Signal Intern Jessica Black discusses the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors and policy.
Nature holds a special place in my heart. As a child, I would take long walks with my mother to pick up special “treasures” in the outdoors- extra smooth stones or branches with interesting curves. With my siblings, I would climb trees in the small forest behind our local neighborhood playground. On special occasions in the summer, we would go to the Chesapeake Bay beach and play in the water for hours. Nature always more or less felt like a safe space where I could be happy and carefree. As I got older, the outdoors became a space to clear my mind and shed burdens. Still, I am no longer naive to the realities that, depending on the spaces I may occupy in the outdoors, nature is no longer the “sacred” place I once viewed it as. Occupying the outdoors can be a complex juxtaposition of the seemingly indiscriminate natural world and the layers of discrimination we as humans have woven into it.
I first felt uneasy existing in outdoor spaces as a college student in the rural Midwest. I lived in a beautiful state with rolling hills of cornfields, prairieland, forests, and lakes. Two of my favorite getaways when I was stressed as a student involved biking through long empty roads on sunny days and meeting with friends to camp at our local lake. Before living here, moments like these would be perfect, but now, I often felt paranoia. My college, though diverse in student identity, was a bubble. Confederate flags were not unusual in the neighboring communities and, on some days, a group from town would drive onto campus to hurl racial slurs at students, then speed off before security arrived. So now, in the outdoors– places that normally would be spaces of escape– I was extra careful. I made sure to never ride too far off campus when the sun had gone down and if walking far off campus at night, I had friends or campus security accompany me.
This is just one example of the many ways different people may experience a lack of safety and inclusion in the outdoors. Inequity in the outdoors is a complex set of issues that span over environmental racism, economic, gendered, racial, and even body exclusion.
The outdoors should be a place without fear, and yet so many people experience negative emotions when interacting with shared outdoor spaces. Women fear gendered harassment and violence, Black and Brown people fear having the police called for perceived suspicious activity, and people with physical disabilities fear not having accommodations to safely move around. Unfortunately, outdoor inequity is deeply rooted in the reality that not everyone has access to quality outdoor recreation experiences. When we think about access, we must examine how factors such as gender, race, ability, and socioeconomic class intersect to create obstacles that spill over into occupying the outdoors. Who has a car to drive to national parks? Who can afford equipment and club memberships? Which communities have funding for infrastructure that foster outdoor participation? Even spaces that would seem to be a necessity for any community are not accessible for all Americans. In fact, according to the Trust for Public Lands, over 100 million residents in our nation do not have access to a park within a 10-minute walk. Barriers like distance, knowledge, and cost make it so that these spaces are predominately occupied by those who can afford them and feel comfortable occupying them. This usually translates to mostly white, male, and financially well-off patrons having disproportion access to the outdoors.
These issues are important to address because, amid all our nation’s problems, I truly think nature has a special role to play when it comes to connecting and healing Americans. Because when outdoor spaces are accessible, inclusive, and diverse it can be beautiful. When it is done right, the outdoors can connect people of different ages, races, and backgrounds bonding over the love of nature. It can provide therapy for mental health issues and opportunities for the elderly to find new communities. It is an opportunity for us all to try new activities, get out of our comfort zones, and appreciate the beauty of our communities and our Earth.
Many of the issues of DEI in the outdoors will take a reckoning with biases and treatment of those we are different from, but there are steps that every individual, organization, and government entity can take to ensure that outdoor spaces are welcoming for everyone. In the policy space, the most important step is creating more opportunities for communities to access quality, geographically close outdoor experiences with all the benefits of nature and without traditional barriers. Significant progress is being made on that front and I hope that, as a nation, our sense of tolerance and safety will follow suit.