Camping was one of my fondest memories as a child. Younger me loved animals, climbing trees, rolling around in the grass, and exploring every inch of nature that caught my attention. Throughout my childhood adventures in nature, I never once thought that picking flowers, collecting rocks, and spending time in natural spaces was a privilege. I never realized that I had an opportunity that most children who shared a similar skin color and ethnicity weren’t experiencing — the benefits and wonder of nature. As I grew older, I started to understand why.
Parks, hiking trails, camping sites, and even beaches are natural spaces that everyone should enjoy but many do not. Despite the problem of climate change, these natural spaces throughout U.S. history have been restricted from people of color. As an avid hiker and lover of nature, I’ve begun to explore why I don’t often see many people of color in nature and what has led to what is being called the nature gap, and what we can do to start closing that gap.
What is the nature gap and why does it exist?
The nature gap refers to the research showing that people of color are less likely to engage in outdoor spaces. There are two main reasons for this, one being stereotypes or miseducation and the other being the baseline of many problems in the Black community: racial discrimination.
Let’s start with the hard hitter of racism. During the time of slavery, the forests and wooded areas were often locations of public lynching, abuse, and death, leaving these places to be associated with trauma and fear. Kellan Kawa, a world traveler, wrote to BGN about her perspective on this issue. “Our ancestors couldn’t enjoy the outdoors because they were busy trying to stay hidden on the way to freedom,” Kawa shares. This left generations of Black people to see nature as a transitory space, not a place of leisure. Kawa further stated, “Nobody wants to go back to places where they fought for their lives.”
However, things started to change after the Civil War, as many African Americans became active participants in nature. Mammoth Cave National Park, one of the longest cave systems in the world, has been maintained due to the influence of a Black family known as the Bransfords. Nicolas Bransford, one of the original slaves on the land, bought his freedom by giving tours and catching and selling wildlife on the Mammoth Cave property. Now his great-great-grandson Jerry Bransford continues to give tours and tells the true history of the land reminding visitors that Black people did thrive in natural spaces.
As the country grew, more parks were created to give mainly white people an outdoor place of leisure. Unfortunately, John Muir, who is credited for building the National Park System, has been identified as having racist beliefs. He’s been quoted saying that Indigenous people “seemed to have no right place in the landscape.” This message of not belonging has trickled down and nestled in the minds of a generation of BIPOC individuals. This is why many of us have heard the statement, “Black people don’t do that,” when it comes to outdoor experiences. This plays into the stereotype that Black people prefer to stay only in plush indoor settings.
Yet there are more and more people of color are breaking away from this brainwashing. In fact, a study on POC shows that POC do have an interest in nature: 51.2% of Black people in the study said that they feel very curious about nature, and 44.2% said they are somewhat curious about nature.
Along with this curiosity, Marlon Turner, local and international DJ and avid hiker, wrote to BGN and shared his experiences in nature. “When I do hikes, sometimes I get those random looks, but I go out in nature because it gets me away from all the racism in the city. I would rather be around some trees, animals, and bugs who aren’t bothering me.”
The interest in nature seems to be there, but how can we overcome the fears and inhibitions to go outside? Fortunately, there are many individuals that noticed this problem and are actively working to close this gap.
How to close the nature gap and get POC outside?
To help answer the question as to whether it is safe for Black people to go into nature, there are many organizations and individuals that make it possible to say yes.
Kawa, who grew up exposed to nature, shared with BGN that she has learned to cultivate an attitude of resistance and not allow anyone to intimidate her into staying out of natural spaces. She continues, “I still exercise an abundance of caution when out because I’m also a queer woman, but the US has been the only hostile place.”
In addition, Vibe Thrive Adventures, founded by Jessica Newton, is a 501(c)(3) based in Denver, Colorado, and offers outdoor recreation and adventure sports opportunities for, Indigenous, Black, people of color, and allies. Newton shared in an interview on YouTube how some of the children in her programs have never explored places outside of Colorado because of the fear that has been instilled in their families.
Another great organization is Soul Trak Outdoors. Based in Washington D.C., they are a nonprofit that connects communities of color to outdoor spaces, in addition to building a coalition of diverse outdoor leaders.
Along with these organizations, we all have opportunities and responsibilities to reclaim our right to be in nature. This doesn’t mean we have to start camping or mountaineering, but we can simply start by spending more time in outdoor spaces we feel safe in. Instead of always driving by the park, we can take a walk or meet friends for a picnic in the park.
Why it’s important for POC to go outside
Nature is naturally a safe place to exist. The air is cleaner, there is no noise pollution, and it’s a great place to naturally soak up some vitamin D. These mental and health benefits are just some of the reasons why it’s important for POC to firmly and confidently insert themselves into natural spaces.
Turner shared these encouraging words with BGN: “If I’m doing a hike somewhere that’s not so popular and doesn’t have a lot of people on the trail, there is a random look of respect from both parties like, ‘Hey, I came out here too by myself and it’s nice seeing another person on the trail.’” He hopes to see more Black people on the trails in the future. “I feel that if more of us Black people go out in nature then we can start changing the perception and narrative that Black people are everywhere and not just in the ghetto, in sports, or music, etc.”
As an adult, I continue to go on hikes and swim in the ocean simply because in those moments I feel at peace as well as rejuvenated. This is something every Black person is deserving of.
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Kiersten is a freelance writer and coach. As a writer, she has written for Travel Noire, Passion Passport, BAUCE mag, and various travel and lifestyle blogs. As a writer, her goal is to write content that inspires others to take action. As a coach, her goal is to empower women to be their most authentic selves. In her free time, you can find her dancing to any song any where.