If “the outdoors is for everyone,” then there’s work to do to make outdoor spaces more welcoming to people of color. (Title in the August issue “Whose Woods Are These?”)
By Luke Zarzecki
On July 22nd, Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club, came out with an apology: “It’s time to take down some of our own monuments, starting with some truth- telling about the Sierra Club’s early history,” Brune wrote in an open letter. Brune described John Muir, the ‘father of the National Parks’, as prone to racist comments and early Sierra Club leaders Joseph LeConte and David Starr Jordan as white supremacists.
“For all the harms the Sierra Club has caused, and continues to cause, to Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color, I am deeply sorry,” Brune wrote. He then pledged $5 million to invest in greater diversity among the staff and to build racial justice into their environmental work.
It was a long-overdue admission about Muir who has been a patron saint of sorts for nature-lovers and icon of the American West.
And it prompted The Washington Post to write about how other organizations in the environmental and conservation arenas are rethinking where they stand on diversity and racial justice.
“That story is huge, everyone’s talking about it now,” said Carolyn Finney, speaking from her apartment in Burlington on July 23 about both the Sierra Club apology and The Washington Post’s follow up story. “With all that’s gone on, this has been a challenging year. This is exciting and exhausting and depressing and rage-inducing and promising – I feel so many different things about the moment,” she said.
Finney has become one of the thought leaders at the intersection of the environmental and racial justice movements.
Her path there, though, has been roundabout. She worked as an actor for 11 years, lived in Nepal and did five years of backpacking trips in Africa and Asia, before going back to school to study gender, race and environmentalism and earn her Ph.D.She is also the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors and a former member of the National Parks Advisory Board (a position she—and the rest of the board—resigned from in 2018, following Ryan Zinke’s appointment as U.S. Secretary of the Interior).
Finney describes herself as a “storyteller, author and a cultural geographer [who is] deeply interested in issues related to identity, difference, creativity, and resilience.”
She moved to Vermont in September 2019 for a two-year residency in the Franklin Environmental Center at Middlebury College.
“Because of Covid-19, this is the longest I’ve stayed in one place” said Finney. When asked if she’s done much hiking here, she responds: “I take walks down to Lake Champlain and I know Vermont well from facilitating workshops at the Center for Whole Communities in the Mad River Valley, but I’ve barely had time to explore much.”
Plus, she said, “I would not go for a hike alone in the woods in Vermont. First of all, I’m a woman, so that adds the gender issue. And I don’t know this place well enough to do that.”
Finney is no stranger to racism within outdoor recreation and academia’s environmental field.
“It doesn’t have to be that someone called you the ‘N’ word,” she explained. “It could be that someone just gives you a funny look. I get stared at a lot, I have stories throughout my life of people just stopping me on a hike and wanting to talk about my hair and ask me really personal questions or ask me if I’m mixed. And it’s always white people who ask me.”
She noted that it is hard for her, and many other folks of color, to be an individual in the outdoors.
“It doesn’t matter how rich you are, how educated you are, as a Black person. Every Black person in this country has to pay the Black tax. And part of the Black tax is that we are never allowed to be individuals, we always represent the race. So, in a country that promotes individualism, one of those things about individualism is that you can go hiking by yourself and climb the mountain and be yourself. But as an African-American person, you don’t have that same freedom. You get challenged in multiple ways.”
Finney is encouraged as she sees the Sierra Club and other environmental organizations begin to address a history of racism. And she believes Vermonters, in general, are working at combatting racism as well. “I think you’ve got people here who are ready. They want to do something about it, and it’s genuine. The real gift of people in Vermont is this sense of community.”
Mariah Rivera, a rising senior at the University of Vermont, is one of those trying to change how people of color experience the outdoors in Vermont. She is a leader with People of Color Outdoors (POCO), a UVM group similar to the university’s Outing Club, that focuses on getting people of color into the backcountry and making outdoor recreation more inclusive.
“When I came to Vermont, I got involved with (POCO) and that really exposed me to the world of outdoor recreation and all these different things you can do,” Rivera said, explaining that she didn’t have those opportunities as a child. “Growing up in a Bridgeport, Ct., I didn’t have much access except through a neighborhood park.”
Now a wildlife biology major at UVM’s Rubenstein School of Natural Resources, she spends her time kayaking, canoeing and watching wildlife.
Rivera decided to study conservation after volunteering at Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo. There, she took trips to do conservation work and discovered a deep appreciation for nature. Today, in addition to leading POCO’s trips, she strives to share her passion for the outdoors and nature with others.
“(POCO) focuses on building community within the POC community at UVM, while creating a safe space for POCs who don’t feel comfortable being in these new outdoor spaces or on the regular Outing Club trips on their own,” Rivera said.
“I think (these spaces) are really important because looking at outdoor recreation, access is an issue. Historically, the outdoors did push Black and brown folk and other people of color out of those spaces,” she says. “For example, John Muir spoke poorly of Native Americans on multiple occasions. In “Our National Parks,” a 1901 essay collection written to promote tourism to the parks, Muir wrote, ‘As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.’ Theodore Roosevelt was a notorious white supremacist who supported eugenics. His conservation efforts came at the expense of some Native American tribes.”
Today, she adds, “There are individuals who might fear going back into the outdoors totally on their own and being that outlier who wants to explore nature,” Rivera said. “Creating these groups and creating these spaces gives POC the support to explore that interest.”
UVM, like most institutions founded in the 1800s, has a racist past as well. According to the UVM’s newspaper, The Vermont Cynic, for 73 years, fraternity members at the university would dance in black face during the winter carnival. Over 8,000 seats would fill to watch the annual show, known as the Kake Walk. In 1969 the event was finally cancelled, despite earlier protests from Black athletes at the time such as LeRoy Williams, Jr. ’57, who captained the football team. Even as recently as 2017, some of the spectators at a UVM/St. Michael’s College men’s basketball game reportedly jeered as a group of St. Mike’s players and their white coach knelt for the national anthem in protest of racial injustice.
“UVM has put a lot of work in, but there is still a lot to be done,” said Miguel Reda, a 2017 graduate who helped to lead trips with ALANA GEAR (the group that became POCO). “I had experience camping and paddling and backpacking so I started out with the Outing Club, but I soon realized that many people of color weren’t comfortable there.”
Today, Reda heads up the men’s clothing division at Outdoor Gear Exchange and has worked with the company to help make outdoor experiences more accessible to both people of color and the LGBTQ community.
“We’ve partnered with Petra Cliffs to do Pride Climb Nights once a month, and it was really cool to get the Brotherhood
of Climbers here to do a session one day. Just having all these climbers of color in one place felt really good,” says Reda, who was born in Guatemela, grew up in western Massachusetts and got into hiking, camping and climbing on family trips to the Adirondacks.
As Reda acknowledges, “Unless your family takes you skiing or hiking or climbing or sailing, you probably are not going to take up one of these technical sports unless you are introduced to them at college.”
And that’s why he sees college programs as being key to helping diversify both Vermont and outdoor recreation.
In addition to groups such as the Brotherhood of Skiers and the Brotherhood of Climbers, organizations across the country are working to make outdoor spaces more accessible and inclusive to those who are Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC). Afro Outdoors, which is active in 30 states around the country (though not Vermont), aims to connect people of color to the outdoors. Latino Outdoors introduces Latino communities to natural spaces.
Anahí Naranjo, 25, the Latino Outdoors program coordinator for New York City, graduated from Middlebury College a couple of years ago. While at Middlebury, she sampled Vermont’s trails, but felt excluded from them.
“We had a trail right at the back of campus, but I felt like a lot of people of color, people who grew up in a place like New York City—often without a car, often not knowing where trails were— felt like they didn’t have access. They might have felt like they didn’t have the right gear. Or, they just didn’t feel safe going there. I felt that as well,” she said.
Naranjo was born in Quito, Ecuador, but moved to New York City in 2002. In Quito, the mountains and outdoor spaces gave her a sense of comfort that she looked for in Vermont.
At college, she pushed for more diversity and inclusion within the Middlebury Mountain Club, but never felt fully included. Naranjo noted that many of the programs coming out of the Mountain Club were mostly for students with experience, and the meetings were predominantly white.
Instead, she set up trips led by people of color for people of color, regardless of their experience or skill level. Events included a hike up Snake Mountain, a canoe trip on Lake Dunmore, a hike at Rattlesnake Cliffs, snowshoeing and a climbing wall night on campus.
After Middlebury, Naranjo volunteered with Latino Outdoors and came back to campus to continue the work she started. Working with Doug Connelly, the Director of Outdoor Programs and Club Sports and through Middlebury’s Anderson Freeman Resource Center (which “works to promote an inclusive and welcoming learning environment for the Middlebury community”), they organized trips for POC that were beginner-friendly—no experience required. Transportation and meals were also provided.
Sabian Edouard, a rising senior at Middlebury, has participated in a few of the activities organized by Connelly and Naranjo.
Edouard is a Chicago native who came to Vermont on a full-tuition scholarship through the Posse Foundation. Edouard did not have much experience in the outdoors. His first trip was canoeing on Lake Dunmore with 12 people. After, he went backpacking and even became wilderness first aid certified. While appreciative of the college’s programs, he thinks the Center still needs to do more outreach.
“They need to make more people aware that these things are going on,” he said. “I feel like there has to be more responsibility on the students and administration to show that they are actively trying to include students in these spaces.”
Though affinity groups like these are helping make Vermont’s outdoor spaces more inclusive, race is only one layer of the conversation. Income, skill level, access and knowledge are all factors into why or how someone gets into the outdoors…or doesn’t.
Groups such as The Chill Foundation and RunVermont work to get kids into outdoor sports who might not otherwise have access. And shops such as Skirack and Outdoor Gear Exchange have often provided the gear they need to do so. But fewer organizations work with adults.
“I struggle with the binary conversation with people of color versus white people being outdoors because there are other dynamics,” says Marie Vea, the Assistant Dean for Student Services and Staff Development at UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. “There is previous experience and income. If you’re not an avid skier, why drop $300 on skiing equipment?” Vea asks. “There is no easy way to do it.”
Vea, who identifies as a cis- gendered, Asian-American, middle- aged woman, also recognizes the issue of representation in Vermont’s outdoors. She hails from San Francisco, where she sees other people who look like her in
outdoor spaces. Most of the people she runs into in Vermont appear to be white, which can factor into which sports she participates in, and which she doesn’t.
“I don’t see a lot of people like me out there. I personally have never felt animosity being outside, but I’m usually the only one (or one of a few people) of color on a bike or on skis or in a kayak. So therefore, I must be from out of town,” she says.
“I think (the outdoors) is passively exclusive because you need particular knowledge and particular equipment to engage. You have to have a certain privilege to engage in the outdoors,” she says. “Like most things, it’s an afterthought to be inclusive. It’s sometimes mandated to make trails accessible to people with physical disabilities, but it’s not mandated to make trails accessible to people of color because we haven’t asked those questions.”
The questions Vea thinks people should be asking are: “Are any BIPOC included among the decision makers or the people who are planning trail systems and outreach? What is the heritage of the natural area? Are the indigenous or native people included in the natural history and outreach? Has anyone surveyed the people who
are accessing the trails and those who are not, and asking why? In this current moment, what safety measures are being put in place?”
Green Mountains, White State
According to the U.S. Census, Vermont is 94.2% white, 1.4% Black, 1.9% Asian and 2.0% Hispanic or Latino.
As Jessica Savage, the recreation program manager for the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, says: “People who recreate in Vermont are a reflection of the demographics here, and I think that even gets localized to population centers.”
Measuring demographics of outdoor recreation is difficult. Generalizations can be made based on observing the trails and other outdoor areas, but those observations cannot accurately identify age, wealth, race and gender. Efforts to collect data are also put into surveys, but they are voluntary and not always representative.
“We know that people who participate in outdoor recreation in America are generally older, wealthier and whiter than the national average, and that certainly feels true in Vermont,” she says. “I don’t have the data—I wish I did—but frankly that is something we are working on in the department.”
Savage says much of that work starts within the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation. “How can we make sure that the folks who work for our agency understand what inclusion and belonging and welcoming really means to people?” she said.
“We can’t skip the important, hard work of becoming an antiracist organization and becoming an agency that really understands what it means to welcome people to our lands.”
Anahi Naranjo (far right, above and in pink, below) volunteers with Latino Outdoors. Photo courtesy Anahi Narango.
The public’s attitudes in Vermont must be addressed as well. Savage pointed to an incident in 2018 when campers and counselors of color attended a week-long event in Stowe run by Pact Family Camp, an organization that supports programs for children of color that were adopted by white parents. The attendees were targeted with racial slurs.
Savage said that it was one of many instances where people of color trying to experience the outdoors are seen as outsiders.
To make Vermont a more diverse and inclusive state, the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity teamed up with Vermont’s Department of Tourism and Marketing to get people of color excited about coming to Vermont.
Their goals are to market the state to a more diverse demographic, work with law enforcement to make Vermont safer for people of color, and hold conferences with those who have been successful in promoting equity and inclusion in various sectors.
As Vea notes, “There’s also the question: Are we dismissing other forms of recreation and other forms of connecting with the outdoors? Why do we say the only way to connect with the outdoors is if we swim a marathon in the Northeast Kingdom or go skiing every weekend? Could connecting to the outdoors also be going to North Beach because that’s the most accessible?”
A New Curriculum
Vea also thinks education surrounding the environment needs to change. People of color have made large impacts in the environmental field, but are often left overlooked in academic studies.
“We always talk about Aldo Leopold and John Muir, we don’t talk about folks like John Francis and Carolyn Finney and others who have been doing outdoor environmental work for years,” Vea said. “We need to expand our curriculum. I also think we need to improve our facilitation skills among faculty and white folks in how to talk about difference and race and how it connects to the environment and outdoor sports.”
Francis and Finney have both made big strides in the environmental field. Francis holds a Ph.D. in land resources, wrote oil spill regulations for the U.S. Coast Guard, served as a goodwill ambassador to the United Nations Environmental Program and is a dedicated activist. He gave up all motorized transportation and for 22 years and walked everywhere—so much so that he refused to take an ambulance to the hospital after being hit by a car.
As for what white people can do to change? Vea gives this advice:
“Don’t look at me funny because I happen to be on the trail with you, don’t ask me questions about where I’m from, don’t ask me questions about how long I’ve been skiing. Instead ask me if I’m having fun,” she said. “Don’t assume I don’t belong on the trail when I do.”