Blackness in the Outdoors
In late 2017 I started Different Rooute, an outdoor recreation and facilitation business aimed at reconnecting marginalized youth with nature, themselves and their communities.
I went into the outdoors sector with big eyes and a bushy tail, assuming it would be a breeze because one, I love the outdoors and have spent much time learning basic survival skills, hiking, camping, etc., and two, I could not see the sector possibly having any barriers to entry. I was wrong, the barriers stood tall.
The outdoors to many is seen as accessible for all, but the reality is, it is not (particularly for woman, non-white participants, and especially for woman of color).
It is the left behind history of Indigenous and Black people living off the land for survival and ways of life, while the White male explorer has raised the popular perception we see today.
It is the MEC ads (until their recent 'apologies') to the recreation sector's continual visual portrayal of white families enjoying the great outdoors as if other family models don’t exist.
It is the funny looks you get on a trail like "where did you come from" or "why are you here".
It is the lack of funding for non-White communities to even have the opportunity to step foot in the ocean.
The list goes on.
For me, the biggest barrier has been my abilities being questioned and my perspective coming second.
This has happened to me on numerous occasions. Once, I partnered with an organization to facilitate what I call a "reconnecting with nature hike" that happened to include a lot of new comers to Canada. On arrival, I saw the rep from said organization and approached them to let them know who I was and that I was ready to go. Their first question to me was,"Is this your first time hiking?" potentially confusing me for a participant even after explaining who I was. I told them again who I was and my purpose for being there and their response was "oh, I thought you'd be..." and did not finish their sentence, instead awkwardly walking off to greet others.
I can't say I know what they were thinking but I know how it made me feel. The micro-aggressions are constant.
People being surprised I know how to make a fire when I could start a fire with my eyes closed.
Someone wondering why I, a Black woman, would start a business in this sector.
Someone thinking I'm not strong or able enough to carry or set up my own gear.
Someone questioning if I truly could survive a night alone in the woods.
People questioning how I, in particular, ever became involved in the sector in the first place.
Or as mentioned, the reaction time after time I get when people realize I am the facilitator.
It isn’t just not seeing woman of color in the wilderness that is the issue, it is how I am seen as a woman of color in the wilderness. As if I'm not capable or for some reason do not quite fit the imagery associated with the outdoors.
Another story I'd like to share:
I had the opportunity to co-host/create and speak on a panel for an outdoor summit in Nova Scotia last year where we made the theme heavily revolve around access and inclusion in the outdoor sector in NS. I was really excited to speak on the panel about marginalized groups because I wanted to hear what people had to say or wondered about the inaccessibility of the outdoors for racialized communities in NS and potentially find some sort of next steps (A conversation that is not had enough).
To be honest, I was somewhat disappointed with the questions being asked by a room full of (mainly White) people. No one really wanted to know about the struggles and experiences of BIPOC - instead the conversation became white-washed. "Can we talk about the good things happening in these communities" was a question that was asked. "Good things?" I thought to myself. The whole point of the panel was to address the fact that there has been slim-to-no opportunities for these groups in the province’s outdoor sector- that the people in the room are the ones responsible for reaching out and making these connections to interested communities, yet no one really wanted to talk about how their own gate-keeping and funding choices are the exact reason we are not ready to have the "what good things are happening" conversation. It shot a hole in my heart knowing that many people in the room were still not willing to have the hard conversations that truly could make change.
It has been disheartening and had made me question if I will continue down this path when I am finished school regardless of the fact I'm in university to put these experiences into words and figure out how to push passed these barriers.
To add to this all, it is not like anyone stood in front of me and said "hey, you can't participate in this sector" but from afar sometimes it does feel that way. The outdoor sector in Nova Scotia has many gatekeepers who in turn have the power to make you feel included or excluded. I will admit, I feel I have fallen on the excluded side.
I cannot tell you how many times I have reached out to a number of well-known outdoor enthusiasts and businesses in Nova Scotia looking for networks, resources and opportunities. Many to my face become very excited, expressed how great my ideas are, mention that a ‘collab’ is going to happen in the future, then bam-
A week goes by, no follow-up email.
Two weeks go by, no contacts passed on as promised.
A month goes by and no support is shown.
I even once re-asked a particular person months later and was given the "oh, I forgot","I've been busy" and "I promise to follow up again this time", yet nothing.
Tough luck, I know, but this is’nt my point. As a woman of color attempting to run an outdoor-related business in Nova Scotia, these little details, opportunities and networks are the only way doors could possibly open for me. As someone who comes from a low-income and social bracket, these small details make the difference between climbing the ladder up or falling down. But this is not just about me. I am using my own experience to get my point across - those follow-ups, networks, etc. could change the course of one’s success in an unwelcoming sector to BIPOC - in a sector where barriers need to be broken with the help of allies.
Hey, maybe as a person I am not liked by some. Maybe as many sectors are, people are protective and don't want outsiders to benefit off what had been established, irrespective of one’s skin color. Whatever it is, it would be nice to know. A few emails back regardless of the outcome would have made the world of difference and kept my mind from speculating. Some may disagree but I speak from the experience of constantly pushing a boulder up the hill while feeling like gravity hasn't been the only variable pushing back.
I write this now because a year ago I am not sure I would have. I have noticed a huge jump in organizations and media promoting inclusivity and highlighting events and people of color who have been pushing the barriers all along. Sometimes I find it extremely empowering knowing over the next few years I might have a better opportunity for creating space for women of color in the outdoor sector in Nova Scotia. Other days it really brings me down knowing how hard I tried for three years to wave the flag in people’s faces about gaps in the outdoor sector, with no real recognition.
When I say recognition- I don't mean personally getting some award or acknowledgement - I mean the gatekeepers, the media, the sector itself attempting to do more to address these issues without the need for civil rights to be a trending topic on social media.
This post really is a rant but one I've had bubbling up for a while. For the years of being a "kill joy" at outdoor events, calling out the lack of diversity and expressing how excited I am when I see other people of color participating in the outdoors.
I know in scale to some, I am just a baby to this industry but I will persist when I make my way back home. I know I must continue speaking up and calling out until the outdoors is truly for all.