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Overcoming the past, hiking into the future with Outdoor Afro

"Southern trees bearing a strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees..."

A glance at America’s past reveals why the relationship between Black communities and the outdoors can feel tense. For Black people, outdoor spaces have often been the backdrop for harassment and violence. It’s harder to feel safe in the woods when the woods set the scene for thousands of lynchings for people like you. It’s harder to pass down a love of swimming when cities barred you from public pools during segregation. In the present, news reports and viral videos of White individuals weaponizing their privilege by calling the police on Black people in outdoor spaces can feel endless. So, the path for Black communities to reclaim their legacy of connection and leadership in the outdoors often feels long and rough.

To learn more, we caught up with Chaya Harris, national program officer for Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit that connects Black people to nature.

A forest of densely growing aspen trees with the green canopy high overhead.

Photo by: © Nwhaa/Getty Images

Surge: Outdoor Afro emphasizes the importance for Black people to not only have connections but also leadership in nature. Why is that important?

Outdoor Afro: Black people have always been leaders in the outdoors! From Matthew Henson to Barbara Hillary* to Leah Penniman to young leaders like Mari Copeny**, there are many people known and lesser known in their local communities promoting recreational opportunities like camping and mountain biking, connecting to nature through gardening and birdwatching and taking care of the land while taking care of each other.

Through Outdoor Afro leadership, we not only facilitate safe and fulfilling experiences in nature but also empathy, confidence and connection while supporting our communities.

Outdoor Afro believes in furthering the legacy of Black leadership in nature to create more opportunities where Black people can see themselves represented, to uplift and share our stories and culture and to create a space for healing and joy.

A mustachioed man in a large fur hood is shown in an aged, black and white photo.

Matthew Henson co-discovered the North Pole in 1909.

Photo by: © Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-7503

Five figures wearing thick fur coats stand on an icy outcropping in an aged, black-and-white photo.

Matthew Henson and four Inuit guides.

Surge: How has racism impacted Black communities with regard to access to nature and outdoor spaces?

Outdoor Afro: Overall, racism has tried to disrupt the relationship Black people have with nature and outdoor recreation, and we know that plays out in countless ways. Outdoor Afro centers Black people, which means we create and deepen access to nature and outdoor spaces, whether it’s taking deep breaths in our backyards, fishing in a pond near the city, or backpacking through a national park.

We also shift the media representation of who gets outside and how we get outside and create programs, like Making Waves [a program that provides swim lessons for children and their caregivers], to reduce some of the barriers such as taking the time to find opportunities, costs and transportation.

In collaborating with policymakers and community leaders, we advocate for increased funding to support nature-based experiences, develop innovative solutions in land, water, and wildlife management, and support funding to improve our public lands. So, through all our relationships, we focus on enhancing the power in our communities to continue to make space for Black people and provide more equitable opportunities all around.

Surge: Let’s talk about some of the other barriers to access and participation for Black people in nature and how Black people who want to spend more time in nature can work around the barrier. 

Safety. How do questions and concerns about safety and the outdoors play out differently among Black communities? What types of outdoor activities would you recommend for someone especially concerned about safety outdoors?

Outdoor Afro: For any outdoor activity, we encourage everyone to be prepared. While there are often additional safety concerns, including psychological safety, Outdoor Afro leaders are trained to mitigate a diverse range of risks based on just good practices in getting outside. We recommend that you take some time to research where you’re going and what you’ll do, pack “the 10 Essentials,” [important supplies to bring on an outdoor excursion] grab a buddy if you can and let people know your plans. We always respect wildlife, including other humans. Our goal is to provide a safe space for Black people to experience the outdoors and particularly the joy of the outdoors.

Watch Outdoor Afro’s Antoine show you “the 10 essentials” in his backpack.

Surge: Cost. Many outdoor activities come with a cost, admission fee, or required purchasing equipment or funding travel, which can be prohibitive.

Outdoor Afro: We encourage people to use what they have and explore places and resources right in their neighborhood. Items like workout or casual clothes, backpacks and footwear work well for everyday adventures. Our volunteer leaders span a wide range of careers, jobs and full lives, meaning they plan events with convenience in mind. If any specialized gear is needed, they may coordinate sharing items, working with an outfitter, and collaborating with partners. For example, in Chicago and Northwest Indiana, our leaders are hosting mindful practices online, books at the beach hangouts and kayaking with the Forest Preserves of Cook County−all for free!

Surge: What types of outdoor activities would you recommend for someone who sees cost as a barrier?

Outdoor Afro: If cost is a barrier, we encourage participants to look for admission-free days, share costs with fellow adventure buddies, take advantage of sales and discounts for any needed equipment, and talk with your local Outdoor Afro network about gear libraries and other programs that may be at schools or retailers. Gear and equipment can be an investment over time, and we look for ways to help people access what they need.

Surge: Physical access. Certain activities (hiking, camping) require travelling, which could require access to a car. What types of outdoor activities would you recommend for someone for whom physical access could be a barrier?

Outdoor Afro: During the past year, we all experienced restrictions on how we could get outside, and we found some creative solutions. If transportation is limited, we help people connect with resources and opportunities close to them or in unconventional formats. It could be learning about the scuba diving process virtually, going on a scavenger hunt on your block, or a stroll through a local farmer’s market. It’s been great to see people experience a sense of wonder in their neighborhoods. We ask participants that want to explore further places to consider rideshare apps, public transportation and some of the same local gear resources might arrange shuttles and other transportation options, too.

Surge: Relevance. Finances aren’t the primary barrier for every Black person or family. What activities would you recommend for someone for whom relevance has been a barrier?

Outdoor Afro: Just keep doing what you enjoy! We encourage participants to let go of the notion that outdoor activities have to be exclusive or fancy. Activities like tailgating, cookouts, art shows, outdoor concerts may not be considered outdoor recreation, but they are ways of connecting to nature and natural spaces. Learning more about the places, others’ connections to them and sharing your stories may lead you to new things you’d like to try.

A young black woman wearing a backpack stands next to a beautiful river vista.

Connecting with nature can start with taking a breath in your backyard ...or backpacking through a national park.

Photo by: © mapodile/Getty Images

Surge: Are there other significant barriers we haven’t considered?

Outdoor Afro: One barrier that we’ve identified beyond representation is access to outdoors-related jobs and making sure that people can maintain a healthy lifestyle in those roles. If you’re not already in the outdoor industry or related field or know people in the industry, it is difficult to know about many of the options, see yourself in the role, or know how to land the spot. Once working in the field, it may be hard to stay in the position due to the work environment, low and/or unequal pay, seasonal work, or being stuck at entry-level. We’re helping to shift that power in providing more access to related jobs and careers for Black people and creating pathways for them to be fairly compensated for their contributions.

Surge: When Black communities connect with the outdoors what’s the best that could happen?

Outdoor Afro: Healing, love, and joy. The ripple effects are endless.

*Barbara Hillary was the first Black woman to reach the North and South Poles.

**Also known as Little Miss Flint, Mari Copeny is best known for raising awareness about the city’s water crisis.