part of a broader culture in which they are encouraged to participate.
And what awaits the people of color who decide to explore the Great outdoors? Last summer, Norman Davis from Madison, Wisconsin received his first National Park admission pass, which created an opportunity for his family to visit the rugged landscapes and vistas across the Great Plains of North America. In the midst of the Covid-19 Pandemic, he made plans to experience the western parks near Mount Rushmore, the Badlands, Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. And despite a vague apprehension over how he as a Black American might be treated, Davis was pleased to discover that the locals were happy to see him.
“We got top notch service everywhere we went,” he said. “At hotels, restaurants, gas stations we were treated very well. Really, we only got a few side-eyed looks for wearing masks because of Covid, not because we were Black.”
As Norman Davis and family experienced as people of color, they too are part of a community that loves the outdoors.
“You have to go and see it for yourself. The pictures, the verbal descriptions just don’t do it justice,” Davis said, “There were just so many jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring vistas on that trip. It was just so beautiful, and you can’t recreate that anywhere.”
Photo: Davis family visiting The Badlands. Credit: James Edward Mills