Black & Outdoors: Creating Safer Outdoor Spaces

Public Lands gathers industry thought-leaders to chart the path toward a more inclusive outdoors.

When the goal is making our shared outdoor spaces more inclusive for marginalized groups, there’s not always an obvious path forward. An open discussion can help clear the air and offer previously unseen solutions, especially for those who haven’t walked in the shoes of a person of color. On a rainy April morning, Public Lands gathered a few dozen business owners, volunteers, advocates and conscientious outdoor explorers in the foyer of its Pittsburgh-area location to participate in a panel discussion. The focus was finding ways in which to make the outdoors a safer and a less exclusive environment for people of color, specifically. 

The panel, moderated by Sarai Exil, Manager of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at DICK’S Sporting Goods, represented a range of outdoor-industry perspectives, including: Jahmicah Dawes, founder and co-owner of Slim Pickins Outfitters of Stephenville, Texas, the first Black-owned (and women-run) outdoor retailer in the country; Shequaya Bailey, avid cyclist and Director of Operations for Grounded Strategies, an organization focused on identifying and rehabilitating vacant or underutilized land in and around Pittsburgh; and Marcus Shoffner, the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Venture Outdoors, as well as the founder of the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition (OIC), which seeks to broaden inclusivity for people of color in outdoor activities as well as build pathways to career opportunities in that space.  

Each member of the panel established themselves within separate spheres of outdoor recreation. They each dealt with different challenges and opportunities, though, to a person, credited the influence of a specific, formative change-maker. That is, each panelist had someone or something that normalized the experiences for them, making lasting connections with the outdoors more salient. 

In the case of Dawes and his introduction to fly fishing, that something was help with the appropriate gear and inclusion in an existing group. For others, it was hands-on training and access to gear through high school mentorship programs like Pittsburgh’s Student Conservation Association, which provided Bailey with the tools to succeed in the space. Shoffner experienced the outdoors initially in minor fishing excursions with family, later borrowing gear and gaining knowledge in a collegiate setting that led to his love of backcountry adventures.

Each of the panelists shared their personal experiences in the outdoors, and how they’ve each encountered some version of a negative encounter in the past, though ones that haven’t stopped them from continuing their journeys. They chose to positively frame their relationships with nature, in terms of its benefits to their lives and others—namely, a more healthy mind and body, and a sense of finding one’s place.

Attendees sopped up the abundant information and open dialogue, nodding in silent affirmation, occasionally tittering or applauding with respect. Each of the panelists had moments that elicited reactions that broke the rapt quiet, often providing a serious message in a funny moment. 

Dawes masterfully delivered several thought-provoking aphorisms including, “If I can see it, I can be it.” In other words, if he can see people of color interacting with the outdoors, then he feels empowered to do the same. The line of thought keeps rippling out: The individual who sees can also be the person who is then seen by those not yet engaging in outdoor spaces. 

Bailey spoke about simplifying one’s approach to recreational encounters with those who are different, be they racial, body-type or generational outsiders. The key here is being aware of how well-meaning individuals can create discomfort in efforts to be welcoming. There is no need, Bailey noted, to inquire about a person’s gear, or ask inappropriate questions about their intentions, or congratulate them on being there at all: “When in doubt,” she added, “just say, ‘Hello.’”

Shoffner spoke of a new tool the OIC is soon bringing online called the Inclusionary Incident Report. It will act as a repository for reporting identity-based incidents in outdoor spaces. The report aims to serve as a record of such incidents that can be compiled and brought to bear in advocating for change on a city and statewide level.

Much of the discussion revolved around the seemingly glacial pace of change for inclusion in outdoor spaces. But those in attendance came away with actionable tools to help bring more inclusivity to their respective field(s) and/or ways to broach new relationships to those with little or no outdoor experience. At the very least, everyone agreed that more conversations like this one would be a net positive for the future of our shared spaces.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.