Photo collage image credits, from upper left: the Williams family; Aleshea Carrieré; James Edward Mills by Eric Larsen; Anjel Iriaghomo; middle left: Adrian Wilson; Justin Tucker by Carey Wagner Photography; Nicholas C Durgadeen by Kristen Ewen; bottom left: Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon; Elexus Brooks; Jason Hall; and Marilyn Griffin.
Connecting with the outdoors looks different for everyone
Whether it's by taking a pair of binoculars to the nearest park and watching birds, getting a group of close friends together for a hike, putting on a pair of running shoes and watching the sun rise, or taking a trip to the nearest beach and relaxing on the sand – Black people connect with the outdoors in many ways.
Unfortunately, there are numerous barriers to those connections. Many Black folks do not feel welcomed or safe in outdoor spaces. A 2021 survey of outdoor participation found only 9 percent were Black. Racist policies like redlining and economic segregation; the psychological scars left by racial mistreatment in the outdoors; and lack of access to public transportation are just some of the reasons for this lack of Black outdoor participation.
Lack of equitable access to the outdoors—and therefore in positive nature experiences--may be one factor in the environmental movement remaining so white. We're locked in a cycle of conservation efforts that mostly center white needs, even as Black communities and communities of color suffer the worst environmental risks (Black people are 40 percent more likely and Black communities are exposed to more pollution). As we confront environmental justice, we have to address all these barriers to entry.
We spoke with several Black outdoor enthusiasts about how they connect with the outdoors, why the outdoors should be more accessible and inclusive, and how we can achieve that.
James Edward Mills, Wisconsin
James (he/him) is a storyteller, freelance journalist, outdoor guide and producer who specializes in stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation and sustainable living. You might’ve heard his name before, as he is the writer of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, the story of the first all-Black American attempt to reach the summit of Denali, the highest point in North America.
Growing up, James’ parents enjoyed spending time outdoors, leading him to become a very active Boy Scout. But his interest never went away; right now, James’ two favorite things to do outdoors are walking and fly fishing (especially if he’s walking to a fishing spot).
“To me that point of contact with nature is extremely important because if there are fish, that means that the environment's probably pretty healthy. There is water, there are trees for shade, there are bugs for food and other animal species that eat them as well. And that means that it's a healthy, safe ecosystem that everyone can enjoy. Including myself.”
The privileges of wealth, access to good equipment and the ability to drive long distances have allowed James to have good experiences in the outdoors. And while he wants (and is working to get) more people of color to have similar experiences, James says not everyone acknowledges the real limitations that exist. James thinks we need to help people address these limitations to ensure a more diverse, equitable and inclusive outdoors. Doing so will help protect these spaces for the future, as deep relationships with nature will encourage people to protect the environment.
Marilyn Griffin, Michigan
Marilyn (she/her) is the creator of Griffin Gardens, a three-lot neighborhood garden in Detroit. Her beautiful space offers flowers, vegetables, fruits and herbs that the community can enjoy. Her mission: To bring education and health to her community.
Before moving back home to Detroit and creating the garden, Marilyn was a teacher for nearly a decade in New York. There, one of her main goals was for students to know who they are and where they come from. After deciding to leave her job to study her own family lineage, Marilyn found out her dad had bought two lots adjacent to the house where she grew up. Thus, the garden was born.
"I have learned so much about nature just by sitting in my garden and watching it happen. During summertime, it just be poppin’... the beans, the butterflies, the animals, everyone is just procreating, living life, eating... it is just buzzing with goodness! I'm like, they're the same as us. We are so connected and alike.”
Marilyn knows that some people might not feel like nature is for them, but everyone deserves to be exposed to it. She says there is something very spiritual about being outside, and she wants more people of color to experience that.
Marilyn knows many Black folks may be afraid of venturing into unknown territory (for good reason). That’s why Marilyn says grassroots and local organizations that encourage people of color to go outdoors are vital. There’s also a role for schools to play in offering outdoors opportunities to kids as early in life as possible.
Nicholas Durgadeen, Virgin Islands
Nicholas (he/him) is a coral restoration technician specialist at the University of the Virgin Islands and plans to study coral resiliency against rising ocean temperatures. His love for the outdoors began at a young age, from spending time at the beach. Eventually, Nicholas’ growing curiosity about the ocean and how much humans rely on it spurred him to earn his scuba-diving certification in high school. Because he’s an adventurous person, he never gets bored of discovering something new underwater.
“Seeing and interacting with animals that many people won't ever get to see or interact with in their life. That’s what gives me that drive to continue to learn and try to help restore the environment so that I can continue to have those connections. And that the coming generations can also hopefully have that kind of experience.”
While working on coral reef projects, Nicholas says they have to consider how the local population interacts with corals; historically, coral-rich areas were also areas with fishing communities. Nicholas says this is an example of why it’s important to have community involvement in conservation projects.
Nicholas also visits high schools to talk to students about marine sciences and conservation, fields that are unknown to many. He wants them to see themselves represented in science careers and know that they too can work to protect the environment.
Aleshea Carrieré, Texas
Aleshea (she/her) is a southern girl living in Dallas who loves food, traveling and the outdoors. She writes about all of that on her blog, where you will find incredible recipes, tips on how to train for a backpacking trip, a list of the best bicycling trails and more.
Whether she’s taking a nap, hiking, fishing, camping or kayaking (which is something she has recently gotten into), you will most likely find Aleshea outside. Being a Girl Scout growing up led her to be more curious about the outdoors, something her parents wanted her to experience.
“I recently went on a hike with grandma, a short one of maybe 30 minutes -- she had her little cane and all. She told me she didn’t grow up doing things in nature like this. But afterwards she was so happy and proud of herself. And I was like, who gets to say what's a real hike or not? Cause my grandma is having fun out here!”
Nature is supposed to be free, yet it is not accessible for everyone. Aleshea points out that in many parts of Texas, finding parks and public lands requires driving long distances. Lack of access to green spaces in urban areas is part of the reason Aleshea believes many Black communities tend not to spend time outdoors. A history buff, she also points out that advances in this area were relatively recent; when her grandmother was a young adult, she was not even legally allowed in certain outdoor spaces. Even now, decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed several forms of discrimination, plenty of parks and outdoor spaces remain unwelcoming to people of color.
Aleshea says a diversified outdoors starts with Black folks being able to share their stories and experiences, making sure others understand that they are not a monolith.
Jason Hall, Pennsylvania
Jason (he/him) is the founder of In Color Birding Club, a nonprofit that focuses on making the birding experience a positive one for Black, Indigenous and people of color and their allies. The group offers bird outings across the greater Philadelphia area, but they also try to make a difference in some of the unmet economic and social needs of Black and brown communities, including by sponsoring buses to green spaces for majority-BIPOC schools.
“Birds are an overlay on our outdoor experience almost everywhere we go. I get excited about the representation of the spaces I'm in, based on the birds and the people that love the birds. I don't view the people on a certain block in Philadelphia in any different light than I view the birds on that block. They're all inhabitants of that space and there's diversity that should be appreciated and enjoyed.”
Inspired by the Black AF In STEM group and the creation of Black Birders Week, Jason wants people of color to be introduced to birding in a joyful, fun and welcoming way. He says birding always offers something to learn, something to appreciate or some new experience, even from a bird that you've seen many times.
Jason also believes that humanity has an obligation to be the stewards of this planet, and that involves all of us. If we want to actually make a difference, we need to give underrepresented communities the agency to make decisions on how to protect these lands. He says consistency is key, and continuing to make change now will allow younger generations to connect with and protect nature.
Anjel Iriaghomo, Washington, DC
Anjel (she/her) is an advocate not only for animals, but for underrepresented social groups and human rights. She studied animal and veterinary sciences at Clemson University in South Carolina and is now a government relations fellow at the Ocean Conservancy as part of the RAY Diversity Fellowship.
Anjel has always been an athlete and outdoor enthusiast, but as an adult has especially come to enjoy hiking and biking. She wants more people to be able to explore outdoor spaces, especially with so many feeling burnt out from too much exposure to technology.
“There are so many benefits to living a healthy, active lifestyle that I wish everybody could experience. But I also think people would take more ownership and more respect for the natural world they immerse themselves in. I know the more time I spend outdoors, the more I feel responsible for taking care of it.”
Most of Anjel’s experiences outdoors have been positive, and she believes part of the reason is because she is usually with other people. Many people of color don’t feel comfortable in the outdoors, and Anjel thinks representation in marketing from outdoor gear manufacturers and retailers is a big factor. Because people in underrepresented communities don’t see others like them, they don’t believe it’s for them.
Sarah Greaves-Gabbadon, Florida
Sarah (she/her) is a Miami-based Caribbean travel expert and journalist who is passionate about style and fitness, especially running. She began to find joy in running and the outdoors relatively late in life, around her mid-30s. Sarah began training for her first half-marathon when she was 40, and now, at 56, has run more than 50 5ks, 10ks and half marathons, and completed the New York Marathon in 2013.
Wherever her work as a travel writer takes her - whether to a Caribbean Island, the Far East or Europe - you will most likely find Sarah running, usually as the sun comes up. It’s a pastime that has allowed her to discover new things about places she thought she already knew, including in her former home country, Jamaica.
“It's a great way to experience a destination and to meet that destination’s people as well. It's wonderful to watch a city, town or village wake up as I run. When I run, I notice things that I'm never gonna notice if I'm on a tour bus or even if I'm in a car. Running has been a passport to the outdoors, to health, to all good things in my life.”
Like Anjel, Sarah believes that underrepresentation in outdoor media leads people of color to believe nature is not for them. More diversity in advertising—showing many different types of people doing many different kinds of activities--could lead to more diversity in the outdoors. Sarah would like people to feel comfortable letting their personalities shine outdoors--to be themselves and enjoy themselves.
Justin Tucker, Maryland
Justin (he/they) is an avid hiker, backpacker and an all-round outdoor enthusiast who shares his exploits on his YouTube channel and Instagram account, hoping to inspire others to embark on their own adventures. While he’s passionate about the outdoors now, doing everything from long-distance hiking to climbing, it wasn’t until his late 20s that he found refuge in nature.
After being badly shaken by the loss of a close friend to suicide, Justin decided to part ways with his former career in the fashion industry and do some soul-searching. He would later book a trip to Iceland, where his love for hiking and nature really flourished.
“Thankfully I've experienced nothing but positive, healing moments in my outdoor explorations as well as positive experiences with the people I've interacted with in those spaces. I think it's because of my energy and personable nature, and I've also been pretty intentional about who I choose to embark on these experiences with as well as how we share space with one another.”
Justin believes the outdoors and nature’s many healing properties belong to everyone, and everyone should have equal access to them. On the same token, he notes that more people spending time outside will likely result in more people understanding the importance of the fight against climate change to save our planet. But that can only be achieved if people’s basic needs are met, Justin says. Millions of people are not thinking about going out on a hike, or even protecting the environment, because they are thinking about putting food on the table first.
The Williams family (Brittney, Jamaal, Hunter and Anders), California
Brittney (she/her), a marketing professional and nonprofit founder, and Jamaal (he/him), a procurement professional and content creator, have two daughters: Hunter (5) and Anders (almost one). With their dog, Bolo, the Williams family loves visiting parks across California for beachgoing, hiking, camping and more. They even started an Instagram account to document their travels and inspire other families and people of color to experience the outdoors.
It all started when they decided to take a walk one day for fresh air. Invigorated by the way they felt out in nature, the Williams’ walks turned into full-fledged hikes and then longer trips.
“Getting outside has given us the opportunity to see some new places and spend time with the kids away from screens. We were both grown when we went camping for the first time, but our daughters got to try it much earlier in life.”
Brittney and Jamaal believe everyone should be able to share in the beauty of nature. They also point out that while going outside is “free,” access to national parks often comes with a fee, which can create another barrier for marginalized communities. Another obstacle is the fact that people of color are usually left out of outdoor brands and organizations’ decision-making and marketing strategies.
Elexus Brooks, Louisiana
From hiking the Garden of the Gods in Colorado to enjoying a day at a lake in Nebraska, Elexus Brooks (she/her) grew up going on adventures with her family and friends. As a child of military parents, she has also moved across the U.S. and the globe.
Right now, Elexus is studying economics at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. When the stress of daily life gets to be too much, she enjoys walking and hiking to clear her mind and be present in the moment.
“Recently I watched the movie ‘The Grinch’ in one of our local parks here [in Lafayette] and seeing so many people gathered with their families and friends to watch the movie while drinking hot chocolate was very endearing to see.”
Since childhood, one of Elexus’ all-time favorite outdoor activities has been visiting local park events and festivals to meet new people and connect with her community. Access to local parks and hiking trails is necessary for the community to carry on such traditions, which help families and loved ones stay close. Local parks also offer recreational opportunities at little to no cost.
Adrian Wilson, Florida
Adrian (he/him) is an avid rock climber, all-around outdoors enthusiast and environmental justice advocate. Originally from Virginia, he is studying environmental science and political science at Florida A&M University.
Although the former Boy Scout has always been "outdoorsy,” it wasn’t until the beginning of the pandemic that Adrian discovered and fell in love with rock-climbing. Since then, he’s been to rock-climbing events across the country. He says everything he does is an avenue to the outdoors, and he especially loves getting other people, mostly Black and brown folks, outside to heal trauma and fear, but most of all, to have fun. This intersection of environmental recreation and an interest in increasing accessibility for people of color outdoors is what led him to create the Outdoor Club at FAMU. They have taken over 200 students kayaking, gardening, rock climbing and other outdoor activities.
“We want our students to be able to enjoy the outdoors, but also learn about it, so that some of them can have future jobs in these fields and continue to conserve and advocate for these spaces. We have people from all walks of life join in the outdoor activities. It's amazing to get everyone engaged while still being able to foster that sense of community.”
Adrian says there are a lot of things that need to be done to make the outdoors more inclusive, welcoming and accessible for BIPOC and other marginalized communities. Beyond historical barriers, he believes a lot of it comes down to money, time and education. Once the financial barriers are alleviated, it becomes a lot easier for people to make time. Scholarships have helped Adrian with most of his activities and allowed him the ability to have these experiences.
Ultimately, getting more people outdoors will not only improve their lives, but lead to a stronger relationship with nature – and a stronger sense of why protecting wild places is important.