How do we work toward greater diversity in the outdoors?

Written on Sep 21st, 2020 by , Category Features, News, Training

By Marlene Farrell

Wenatchee River Institute and the Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center recently co-hosted an event in the Museum and Cultural Center’s Social Justice Series. The Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) panel discussion focused on how we can all help make the outdoors more diverse and accessible.

The nonwhite panelists began by describing the spark that ignited their own personal love of the outdoors. Some resonated perfectly with me, who came from a white suburban childhood. Jacques Cousteau stirred Karen Francis-McWhite’s salt-water dreams just as David Attenborough beckoned me to the Serengeti to eavesdrop on the lives of lions. Chelsea Murphy took her first steps on a trail with the Girl Scouts, and similarly, it was school outings that got me into woods that were deeper than my backyard.

For Paige Castro-Reyes, Julie Edwards, Nathan Isaac and John Sirois, nature was a part of their everyday lives. The outdoors set the stage for their upbringing, thanks to parents and extended family. “It was a lifestyle more than a choice,” Julie said.

For me, it took a network of outdoor enthusiasts, at university and beyond, to mentor and guide me through novice mistakes and misconceptions to discover comfort and safety in the outdoors, to transform me into a capable hiker, backpacker, trail runner and mountaineer. Acceptance into this “group” gave me the confidence to ask the dumb questions, to borrow gear before buying my own, to have someone shepherd me up Mount Rainier the first time.

The panelists did not all have such opportunities. Chelsea, a Leavenworth resident for eight years, said an obstacle to her connection with the local outdoor recreation community is her lack of integration with the outdoor priorities of local white moms. She snowboards in the winter, but in the warmer months she prefers nature walking, while her neighbors and friends are often more interested in the gear-reliant extreme sports.

Paige said, “I used to do everything barefoot. The technical gear and know-how seem safe-guarded.”

Elisa Lopez explained that when she would look at topographic maps, she would wonder, for example, what the triangles represented. She had to teach herself these things. She also spoke of the divide created by the kind of car you drive, some of which simply can’t make it to trailheads.

When I think of racers lined up at the start of a trail race or the people I pass along a trail halfway through a weeklong backpack trip, I now see there is missing diversity.

I tell myself that running is an egalitarian sport because you just need a pair of running shoes. But that’s not the whole truth.

The truth is, that while one can run on a trail with nothing more than a pair of running shoes, the “optional” stuff, including shoes with rugged tread, hydration pack, clothing layers, a map and map knowledge, a mini first aid kit, some packaged calories, and, most importantly, a companion, allow me to push my limits and experience something epic. This is my privilege — something that benefits me whether I deserve it or not, and it’s not available to all, but it should be.

I recognize another privilege — I wake up each day and ask myself, “Where do I want to run today?” If I give myself enough time before work, I can run at Ski Hill where I’m free as a deer that knows no predators. I can do a three-hour trail run if I get up even earlier. It can get so hot in midsummer that I will dive into the river fully clothed and not worry about what people think. I can run on the local track because I want to meditate on form and function during intervals around that serene oval.

So it shook me up to hear Karen say that she loves running on the track, but with COVID-19 and school facility closures, she balked when her white friends said, “Use the track anyway.” She couldn’t. “I’m more visible and don’t want to be seen as breaking the rules,” Karen said. “White friends don’t have these barriers because their presence is not viewed as transgressive.”

In terms of achieving equity in all aspects of the outdoors, the “how” is for all of us to figure out. We need to listen to BIPOC about what they need to feel included.

The panelists had some ideas.

Elisa suggested that outdoor organizations should work with community liaisons, individuals from minority groups, whether Black, Latinx, Indigenous or other group. “Hire them,” she said. “They will work hard to engage that community.”

Karen and Julie spoke of solidarity in the woods and making it safe for BIPOC. “If you see racism outdoors, document it,” Karen said.

Gear accessibility was mentioned. There should be more swaps, rentals and used gear sales to help all people overcome the initial cost barriers.

Paige urged everyone, “Witness your own internal biases and impulses and thinking there is a ‘right way’ to be outside.” To her, the goal isn’t just to see more black and brown faces in the wild, but to celebrate the many different ways of being with the land.

Elisa and Nathan spoke of a brighter future. “I want to get our residents to fall in love with nature,” Elisa said. “Stewardship, sustainability, health and leave no trace will follow.”

Nathan said, “We’re all in this together. Be kind. Build relationships.”

John reminded us to consider the past. “Learn the local cultural sites and learn the history.”

This panel discussion was a starting point. The outdoors are not a silo. Chelsea advised everyone to deconstruct racism and inequality in all aspects of life — the outdoors, but also at work, in your friend group and in the discussions around the dinner table.

I hope we can all do our part to dismantle the obstacles that prevent some from fully enjoying the towering peaks, fragrant sage land, rushing rivers and gurgling creeks of our collective home. The impressive ecological diversity of our region deserves to be matched by the diversity of humanity roaming, playing and connecting to it.

The panelists included: Karen Francis-McWhite, writer; Chelsea Murphy of @shecolorsnature; Elisa Lopez, project director of Team Naturaleza; John Sirois, committee coordinator of the Upper Columbia United Tribes; Paige Castro-Reyes, director of programs at Community-Campus Partnerships for Health; Julie Edwards, a Colville Tribal Member; and Nathan Isaac, Founder of STALYON.

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