Oregonians of color are building relationships in the outdoors

‘We’re actually here for each other.’


People of Color Outdoors community day at Oxbow Regional Park in Gresham, Oregon.

This story was originally published by Oregon Humanities and is republished here by permission.

As a child, Pamela Slaughter spent her days at nature spots in Portland, riding her bike to Kelley Point Park and Bybee Lake. Her love of the outdoors continued into adulthood, when she began taking her children on hikes throughout Oregon. One day, though, a group of skinheads crowded her family on a path, harassing them. Though the encounter was brief, it was traumatic.

“That stopped me from going out for years,” Slaughter says. “Before that, on the weekends, on spring break, we would throw a dart and just pick somewhere to go camping. But after that incident I did things with groups only.”

Slaughter, founder of People of Color Outdoors, an organization that hosts outdoor recreational and educational events open only to Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC), links these contemporary acts of racism to Oregon’s history, in which settlers attempted to create an all-white state through exclusion laws. From the earliest days of Oregon’s provisional government, these laws prevented Black or “Mulatto” people from residing in Oregon; later laws instituted race-based taxes and forced labor for Black, Mulatto, Chinese and Hawaiian residents. Although the 14th amendment made these laws unenforceable after 1868, they were not all repealed by voters until 1926, and the sentiment behind them lingered. Slaughter says, “Just because it happened a long time ago, it doesn’t mean that culture of racial hatred has not been passed down.”

Sam DeJarnett, founder of the podcast and ecotourism company Always Be Birdin’, agrees that Oregon’s racist history lives on in outdoor spaces. “I think when we use the word history, people automatically think it’s not happening anymore.” At local wildlife refuges with fellow Black birders, DeJarnett has encountered white people who stare into her car. “I’m like, ‘Do you see us having binoculars? You also have binoculars! What do you think we’re doing here?’ It’s so annoying, and it’s just that residual history. We can’t act like that was so far in the past that nobody alive has that mentality.” Since moving to Portland nine years ago, DeJarnett has experienced covert and overt racism in the birding community. “My first time out was amazing. I had a blast with my coworkers [at Portland Audubon]. I was able to see a bald eagle booking it across a pond after a mallard, and that sealed the deal for me. And at the same time, my group was shushed by two older white people who were also out birding. I was like, ‘My joy just got policed, and I don’t like that.’”

Dez Ramirez, program director for the BIPOC Conservation Initiative at Wild Diversity, notes how a relative lack of racial diversity in Oregon — for example, in Portland, people of color make up only 22% of the population, compared to a national average of 43% — can make it challenging for people of color to spend time in the outdoors. “That feeling of discomfort when you pull up to the spot and you don’t see anyone else that’s Black or Brown — that’s like this low-grade anxiety people of color just live with all the time in Oregon, every day.” For people of color, the relaxation and beauty that so many Oregonians enjoy in the outdoors is tempered by this psychological burden. “If [people of color] want to park their car and get out and go hiking in Oregon, I think subconsciously it is fight-or-flight sometimes, and a lot of people just push through that.”

Outdoor recreation events that are open only to people of color are one way to lessen this fight-or-flight response. “How much lighter would you feel moving through the world if you show up and you see all your people there, and you don’t have to feel that dread or that low-grade anxiety or that panic?” asks Ramirez. “To imagine a moment in time where you don’t feel that at all, you don’t have to show up feeling worried — I think that’s what is created and fostered when you have these BIPOC-only spaces.”

“How much lighter would you feel moving through the world if you show up and you see all your people there, and you don’t have to feel that dread or that low-grade anxiety or that panic?”

Rikeem Sholes, who coleads PDX Climbers of Color with Nicolas Raingsey, Destinie Davis, and Anne-Marie Santos, notes how transformative BIPOC groups can be for rock climbers. “They can just relax and enjoy the climb for the climb. They don’t have to represent their whole race. That’s a lot to carry when you’re trying to do something like rock climbing, which is so inherently stressful anyway, especially in the beginning, that you don’t need to feel like you’re a fish in a bowl while you’re doing it.”

It can be difficult, though, for people of color — especially those who didn’t grow up in Oregon — to find each other. Sholes recounts the challenges he faced trying to find other hikers of color before he began coleading Portland POC Hikes with Samira Axelson and Omar Osnayahis. “I come from New Orleans. It’s got a thriving Black community. I never had to look for Black people when I went out to an event. When you move to Portland, you have to make a concerted effort to find people. You have to be at a specific place at a specific time on a specific day.”

People of Color Outdoors community day at Oxbow Regional Park in Gresham, Oregon.

Darryl Ramsey, who moved to Portland 20 years ago, says that he was only able to connect with the Black community here in the last five years. As the leader of Outdoor Afro Portland, Ramsey wants to accelerate that process of connection for other newcomers to the state. He finds that often, after Outdoor Afro events, attendees continue to connect in other ways. “I have a group of ladies that go to Zumba class regularly,” Ramsey says. “And somebody just mentioned to me that a group of them went to the Oregon Symphony together.” Though the group is based in Portland, it also fosters relationships among Black people throughout the state. “We have people that join us regularly — they’ll drive two and half, three hours, to get to an event to be with us in the outdoors.”

DeJarnett, who began leading outings through Always Be Birdin’ in summer 2021, has made that connection to community a central point of her events. After a BIPOC-only event she led in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, DeJarnett noticed that the group was still talking, exchanging phone numbers and social media handles. “To be able to do that outside around birding — I love it. These are the moments that move me the most, when people are having a blast so much that they want to come back and do it again, and they leave with a new friend.” DeJarnett says that it’s important for her not to prioritize birding over community or vice versa. “Some people are out here because they want the community, and then they fall in love with birding. Some people love birds more than people, but then they find community. I just don’t want it to be, ‘We’re only here for the birds.’ We’re actually here for each other, and then we’re birding.”

People of Color Outdoors community day at Oxbow Regional Park in Gresham, Oregon.

Part of the way that each of these organizations fosters community is by creating events that are structured and safe enough to reduce the intimidation that people of color can feel in outdoor spaces. Outdoor Afro Portland, for instance, provides walkie-talkies on hikes so that participants who want to take a break can do so while still being connected to a group. “Ninety-nine percent of the time,” Ramsey says, “somebody’s going to hang back with them too.” By expressing care for each other’s safety and well-being, participants often forge strong relationships. At PDX Climbers of Color outings, Sholes notes, “There’s an inherent amount of trust there. I’ve never so willingly put my hands into the lives of so many strangers, people that I just met that day. It’s like, ‘You hang onto the end of this rope, and I’m going to go climb 40 feet up this thing.’ So, I think that does make for some really good friendships, just because you’ve already put your lives in each other’s hands.”

Those moments of relationship — especially when they occur outdoors — can be healing for people of color. “Life is hard, and there’s a lot of injustice in the world,” Ramirez says. “There’s a lot of beauty in the world, too, and people of color need a lot of space to process and rest and heal. If the outdoors can be a place where they can do that, then I want it to feel as safe and good as possible for them.”

Sholes says, “Being able to find community and just watching my mental health go through the roof since I’ve been here — that has been one of the biggest things for me.” He urges other Black people to get outside, especially during the winter, when it might be tempting to stay inside and nest. “I don’t expect everybody to love hiking, but I do want them to think about the fact that the outdoors — any time outdoors — can be helpful for our people here.”

“Being able to find community and just watching my mental health go through the roof since I’ve been here — that has been one of the biggest things for me.”

These groups recognize that even with the many events available for Oregonians of color, barriers to outdoor recreation still exist. Ramsey says that although Outdoor Afro might have 300 people interested in snowboarding on any weekend, fewer than ten people usually show up. “How would you get back and forth to Mt. Hood if you don’t have a four-wheel drive vehicle? So that’s one barrier.” Members of Outdoor Afro have been meeting with Oregon legislators to express these concerns, suggesting public transportation routes that would allow Black Oregonians to reach wilderness areas more easily.

In addition to transportation, affordability can be a challenge. “These sports can be really expensive to be a part of, to really enjoy,” Sholes says of rock climbing and hiking. “You can be outside for free, but to be comfortable outside is expensive. So both groups aim to bring down that cost, especially since BIPOC are disproportionately affected by the wage gap.” For example, PDX Climbers of Color partners with gyms that reduce their entry fees and gear pricing for the group. “Both of the groups also have gear libraries so people can come and just check stuff out,” Sholes says. “We have outdoor gear, we have backpacking stuff, and that’s free. That’s all provided by grants.”

People of Color Outdoors community day at Oxbow Regional Park in Gresham, Oregon.

But with advocacy and grant writing comes additional labor, and many of the groups are led by volunteers who have full-time jobs outside of these organizations. For example, Sholes is a wildlife biologist and Ph.D. candidate. “This was just something I was doing for fun, and now it’s turned into a thing where I have to do bookkeeping and keep track of all this gear,” says Sholes. “Most of the stuff that we do is volunteer, unless we specifically write it into a grant to pay ourselves out for the time.” Sholes recognizes that because he and his fellow group administrators are all working on multiple projects, they need to find more people to lead, but finding additional leaders can be difficult. “With us not being a nonprofit, I can never guarantee that somebody’s going to be consistently paid,” he says. “It takes a very specific person to be, like, ‘Hey, I want to dedicate my time to this community and probably not get paid for it.’”

As a nonprofit, Wild Diversity is one of the few groups in the state able to consistently train and pay leaders to guide people of color on outdoor adventures. Building confidence is key to fostering leadership, says Ramirez. “I just want Oregonians of color to feel liberated in their homes, in their yards, in their parks, on their trails, at the river, on the mountain, in the woods, and not feel afraid to be themselves. In my dream, Oregonians of color feel like leaders in this type of work in this space — they’re feeling well established, they’re feeling like, ‘I know how to spend time outside in the ways that I like, and I feel good about it.’”

DeJarnett, too, connects the pleasure of outdoor experiences to liberation. “To me, when you’re outside, still remaining in joy despite whatever is happening in your life, on the news, and right immediately around you — it’s the biggest form of protest against racism and white supremacy . . . because white supremacy aims to tear us down, to see us fail, to see us in pain, to see us in misery. So when you’re out there doing your thing as a person of color despite all that, and you’re still in your joy, it’s the biggest form of protest I think I can do.”

Jennifer Perrine is the author of four books of poetry: Again, The Body Is No Machine, In the Human Zoo, and No Confession, No Mass. Perrine’s recent poems, stories and essays appear in The Missouri Review, JuxtaProse Literary Magazine, Cutbank, New Letters, Buckman Journal and Harpur Palate. A resident of Portland, Perrine co-hosts the Incite: Queer Writers Read series, teaches creative writing and serves as a wilderness guide.

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