Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great Outdoors

Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great Outdoors

A new national conference is set to begin on September 23rd.  A group of African American environmental activists and outdoor enthusiasts will gather in Atlanta Georgia to have a frank discussion on issues of race in the movement to preserve wild and scenic places.  Called Breaking the Color Barrier in The Great Outdoors, this conference promises to bring together people of color to talk about their role in protecting the natural environment for future generations. For details visit

After 20 years in the outdoor business for me this conference is a long time in coming. As a person of color myself I’ve spent my career silently hoping that more people who look like me would find themselves enjoying the wilderness areas I love.

If only diversity in outdoor recreation were simply a matter of race. Then we might just think about ignoring it. Those who take comfort in the peace and solitude of wilderness, mostly white folks, would likely prefer to keep nature’s hideaways safely preserved for their own use. And as long as the growing minority population of black and brown folks elects to avoid these wild and scenic places, favoring instead foreign travel and urban pastimes, what’s the harm?

Status quo relegates African-Americans, Asians and Latinos, for example, to city centers often with limited access to green space. And despite no institutional restrictions today that prevent minorities from visiting their state or national parks, few feel compelled to venture away from their urban dwellings to explore the natural world. To put it simply, many people of color choose not to set out into the great outdoors. The persistent question is “why?”

Research shows ethnic minorities are conspicuously absent among participants of activities such camping, backpacking, rock climbing, cycling, skiing, and others. For more than a century, since the modern recreation era began with the designation of the first national parks, people of color have enjoyed the benefits of an active lifestyle out of doors in numbers fewer than their white counterparts relative to their percentage of the population. Again the question continues to be “why?”

It would seem there are cultural reasons that preclude minorities from taking pleasure in various outdoor experiences. For instance, the 400-year legacy of slavery and forced labor outside was likely reinforced by the post -Civil War and Great Depression era mass migration of African-Americans to major U.S. cities. Traveling from the Deep South to find factory work in the industrial north, Blacks found safety behind locked doors and congregated in urban communities.  But as a population, Jim Crow laws restricted their movements and segregated minorities to ghettos all the way up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Add to that phenomenon multiple random acts of violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups in the years that followed. This typically occurred often in remote wooded areas beyond city limits, and it’s no wonder African-Americans, Latinos and Asians in this country, historically, prefer to remain indoors or visit urban parks closer to home.

All humans need a healthy ecosystem to survive; similarly, Dr. Roberts asserts that “mental, physical, and emotional health is essential for all humans as well, and the outdoors is one of the best places to achieve these benefits.  We all connect to the natural world in some capacity, so understanding the experiences of people of color, including religious and spiritual connections, will ultimately increase access and open up new opportunities for all people, not just a few.”

It’s important to understand how we come to find ourselves where we are today. Though legal segregation no longer exists and hate crimes are rare, there remains a sometimes mysterious cultural barrier forged in social memory. While collectively we enjoy greater freedom to go wherever we wish, as individuals we might question whether or not we are all welcome when we arrive. Without the safety of numbers and  locked doors to protect them, people of color likely find themselves vulnerable to the wilds of nature. So they may opt to stay home instead, denying themselves and, potentially, future generations the opportunity to establish and enjoy a comfortable relationship with the outdoors.

Long term, the problem of low minority participation in outdoor activities could ultimately impact the preservation of the environment as a whole. As populations of racially and ethnically diverse people continue to increase, it is predicted that by the year 2050 their numbers will exceed those of whites. This is already evident in four states across America (CA, AZ, TX, HI), and the District of Columbia.  If this changing population has little to no vested interest in environmental conservation, how likely would state and federal funding be allocated for continued wilderness protection? It is then that diversity in outdoor recreation becomes far more than a question of race. At that point diversity becomes an issue in the new environmental movement that cannot be ignored.

Plan to attend the Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great Outdoors conference in September or continue to follow this blog for updates during and immediately afterward.