From The Barbershop To The Backcountry

From The Barbershop To The Backcountry

The Black Men Northwoods Retreat

Hey everybody. Happy New Year! I know things seem to be getting off to a rocky start. How’s that for an understatement. But I sincerely believe that by working together we can get past our differences and move forward toward a brighter future. We just need to come up with creative solutions to our many extremely complicated problems.

For example, in the spring of 2020 I was asked by the National Forest Foundation to create a storytelling project.  They asked me to create a series of photographs and interviews about the Black community and its relationship with the outdoors. Cause you know…that’s kind of my thing. But smack in the middle of the global Covid-19 Pandemic this already complicated project had the added challenges of travel restrictions, social distancing, and the potential of spreading the virus among a group of participants already at the highest risk of contracting this deadly disease.

But rather than trying to come up with a solution all on my own, I reached out to a dude who knows more about these issues than anyone I know.


Aaron Perry:

You know, probably the biggest challenge that I’m seeing is we’re dealing with three epidemics, you got, you know, obviously covid-19, you have, you know, the health disparities and then you have racial tension.

My friend Aaron Perry is the founder and executive director of the Rebalanced Life Wellness Center based right here in Madison Wisconsin. He works at helping to overcome the healthcare challenges that Black men face not only southern Wisconsin, but across the country.

Aaron Perry:

What I try to do is always be a part of the solution, period, point blank. I’m constantly looking at how can we be creative? How can we get our men to take part or participate in things that that’s really kind of out of the box thinking.

As it happens, the rise of the Coronavirus put into sharp relief many of the institutional disparities that place the Black community in jeopardy. High rates of unemployment, limited access to affordable healthcare, and the prospects of being subjected to racially motivated violence already make this population more susceptible to chronic illness, injury or even death. Black men and women are more likely as well to suffer from ailments such as obesity, high blood pressure, hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, conditions that can be reversed or remedied with physical exercise and better access to more nutritious foods. At a time when all the people of the world are being asked to stay indoors and prohibit their contact with others outside of their immediate families, the Pandemic has taken an even higher toll on those most vulnerable to infection. Ironically, however, the best place for this community to find healing and solace from the trauma of this crisis is in the outdoors.

For the last few years, I’ve watched and even participated in a few of the outdoor events that Aaron has organized for Black men. Every week, in a bit of out of the box thinking, he offers a group running, walking or bicycling opportunity in the Madison area. A lot of his work focuses on getting Black men to eat right, exercise and get regular checkups at the doctor. And Aaron believes that being healthy also means getting outside in public and unapologetically being part of the wider world.

Aaron Perry:

But I started looking at these other activities because I’ve always said to the guys, I said, please remember, this is our community. This is our country, too, and everything under the sun we’re entitled to as well.

So, with Aaron’s help we recruited a small group of Black men and their sons to experience the outdoors in a meaningful way. We wanted to take them hiking on public land in a natural setting. Everyone got a negative Covid-19 test and we created what I like call, an escape pod, a tight cohort of like-minded folks who can safely venture out together for a common experience. While wearing masks, still maintaining our social distances to further minimize the risk of exposure to the virus, we traveled to northern Wisconsin to walk along a section of the Ice Age National Scenic Hiking Trail through the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest. There, in supportive environment among friend, we planned to introduce this group to the natural wonders and restorative powers of the great outdoors.

Aaron Perry:

And I know that if we can continue to expose these men, particularly black men, if we can continue to expose them, we’re taking them outside of their element, but we’re exposing them to something that they can do literally the rest of their life with their family.

Ready for an adventure our group embarked upon the Black Men Northwoods Retreat. I’m James Edward Mills. And you’re listening to The Joy Trip Project.

Aaron Perry

Just to give you a little more background. Aaron Perry has dedicated life to promoting the health and well-being of Black Men. But he’s not a medical professional or even a social worker. He used to be a cop.

Aaron Perry:

When I was a police officer, I’ve always had this concept that if I arrest someone, I’m literally taking away their freedom. If I take away their freedom, I want to be a part of helping them get their freedom back. That was a role that I wanted to play, you know, we have a job to do, but also, I kept in mind that we don’t know what, what people’s struggles and their challenges in life and what leads them to maybe cross in that line of, OK, now you have to be placed in custody.

Aaron has very holistic view both law enforcement and public health. He recognized as a police officer that he had much bigger part to play in serving his community then just locking people up. He wanted to figure out how he could be part of the solution.

Aaron Perry:

And doing that work, I realized that for men that I was coming in contact with, they appeared to have sleep deprivation. They appeared to have multiple issues with their health. And I thought if we can improve their health, can we improve their outlook on life? Can we get them to a point where they want to, you know, work hard and find a job? And so that became my focus. And so, you know, when black men are healthy, the community is healthier. We’ve seen that. And so I decided, well, I’m going to create this organization where I focus completely and solely on improving the health of black men and boys.

Aaron took a hard look at the health statistics for Black men in his community. He collaborated with the Dane County Public Health Department to commission a report called the “Social and Health Conditions of Black Men.”

Aaron Perry:

In Dane County there are sixteen thousand five hundred black men. We account for six percent of the male population, but in that we are at the bottom of everyone’s list.

Black men in Dane County are falling ill and suffering from a wide variety of different ailments with much lower rates of recovery than their white counterparts. Many these diseases are preventable with better lifestyle options that improve nutrition, provide physical activity and reduce emotional stress.

Aaron Perry:

And so that became my focus to take apart each of those specific areas and try to improve the health of these black men.

But part of the problem is that the Black community has an inherent distrust of the medical establishment. Mistreatment at the hands doctors and healthcare professionals that goes back more than two centuries in the United States has made Black men leery, even suspicious of recommendations coming from even the most reliable hospitals or clinics.

Aaron Perry:

And so that’s how I ended up opening up my men’s health center in a barber shop, because that’s where men go. That’s where they trust. They respect. That just made sense. And really, since opening the doors, we just surpassed serving five thousand one hundred black men. That’s almost 30 percent of the male population in Dane County.

The Rebalanced Life Wellness Center operates out of JP Hair Design, the largest Black-owned barbershop in Madison. Here Black men and boys can get a haircut along with a check of their blood-pressure and detailed information on how to lead a healthier lifestyle. And in the midst of a Global pandemic Aaron believes that maybe he can help to mitigate at least a few of the risk factors that make Black men more susceptible to contracting the Coronavirus

Aaron Perry:

What we do know is that if we can get ourselves healthy and give ourselves a fighting chance to fight off this infection if we should get it. And so that’s first and foremost just helping us understand that a lot of what we are dying early from is preventable. And that is what I’ve been preaching. Let’s control what we can control.

I think in many ways Aaron convinced me that the best way to get a group of Black men from the urban cities of Madison and Milwaukee into the Northwoods of Wisconsin was to meet them where they are. Because the men in his program already had his trust and respected his guidance, connecting Aaron’s message of health and wellness through physical exercise to an outdoor activity like hiking through a national forest wasn’t that big of a stretch. We just had to blaze a trail from barbershop to the backcountry.

So what would it take to talk a Black man from the city into going on a hiking trip.

Norman Davis:

For one, Aaron, because Erin asked me a lot of respect for Erin in the work that he does, you know, he’s a person that if he says he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it.

Norman Davis is the Civil Rights Director for the city of Madison. He works to prevent racial discrimination in the workplace at government agencies as well as private companies who do business with the city. He understands the importance making sure everyone has equal access to public facilities and resources that promote a good quality of life. And for Norman that includes being able to get outside for exercise. He believes in much what Aaron does to encourage the wellness of Black men.

Norman Davis:

So, any time that I’m going to the to the Blackman run events, whether that’s like a Saturday run or, you know, especially like the Shamrock Shuffle, I love to support the things that he’s trying to do. And and I like to. I like to be a part of the change. If he’s trying to get the message out to black men around being our own advocate for our health. I like being a part of that.

When Aaron asked to Norman to come along on the hiking trip he immediately said yes.

Norman Davis:

You know, I was a little concerned about this happening during the pandemic. But, you know, I saw the commitment. I saw that this was like a closed group. My son was interested in going. And I was I was I was up for the adventure. I’m always I’m always up for an adventure.

It was that sense of adventure that inspired Darryl Davidson to come along on the Black Men Northwoods Retreat.

Darryl Davidson (right) and his son Cornell

 Darryl Davidson:

Well, that was really a no brainer. I like the name of it. 

Darryl is the director of community engagement for the City of Milwaukee. And like Norman and Aaron, he’s an advocate for Black Men’s health


Darryl Davidson:

The other thing that I really appreciated was its focus. I didn’t know groups of black men that got together and did a lot of exercise. And fortunately, because my son is a scout, I knew that that was an opportunity for him to also maintain some of the things that he needed for his merit badge. And so when I asked him if he wanted to do it, he was extremely excited.

Playing off a bit from that enthusiasm Aaron and I recruited community members to take a short hike around Indian Lake County Park near Madison. This first-time hiking experience really inspired Joseph Roy, an I.T. consultant.

Joseph Roy:

It was the first trip we made when you talked about the Ice Age Trail. I mean, that just sounded exciting. One of the in a historic area. I mean, that sounded really, really cool. That sounded really cool.

This Ice Age Trail is more than 1,200 miles of walking paths that winds its way through much of Wisconsin. The Indian Lake section is just about a 40-minute drive from town and gave us the chance to get acquainted as group. Aaron and Joseph came along with Darryl and his son Cornell and Norman with his son Malachi. As we walked along the trail, I shared with them a bit of the geological history of the region that was formed by a receding glacier during the Pleistocene Epoch that ended more than 11,000 years ago. We also talked about the native people who first occupied this land the Ojibwe, the Ho-Chunk, the Dakota, the Menominee, and the Potawatomi, native tribes who still call Wisconsin their home.

The purpose of going on this and other hikes was to create a positive relationship with nearby recreation areas and people in the Black community through both natural and cultural history. Darryl told me that point of contact helped him to understand that getting outside means more than just going for a walk.

Darryl Davidson:

Joseph Roy (left) and his son Selwyn

I thought the overall experience was fantastic. I appreciated the fact that there was a lot of knowledge that went into explaining where we were. I mean, so many people will travel to a location and they won’t really understand the significance of, let’s say, an Indian mount and why that sacred land and how you’re supposed to approach it and what you’re supposed to do in that area. And that was something that I greatly appreciate that the men and the boys who were on the trip with us, they got it and it was fun.

At the height of Covid-19 pandemic physical exercise has never been more important for the health and wellness of Black men. Norman had already adopted a lot of good healthy habits.

Norman Davis:

But the pandemic put the kibosh on, I don’t know, so much for me. I don’t know if it’s like more working hours or what.  But prior to the pandemic, I was in the gym, I would say two or three days a week. It runs in two or three days a week.

He had already many dramatic changes in his lifestyle.

Until I was thirty eight, thirty nine years old, I didn’t care, like my wife and my oldest daughter, they’d be going off to the Y, they’d be like, Do you want to come with me and sit on the couch with a bag of potato chips? I’m like, no, I’m good. But, you know, before I got to be 40, I said, you know, I was like, do I have to be overweight all my life? I have to be, you know? And so I so I, I had heard all of these things to do. So I started to do them and I started to feel better and I started to perform better. And so I kept doing it.

So why is it important for me to get physical exercise? I mean, I’m a black man, so, you know, the data that’s out there says that my life span is probably one of the shortest. And so I want to be here for myself. I want to be for my wife, my kids. I want to enjoy life. I don’t want to be disabled. I want to really be able to enjoy life to the fullest. You know, I know some of the challenges, the health history challenges in my family. And I want to you know, I don’t want to exacerbate that if I have some genetic predisposition. I want to try to get ahead of that as much as possible.

With just a little community support Norman and the other men and their sons on the retreat could get away from the limitations of life under the restrictions of home confinement and remote learning. Even though the it rained through much of the time we were hiking along the trail during our retreat, Darryl said in addition to getting outside he and Cornell also had the chance just to be together in more nurturing environment.

Darryl Davis:

In the real world, we normally don’t see each other because he would be at school. And I would be, you know, at work and then after that, if he’s not eating, he’s doing homework, so we wouldn’t have as much downtime to talk about a lot of things on a personal level. But the retreat was an excellent avenue for us to just be father and son.

Joseph Roy:

I think what I enjoyed most about it was just hanging out with the guys. We were just hanging out, walking around, talking, and there was no no pressure. There was no no worries, no concerns, no hostility. It was just a fun time. Just hanging out. It’s hanging out, walking through the woods just just in nature. I mean, it just I just enjoyed being there.

And even though it was raining because we were in the woods, you didn’t even notice. It really didn’t really get wet, just like, you know, and falling down in the mud a few times. It’s kind of fun. So it was great. I reached the point where I just I just kept on walking. I just before I was walking on the edge is trying to avoid stepping in the mud. After I fell in so many times I said, forget it. I just walked right stuff. It didn’t matter anymore.

 Darryl Davidson:

And we talked about just about everything under the sun. I mean, we talked about things that we knew who we talked about because we thought we do things we had no clue about talking about. We just talked about it anyway and had a great time doing it. Even conversations around, you know, visioning, how are we going to do something like this again and what’s going to happen next, that really excited me because I thought, hey, you know what? This is to be like a really close-knit group one of these days.

Despite everything that’s happening the world today to drive communities apart, a common love of nature and the outdoors can bring us together. I think that if we can make a safe place where people can relax, move their bodies, take a deep breath and just be themselves we can assure the health and wellbeing of everyone. And when the men and boys from our retreat go back into their communities they can share their experience with those might not see the value or importance of going outside.

Aaron Perry:

And I think that for those that don’t have an opportunity to experience that, they’re always going to be having that misconception of what it’s like until you actually get out there and do it. I tell you one thing. It was absolutely the best thing that I did in a long time.

Darryl Davidson:

Now we’re in a space where. We’re almost functioning like ambassadors or people have conversations with us, and that’s a really important role. If people don’t understand what it is or have any experience with it and hear the very first person who can introduce them to it. You’re basically the one who might be opening the door for a future pioneer. And so I really respected that part of it, too. And there’s a level of responsibility that I carry with me. So when I talk about it, I also want people to not only be open to asking questions, I want them to ask questions. I certainly want to lead them in a direction where they’ll be offered an opportunity to do the same thing that we experience. If I thought it was great, maybe they’ll think it’s great too. And we’ll get more people out there.

Throughout the new year I’ll be plotting similar experiences in the outdoors, for myself personally and the community at large. I have the pleasure of working with a lot of organizations around the country who share my interest in getting more people outside. Really it all starts by sharing your passion and enthusiasm for the natural world with those around you who need it most. I hope you’ll join me.

For the Joy Trip Project, This is James Edward Mills

This edition of the Joy Trip Project and The Black Men Northwoods Retreat is part of an ongoing movement to elevate the stories from the Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities on public land and in the environmental conservation movement. Learn about about how you can become involved at

This project was created with the financial support of the National Forest Foundation and the Schlecht Family Foundation

Logistical support was provided by The Ice Trail Alliance and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Equipment and clothing items for our participants were provide by Yeti, Seirus Innovation, Outdoor Research, Osprey Packs and Merrell Footwear