Overcoming The Outdoors Diversity Gap: These Hiking Clubs Are Helping Women Of Color Heal In Nature
Fitness studios may have re-opened their doors this summer, but after a year and a half of home workouts, many across the country opted instead for the outdoors. Increasingly proven to reduce anxiety and stress, outdoor recreation has become a go-to during the pandemic, not only for physical exercise but for the mental and spiritual wellness it offers too.
“Studies have shown that being outdoors in green spaces for only five minutes a day can drop a person’s stress level significantly,” Jess Newton, founder of the hiking club Vibe Tribe Adventures tells Forbes. “I personally deal with anxiety so getting outdoors really helps me feel grounded.”
Similarly, Judith Kasiama, founder of Colour The Trails says being able to access trails during lockdown was essential for maintaining her mental and physical health. “Nature is healing,” the hiking enthusiast tells Forbes. “A 30 minute walk outside makes you feel less anxious, it brings your heart rate up.”
Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Africa and Australia, Kasiama has always been drawn to the outdoors. But she hasn’t always felt like she belongs once she gets there. Frustrated with the lack of diversity in outdoor recreation, she created Colour The Trails in 2017 to create opportunities for people of color to get outside. “It’s a part of the UN mandate,” the founder tells Forbes. “Nature is an integral part of all human experience and the BIPOC community doesn’t have access to it.”
People of color make up 40 percent of the U.S. population, yet 70 percent of visitors to national parks remain white. Black people are found to be the most underrepresented of minority groups, even though they may stand to benefit the most from nature, as they are disproportionately at risk for mental and physical health challenges.
The need for outdoor wellness is especially dire for Black women, as they experience higher levels of stress from racism. “Encouraging Black women to get outdoors to get their bodies moving is vital to our community,” says Newton of Vibe Tribe Adventures, citing research from the Center for Disease Control that finds upwards of 23 percent of deaths among Black women are caused by heart disease.
“BIPOC women need access to fresh air and wide-open spaces just as much as anyone else, perhaps even more because of the added stress and trauma of being a woman of color,” says Kenya Jackson-Saulters, who started Outdoor Journal Tour, a hiking club for women of color, with her wife Michelle in 2015.
Yet, accessing outdoor wellness isn’t so simple as stepping outside. Women of color face a mountain of obstacles: from transportation to affordable gear to finding the time and support to step away from work or childcare. “No one is stopping us from going outside but is the outdoor community accessible?” asks Luz Lituma, who started Latinxhikers with Adriana Garcia in 2017.
“Having money to get outdoors is one of the biggest hurdles Black women face,” says Newton of Vibe Tribe Adventures. Whether it’s entrance fees or paying for training classes, outdoor recreation can be largely unaffordable for many people of color.
“There are things you can do cheaply but folks don’t know about them,” Kasiama tells Forbes. “You assume you need all of the new gear because of how it’s marketing, people don’t realize you can buy second-hand.”
More than the financial cost, it’s the knowledge gap that Kasiama believes is one of the greatest barriers to accessing the outdoors. Highlighting the diversity of wealth represented among the BIPOC community, the Colour The Trails founder says, “finances may not always be the thing, it might be having that community space where you can learn.”
From providing gear and equipment to educating on hiking safety and conservation, these BIPOC women are using their hiking clubs to ensure women of color benefit from the outdoor activities they’ve long been denied.
“Some people are under the impression that the outdoors always been open and that BIPOC people have just opted out of utilizing them,” says Jackson-Saulters. “During segregation ‘Whites Only’ also applied to National Parks and public pools, people of color, Blacks and Mexicans specifically, were literally banned from certain outdoor spaces.”
Similarly, Michelle Race, who started Black Girls Trekkin’ with co-founder Tiffany Tharpe in 2017, says “I wish people knew that the racist history of the outdoors didn’t take place so long ago, segregation and the danger of being in certain outdoor spaces occurred within the living memory of my parents and grandparents.”
While it’s been 50 years since Black people gained access to national parks through the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the legacy of racism in outdoor spaces lives on. “From lynching’s to being systematically displaced or downright denied access, people of color have not always been welcome or felt safe being outdoors,” says Outdoor Journal Tour’s Jackson-Saulters. Describing the negative outdoor experiences that Black people inherited from their ancestors dating back to the slave trade, Newton of Vibe Tribe Adventures says, “Black people have a hidden trauma embedded in our DNA about the outdoors that we cannot even explain.”
The fear of outdoor spaces is only heightened by the racism that continues to take place today, most notably the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery and the Christian Cooper incident last year. “I have Black women all over the world tell me they are afraid to go hiking alone because they don’t feel like they fit in or that their safety might be compromised by the ‘crazy Karen’s’ of the outdoors, people who aren’t used to seeing people of color in shared nature spaces,” says Newton. The Vibe Tribe Adventures founder tells Forbes she’s personally had park rangers, the sheriff and a national park’s board of directors called on her because a white woman felt threatened by her presence on the trail.
It’s experiences of racism like this that motivated Evelynn Escobar-Thomas to similarly start her own intersectional women’s hiking club, Hike Clerb, in 2017. Escobar-Thomas tells Forbes the club provides the tools, education and resources women of color need to get outside safely. Similarly, Jackson-Saulters says Outdoor Journal Tour makes safety a priority; scouting potential locations and moving in a group to assuage women’s fears of racism.
“There is an issue of safety, meeting people who can be intimidating or racist, through comments and passive aggressiveness,” says Kasiama. But the Colour The Trails founder says there’s also the issue of feeling unwelcome. “I barely see Black folks or people of color when I go skiing. Being the only person of colour in a very white space creates a moment of anxiety,” says Kasiama. “When it’s a group of diverse folks, it feels safer, but also more welcoming and inviting.”
By carving out safe spaces—literally and figuratively—these hiking clubs are helping build community among women of color with a shared passion for outdoor recreation. “We have so many solo hikers and new transplants, and they all leave feeling with a sense of belonging and familiarity,” says Hike Clerb founder Escobar-Thomas. “It’s really beautiful to watch it all unfold, to be a catalyst for human connection on a deeper level.”
Similarly, Kasiama says Colour The Trails has helped both city newcomers and long-time residents who struggle to find “their people” make meaningful connections, “the friendships that have grown are really beautiful to witness.”
Growing up with an image of outdoor recreation as a predominately white male sport, these female founders are determined to make sure women of color feel seen by the industry. “I remember my first time walking into an REI store, I was tiptoeing around making sure not to touch things because I felt so out of place,” Latinxhikers co-founder Lituma tells Forbes. “If I would have seen someone who looked like me, things might have been different.”
“I don’t want us to be stuck with that one narrative,” Kasiama says, describing how not all Black people love basketball. “Role models, like Black snowboarder Zeb Powell, are important because they allow us to see what’s possible.” Similarly, Race of Black Girls Trekkin’ says, “It’s important for recreation and outdoors retailers to prioritize diversity because without equal representation it tells the people being excluded, and the people being included, that the outdoors is for a certain type of person.”
“We’re not seeing a lot of representation, in terms of how brands showcase people in the outdoors,” says Kasiama. The Colour The Trails founder has been holding outdoors brands like Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) accountable by calling out the lack of diversity in marketing campaigns. In response, MEC issued a public apology in 2018 and has since consulted Kasiama on how to improve their advertising.
Changing the face of outdoor recreation will mean diverse representation behind the camera too. “A lot of companies have fallen into tokenism,” says Kasiama. The Colour The Trails founder says meaningful inclusion requires integrating people of color into all levels of business. Similarly, Escobar-Thomas of Hike Clerb underscores the importance of hiring people of color, “not just in entry level positions, but in leadership, with the ability to drive the narrative.”
These hiking club founders are hopeful the climate is changing. Vibe Tribe Adventures founder Newton says the social uprising of Black Lives Matter following the killing of George Floyd combined with the pandemic has awakened people to the segregated nature of the outdoors industry. Kasiama of Colour The Trails wants to believe it’s more than a trend, “I hope all these companies who are taking initiative in improving diversity will keep their promises. As things start to open up, we tend to go back to the way we used to be.”
It’s the way we used to be, long before the rise of outdoors recreation, that many of these hiking clubs strive to honor. “The indigenous community is home to our first farmers, agriculturists and conservationists. The African-American community were innovators in land use, tracking and mapping and survival. There is no denying the myriad of ways in which we have added to the very fabric of the land we all occupy,” says Outdoor Journal Tour founder Jackson-Saulters.
For these women of color, accessing the nature their ancestors were denied presents an opportunity for healing. “It allows us to reclaim the spaces that our families might have had to flee as a result of conflict and resource extraction,” says Kasiama. By practicing yoga, meditation and breathwork in nature, Newton says Vibe Tribe Adventures is not only helping women of color relieve stress but also heal from the past.
As a Black woman who is also part Chickasaw and Choctaw, Newton draws on the wisdom of her own native tribes to imagine a more egalitarian future. “I love the concept my ancestors believed in—no one can ever own the earth, we are simply borrowing it,” the founder says. “Nature doesn’t care about what ethnicity is using its trails or waterways, it just wants us to love on it and leave it the way it was.”
Some interview responses have been edited for length and clarity.