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Black Lives Matter: Access and Empowerment in the Outdoors

Like the rest of the world, our team at The Recreation Project has been following the events of the past weeks in the United States closely. As we witness the struggle of Black Americans, it is deeply saddening to see instances of police brutality, inequality, and injustice. Importantly, it has also encouraged us to reflect on our own position in battling systematic oppression no matter where it occurs in the world.

It is time to acknowledge that in the outdoors, just like everywhere else, Black lives matter.

A 2018 study found that 74% of participants in outdoor activities were white. In National Parks, perhaps the United States’ greatest example of outdoor majesty, Hispanics and Asian Americans each comprised less than 5% of visitors to national park sites surveyed, while less than 2% of visitors were African Americans. As with many facets of society, overt discrimination is a historical phenomenon. When Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park was founded in the 1930s, for example, it existed as a segregated park, with heavily restricted access for Black visitors. Even if Black tourists decided to come to Lewis Mountain, one of the few areas to which they had access, segregated hotels, gas stations, and restaurants in the area made visiting the park a nearly impossible task. This history of unequal access means that if you are white, the people you see on trails, on rock walls, or in magazines look like you. For others, this paints a picture of an outdoors which is restricted to this day.

A restricted outdoors means that not only is access to outdoor activities restricted: so are the benefits it provides. The outdoors is an educator and an empowerment tool. We’ve seen this in practice. Outdoor adventure provides new and challenging experiences through which young people can practice and develop the life skills needed to succeed. They are encouraged to contemplate their identity by noticing how they react to challenges, engage with a group, and apply their learnings to the outside world. As we fight for a more just world, empowering our future generations to think, act, work together, and thrive is an incredibly important task.

As a small player in the outdoor community, the challenge is then to get better. It means making sure that young people, especially young Black people, are equipped with the resilience and relationships provided by the outdoors. It means elevating the voices of BIPOC decision-makers in the outdoors, ensuring that it is truly equitable for all. It means believing BIPOC when they say that it is not.

Says environmental activist Mustafa Ali, “[environmental justice is] s making our voices the drivers behind the community and the policies to make real change happen.” By looking introspectively, by ensuring access, and by elevating BIPOC voices, we create an outdoors that is more equal and that truly benefits everybody.

Privilege in the outdoors in real, and there is much work to be done to address it. As a first step, over the next two weeks, our Executive Director will personally match all donations made to The Recreation Project up to $50 with donations to Black Outside, Inc and to The Loveland Foundation. Black Outside, Inc’s mission is to reconnect Black American youth to the outdoors through culturally relevant outdoor experiences, while The Loveland Foundation provides resources for black women and girls to access therapy and counseling services, providing healing and empowerment to a community in need.

Based on our own experience with programs such as Girls Climbing Club, we know how powerful programs like the Loveland Foundation and Black Outside, Inc are. As our program director Accellam Denish says, “when youth come to me in the forest, I make sure they are turning their fear into joy”. We believe that no matter where they are in the world or the color of their skin, youth should feel joy, not fear. Join us in the challenge of battling systemic racism and empowering future changemakers, at home in Gulu, in the United States, and in the rest of the world.

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