by Kimberly Goode
Chevon Powell’s love for the outdoors started at a young age. At three years old, she stepped onto the grounds at Camp Janus and knew she had discovered a place unlike any other in her life. Based in Houston, this camp is for burn survivors. And for Powell, it was a refuge. She was surrounded by people who looked like her and was free from the stares her scars regularly attracted.
“Camp was where I would get the most healing in a year,” Powell said. “I survived the year to go to camp. It was that impactful for me.”
Powell returned to those wooded campgrounds throughout her childhood, canoeing the lakes, adventuring along the trails, and exploring a transformative connection to nature. In the outdoors she could be herself without fear of judgment.
“Nature does not discriminate or treat me badly,” she said. “I can just be.”
Powell found her identity among nature’s thick trees and flowing waters, but as an African American woman she discovered that others had a harder time claiming these spaces. Many people of color have had difficulty experiencing those feelings of freedom in nature, finding public parks and trails less than welcoming and inclusive.
A 2018 report by the Outdoor Industry Association found participants in outdoor recreation are disproportionately white, with African-Americans accounting for just 9 percent, while Asian-Americans and Hispanics make up 10 percent and 6 percent respectively. Access to equipment, transportation challenges, a history of systemic discrimination, and a narrative dominated by white voices have left communities of color on the margins of outdoor recreation conversations. Powell wants to change that.
“We have been told for so long by the outdoor industry that it’s white and that it’s male and you are going to conquer something,” said Powell. “But that is not what we all do.”
On her way to a solo backpacking trip along the Appalachian Trail in Vermont, Powell was pulled over by the police. When she told the officer that she was there for outdoor recreation, he said her story was “unbelievable” and called for backup.
The experience motivated her to change the narrative around people of color and the outdoors. She surveyed her friends and family to find how they would like to engage in outdoor activities. A festival rose to the top of the list, so she started making plans for the first Refuge Outdoor Festival back in her home in the Pacific Northwest.
Refuge began in 2018 and is a three-day camping experience designed for people of color. Through workshops, facilitated conversations, art, and music, the festival celebrates diversity in the outdoors while creating spaces for healing, reminiscent of Powell’s own experiences back at Camp Janus.
Located at Tolt-MacDonald Park & Campground in Carnation, the festival is open to anyone — total novices and self-proclaimed outdoor enthusiasts, people of color and allies, children and adults. And there is something for everyone. Attendees can participate in a range of activities, from yoga and mountain biking classes, silent discos and meditation sessions, to workshops on camping basics and conversations about indigenous connections to the land.
Many of Refuge’s offerings are led by representatives from groups working toward diversity and inclusion in outdoor spaces year-round. The festival’s community partners include groups like GirlTrek, a civil-rights inspired health movement that promotes healing for African-American women through walking; Outdoor Asian, an organization connecting Asian & Pacific Islander communities to nature through trips and advocacy; and Latino Outdoors, a network promoting the stories of Latino communities in the environment and conservation. By bringing together these partners, the festival highlights the growing number of identity-affirming groups that are inviting people of color to explore their passions and, in doing so, change the face of outdoor recreation together.
Refuge sparked Jolyn GC’s interest in the outdoors. She attended the festival during its inaugural year with her mom and younger sister, and a bird walk completely changed her perspective. She came with a longtime fear of birds and left with a fascination for searching for sap lines in the trees and listening for the variety in bird calls.
“It was completely unexpected,” she said. “During that walk, it felt like the birds were showing up for me. It was like they were saying, ‘You are welcome out here.’ They were nature’s little cheerleaders.”
GC admits that had she seen a flyer for a bird walk in downtown Seattle she would have walked right by, assuming it was for another audience. But at the festival, it’s different.
“At Refuge, everything is for me. It is designed with me in mind.”
This year’s festival will take place September 27–29 at Tolt-MacDonald Park & Campground. Weekend Festival Passes are $110 for adults and $45 for youth 9 to17 years old. Children under 8 are free. A variety of sleeping accommodations are available, from tent to yurt. For more information visit refugeoutdoorfestival.com.