The lack of diversity in outdoor rec is systematic and disconcerting

I want people of color to feel called to reclaim natural spaces.

 

Lake McDonald can be found along Glacier National Park’s stunning Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana.

This story was originally published by Undark and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

During the blistering summer of 1919, an oppressive heat wave lingered over the South Side of Chicago, and Eugene Williams had turned 17 just a few months back. Williams, who worked as a grocery store porter, had built a homemade raft with his friends, and on a brutal Sunday afternoon, they decided to take it out onto Lake Michigan for a ride. The raft drifted over the water and inadvertently crossed over to the 29th Street section of the waters. The white section.

According to several historical accounts, a white beachgoer hurled stones toward Williams and his friends, one of whom reported that a rock hit Williams in the head before he slumped into the water. Other accounts — including the coroner’s jury — stated that Williams was trying to avoid being hit when he let go of the raft and drowned. When a police officer refused to arrest the person who was seen throwing rocks, tensions rose and riots ensued, heightening a season of racial violence throughout the U.S. that came to be known as the Red Summer.

That was more than 100 years ago. But you can draw a straight line from the tragic death of Eugene Williams — a kid who was simply attempting to enjoy the great outdoors — to the underrepresentation of Black Americans in outdoor spaces today. Until the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act, Black people in many states were legally barred or subjected to segregation at national and state parks, and other public lands. The National Health Foundation has identified historic segregation, along with racial violence and economic inequality, as factors underlying the “diversity gap” in nature-based outdoor recreational activities. Today, we still see reports of Black Americans being treated as “others” in natural spaces; we see instances of cops being called when Black people are congregating at parks, or even golfing.

In 2010, 13% of the U.S. population identified as Black, yet the National Park Service recorded that, between 2001 and 2011, only 1% of its visitors were Black.

Layer atop that history of discrimination the situational and financial barriers that prohibit Black people from experiencing these outlets, and it is hardly surprising that a recent report by the Outdoor Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, found that Black Americans are significantly underrepresented in outdoor activities. Black youth also had the lowest participation rates of all youth groups, further cause for alarm about the future gap in participation rates for Black adults. In 2010, 13% of the U.S. population identified as Black, yet the National Park Service recorded that, between 2001 and 2011, only 1% of its visitors were Black. As a Black person, I find it discouraging to not see myself reflected in these spaces.

The diversity gap in the great outdoors didn’t happen by chance; it is systemic, and has been further perpetuated by biased narratives and stereotypes. To properly understand the collective hesitancy of Black Americans to experience outdoor spaces, we must view it as a justifiable response to historical circumstances.

As a Black kid growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, I rarely ventured out in search of outdoor activities. I preferred the comfortable realm of organized sports, and the thrill of skating and longboarding down seal-coated asphalt pavements. I remember in my teens, my dad and I had to drive out to a rural area of east Texas for my driving test. He took a moment as we parked to drill it into my head that I might encounter someone who might say something derogatory towards me solely based on the color of my skin. He told me not pay it any mind because they don’t know any better, and we don’t hold space and energy for people who aim to disrespect our humanity. I’ve carried that with me to this day — both the knowledge that rural areas can pose a specific kind of threat to Black people, and the resolve not to let it encumber me.

I went on to attend college just outside of Austin, Texas, and during my freshman year I fell deeply in love with the Hill Country. Whenever I had free time, I would spend it camping, exploring, kayaking and jumping into any body of water I could find. I spent nights with friends underneath the stars, telling stories around campfires, somehow always short on supplies.

Those escapades taught me more about myself and the world around me than I’d learned in all of the 17 years prior. They taught me to value how interconnected we all are. They humbled my ego and cultivated a more mindful approach to living. The outdoors showed me a way to be still through heartbreaks and stressful periods — a way to heal. It helped me to see a clearer vision of the person I wanted to be. I’ve explored Arches National Park in Utah, rode toward the sun in Montana’s Glacier National Park, skied down enchanted slopes in New Mexico, and scaled 19 of the highest peaks in Colorado, where I now live.

The outdoors showed me a way to be still through heartbreaks and stressful periods — a way to heal.

Time spent outdoors has become an essential part of my healthy living. It allows me to escape the noise and air pollution of the city, to disconnect from the world and the constant pressures of modern society. It’s a way to get my heart rate up, but also to decompress, meditate and breathe. More than once, the outdoors have saved me from falling into depressive bouts.

That’s why I find it so disconcerting that I don’t see myself and people who look like me reflected in outdoor recreational culture. It’s the reason for my headstrong self-expression through the great outdoors. I want other people of color to gain an understanding and appreciation for the mountains as well. I want other people of color to feel a calling to reclaim these natural spaces and break the cultural constraints we’ve been historically pressured into.

In recent years, we’ve seen a national movement to promote inclusion in outdoor spaces gain recognition in the mainstream. Black Sand Surf, Outdoor Afro and Brown Folks Fishing are just a few of the organizations leading the way. But we can, and should, do much more. We need more Black representation in our national parks’ organizational structure and workforce, more partners advocating for the experience of outdoor spaces for people of color, and, most importantly, a more concerted effort to communicate the health benefits of outdoor recreation to people of color.

I and other Black recreationalists have the capacity not only to scale mountains but to break cycles of historical oppression — and to inspire others along the way. Though the trail can feel lonely at times, we must keep climbing: The views from the summit will be worth it.

Joe Kanzangu is an adventurer, writer and presenter, who adores cooking for those around him. He’s currently based in Denver, Colorado.

We welcome reader letters. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CAMPAIGN MANAGER
    Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to protecting, defending and restoring Oregon's high desert, seeks a Campaign Manager to works as...
  • HECHO DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • REGIONAL REPRESENTATIVE, COLUMBIA CASCADES
    The Regional Representative serves as PCTA's primary staff on the ground along the trail working closely with staff, volunteers, and nonprofit and agency partners. This...
  • FINANCE AND OPERATIONS DIRECTOR
    The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) seeks a full-time Finance and Operations Director to manage the internal functions of MLR and its nonprofit affiliates. Key areas...
  • DIRECTOR OF CONSERVATION
    The Nature Conservancy is recruiting for a Director of Conservation. Provides strategic leadership and support for all of the Conservancy's conservation work in Arizona. The...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • BIG BASIN SENIOR PROJECT PLANNER - CLIMATE ADAPTATION & RESILIENCE
    Parks California Big Basin Senior Project Planner - Climate Adaptation & Resilience ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our...
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • SCIENCE PROJECT MANAGER
    About Long Live the Kings (LLTK) Our mission is to restore wild salmon and steelhead and support sustainable fishing in the Pacific Northwest. Since 1986,...
  • HUMAN RESOURCES GENERALIST
    Honor the Earth is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and does not discriminate based on identity. Indigenous people, people of color, Two-Spirit or LGBTQA+ people,...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Colorado Trout Unlimited seeks an individual with successful development experience, strong interpersonal skills, and a deep commitment to coldwater conservation to serve as the organization's...
  • NEW BOOK BY AWARD-WINNING WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST, BRUCE SMITH
    In a perilous place at the roof of the world, an orphaned mountain goat is rescued from certain death by a mysterious raven.This middle-grade novel,...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Now hiring a full-time, remote Program Director for the Society for Wilderness Stewardship! Come help us promote excellence in the professional practice of wilderness stewardship,...
  • WYOMING COMMUNITY PARTNERSHIPS COORDINATOR
    The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership is seeking Coordinator to implement public education and advocacy campaigns in the Cowboy State to unite and amplify hunter, angler,...
  • ASSISTANT TOWN ATTORNEY
    Town of Jackson, Wyoming, $66,700 - $88,000 DOQ, full benefits. Law Degree Required. Rental housing options available. For a complete job description and to apply,...
  • MOUNTAIN LOTS FOR SALE
    Multiple lots in gated community only 5 miles from Great Sand Dunes National Park. Seasonal flowing streams. Year round road maintenance.
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...