by Jake Solyst
February 22, 2021
There’s a saying that goes “You can’t be what you can’t see,” and it’s true for hikers, birders, climbers, boaters and anglers as much as it is for any other hobby.
For a person to start participating in outdoor recreation, it helps to first see someone who looks like them doing it. And in America, Black people are especially underrepresented in these spaces. The most recent National Park Service survey found that 6% of National Park visitors are Black, while 77% are white. You’ll find similar underrepresentation in various other scenes, leading some kids and adults to believe that these activities aren’t for them. When this happens, there’s less of a reason to advocate for a healthier environment or pursue careers in conservation.
This is just one reason for the movement to bring more diversity to the outdoors. In recent years, we’ve seen the creation of online events like Black Birders Week, #BlackBotanistsWeek and #BlackInNationalParks that highlight Black people in these fields. Here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, there are several groups also working to increase diversity in the outdoors, particularly for Black people, through one of the most accessible forms of outdoor engagement: hiking.
Through organized hikes, climbs and other outdoor events, these groups are breaking down preconceived notions of what an outdoor enthusiast looks like. They offer support and motivation for people who may feel unwelcome at parks, and in the process, are creating more stewards of our lands and waterways.
Tyrhee Moore has climbed the Grand Tetons, Mount Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua in Agentina, and was a part of the first all African-American climb of Denali. But it’s in his hometown of Washington, D.C. where he started the nonprofit, Soul Trak. According to its website, Soul Trak is “connecting urban communities of color to our planet’s green spaces.” The nonprofit creates opportunities for kids and adults to hike, climb and camp, and has a student ambassador program through Howard University. Beyond its many youth and adult programs, the organization currently offers online (and soon again, in person) events, like documentary viewings and panel discussions with Black outdoor leaders.
Outdoor Afro is one of the largest networks of outdoor recreation for Black people in the country, with more than 80 leaders in 42 cities. These trip leaders plan and lead hikes in multiple Chesapeake watershed states, including Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York, as well asWashington, D.C. With a mission of “changing the face of conservation,” the organization also incorporates stewardship thinking into its programs, with a leave no trace initiative designed to keep neighborhoods clean when outdoor recreation increases. Though not in the watershed, an Outdoor Afro group in Oakland, California got a signature of approval from none other than Oprah Winfrey when she joined the nonprofit for a hike during her Vision Tour in 2020.
Black Girls Hike RVA
Co-founders Narshara Tucker and Nicole Boyd first got the idea for Black Girls Hike RVA during a hiking trip to celebrate Boyd’s 42nd birthday. While out at Crab Tree Falls, Boyd, Tucker and a few other friends noticed that no one else at the park looked like them. Deciding to do something about it, the duo started leading group hikes in and around Richmond, Virginia, inspiring women of color to explore the state’s parks and learn about its history. For Black History Month, they led a twenty-person group through Twins Lake State Park, which during the times of segregation was one of the only parks where African Americans could visit. Both middle school teachers, Tucker and Boyd also have plans of coordinating youth trips when it’s safe to do so.
There are no strenuous hikes or intimidating climbs coordinated through Backyard Basecamp. Instead, the nonprofit’s founder Atiya Wells leads nature walks in and around Baltimore, Maryland, where she operates a 10-acre land reclamation project called BLISS Meadows. Wells is making all sorts of positive social and environmental impacts in her community through urban agriculture, but it’s the nature walks that put her on this list. As a practicing nurse, Wells also leads special “Traverse With a Nurse” events and partners with Walk With a Doc, an organization that coordinates community walks with healthcare professionals.
Like many of us, Natalie Smart turned to the outdoors to destress during the COVID-19 pandemic. She began hiking new trails in Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia, and documented her trips on social media. Soon, Smart’s travels inspired other hikers to join her, and as the groups got bigger, so did her vision. Now, Smart leads trips through Destination Hike on a regular basis. And as a Black hiker, she is inspiring other people of color to enjoy nature to its fullest.
Diversify Outdoors isn’t a hiking, climbing or camping group—it’s a coalition of bloggers, athletes, activists, entrepreneurs and social media influencers who inspire people to get outdoors. According to the organization’s website, the coalition is for anyone “promoting diversity in outdoor spaces where BIPOC, LGBTQ+, and other diverse identities have historically been marginalized and silenced.” It is here that you’ll find the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom are from Chesapeake watershed states and Washington, D.C.. Regardless of their racial or sexual identity, these outdoor enthusiasts are some of the most prominent voices on environmental justice, conservation and wildlife protection.
These are just a few of the amazing organizations that are increasing the representation of Black people in the outdoors. You can find a group in your area by searching for one on social media, Meetup or in a search engine like Google. Have a group that you think should be on this list? Let us know in the comments!