by Will Sweger
On a sunny Saturday morning, a group of people who had never met formed a circle in a forest. One by one, they shared what they hoped to get from spending the day touring Diablo Lake in North Cascades National Park. Some expressed a desire to learn more about history, others were there to meet new friends, still others just wanted to explore their surroundings.
The thing uniting the visitors? They are men, women, and children from communities of color in Seattle.
The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), the Wilderness Inner-city Leadership Development (WILD), Outdoor Afro, and Seattle City Light worked together to field the trip as a way of fostering more diverse interaction with public lands. From the North Cascades Environmental Learning Center, the group took a boat tour of the hydroelectric dams managed by Seattle City Light.
Values collided in these surroundings. A series of hydroelectric dams on the Skagit River showcase humanity’s dominance over nature. Each dam cuts further into the mountains and looms larger than the last. At the same time, the power generated by water falling along its journey to the sea provides the majority of Seattle’s electricity from a renewable source. The overwhelming majesty of untouched wilderness is everywhere, wherever you crane your neck from the translucent blue water below to the high and ancient cliffs above.
It was also a collision of culture. Most of the visitors hiking and kayaking around the group were white.
The cultural divide wasn’t an anomaly. A 2017 study by the Outdoor Industry Association found that 73 percent of participants in outdoor recreation in the U.S. were non-Hispanic white.
Rob Smith, Northwest Regional Director for the NPCA explained, “By any measure, whether you’re a company like REI, or the Park Service, or NPCA, when you look at who our members are and who are buying things, you find a lot of older, whiter people.”
Christopher Peguero, Environmental Equity Advisor for Seattle City Light, also attended the event and discussed his own entrance into a profession oriented around the outdoors.
“As a kid I wanted to so badly work in the environmental sector, I wanted to become a naturalist. I didn’t see an opportunity or a path forward for myself. When I was a kid, we didn’t have the resources,” he said. “Still today, if you look across the broad spectrum of the environmental sector, 12 to 16 percent of folks are people of color. So we still have a long way to go.”
Access to outdoor recreation areas has real health effects. Studies suggest spending time outside can lead to lower blood pressure and improved fitness. It can even help combat depression and anxiety. Outdoor recreation participants also have access to a larger community.
Vincent Kwan, a Program Manager with WILD, expressed his excitement at engaging with youth and elders from the International District of Seattle on the trip.
“It just feels like [elders] are so secluded in their own apartments that they don’t have access to major green spaces besides the Danny Woo Garden,” he said. “Giving them the opportunity and giving them access to green spaces like the North Cascades or the Mt. Baker Snoqualmie Forest is something that I want to continue doing in WILD.”
WILD, a program created by Interim Community Development Association, focuses on conservation, environmental justice, and youth leadership development in the outdoors. Established in 1997 to connect youth in the International District to the wilderness around the city, WILD provides opportunities and resources for youth living in the inner-city of Seattle who may otherwise be unable to enjoy natural areas.
Kwan said many youth are surprised to find the air and water quality in the International District has a profound effect on residents and visitors alike.
“I hope that more people of color go into the environmental field because they’ll become professional advocates for our communities that really need it,” he said.
Most of the criticism of the lack of diversity in the outdoors has fallen on the massive Outdoor Retailer convention that takes place yearly. Outdoor gear manufacturers, retailers, and publications control the economic face of recreation on advertisements, magazines, and other media. Including a more diverse cast in depictions of people outdoors makes financial sense for the outdoor industry, which alone raked in two percent of the entire U.S. GDP in 2016—about $373.7 billion.
The U.S. Census Bureau predicts white people in the U.S. will no longer form a majority in the U.S. by 2045. For outdoor retailers who want to keep up in the massive industry, diversification means survival. Yet Outside Magazine changing its cover does little to assuage the realities that the lack of a support network and unwelcoming rural communities keep many from experiencing the natural cathedrals of the country.
Enter organizations like Outdoor Afro, which is devoted to shining a light on participation in the outdoors by people of color in an effort to make others feel more comfortable taking part in nature. Outdoor Afro is a non-profit, volunteer-led, national organization where organizers use Meetup and Facebook to plan events. Previous activities have included stand up paddle boarding, white water rafting, sailing, hikes, and campouts.
Karimah Knowles, an Outdoor Afro Leader in Seattle, hosted the opening and closing circles before and after the event to provide a forum for attendees to describe what they hoped to take away from the day’s experience and the types of events they would like to see in the future.
Before she got involved in Outdoor Afro, Knowles explained, “I loved going outside, I was more of a water person, kayaking—things like that.”
Her love of the outdoors only intensified after she moved to the Northwest.
“Being up here, I started to kind of do more in the outdoors, and just kind of push myself,” she said. “This organization, this opportunity came up and it sort of married my new burgeoning interests with doing some volunteer work.”
Outdoor Afro’s 16 seats for the event booked up within a few days of posting about the trip.
“It just goes to show that people want to have these sorts of experiences and when there is an opportunity to do it, people are ready and willing,” Knowles said. “There are communities of color, like Outdoor Afro, that are very much willing, interested, and able to enjoy the outdoor space.”
Aiyu Chen, a Community Leadership Liaison Assistant with WILD and a former participant in the program, praised it for bringing visibility to outdoor prospects for people of color.
“This is a program where I first encountered the outdoors and that affected my life,” Chea said. “I’m studying environmental health now. If it wasn’t for WILD, I wouldn’t have known about these opportunities.”
Speaking of the barriers that keep many people of color away from National Parks, Peguero explained it’s important to create an environment where all individuals have access to affordable and safe transportation to and from parks, where they can access park resources in the language they speak, and where access isn’t limited by possession of special equipment.
“Besides representation and employment … we want folks at the table to build programs and policies so that everyone benefits from environmental progress,” he said. “I want all communities to drive electric cars, not [for] electric cars to be a symbol of gentrification and displacement.”
“One thing that could be easily said about this experience is that it’s exceptional and that’s where we have a problem. These should not be the exception, these need to be the norm,” Peguero said, referring to the trip. “When we come together, we’re strong. We just need to continue that.”
Will Sweger is a contributor at the South Seattle Emerald. His work has appeared in Seattle Weekly, Curbed Seattle, The Urbanist, and Cascadia Magazine. Find him on Twitter @willsweger
Featured photo by Alex Garland.
This article has been updated to correct the Aiyu Chen’s title and clarify the description of WILD.