Black women find healing (but sometimes racism) outdoors


It would be the last hike of the season that Jessica Newton excitedly posted on her social media platforms. With mild weather forecast and Colorado’s breathtaking fall foliage as a backdrop, she was convinced that a trip to Beaver Ranch Park would be the epitome of completing months of warm weather hikes with her “sister friends”.

That story ran on NPR too. It can be republished for free.

Yet when that Sunday morning arrived in 2018, she was shocked to see her usual crew rise from about 15 to about 70 black women. There is a first time for everything, she thought as they broke up into smaller groups and headed for the nature trail. What a sight they were, she remembered, as the women – in sneakers and hiking shoes, a virtual sea of ​​brightly colored headgear, flowing braids and dreadlocks, puffy turns and long, flowing curls – wandered peacefully in the fresh mountain air over the rugged terrain .

It. Was. Perfect. Just what Newton envisioned when she founded Black Girls Hike in 2017 to connect with other Black women who share their affinity for outdoor activities. She also wanted to recruit others who hadn’t yet experienced the serenity of nature, a pastime she fell in love with as a child when she attended a wealthy, mostly white, private school.

But their peaceful exploration of the outdoors and casual chatter – from food and family to haircare and childcare – was abruptly interrupted by the ugly face of racism.

“We called the sheriff and Park Rangers called us,” recalls Newton, 37, who owns a project development company for the construction industry in Denver.

“This woman who was riding was upset that we were moving on her Path. She said we scared her horse, ”she said of a woman in a group of white riders they met. “It just didn’t make sense. I felt like it was a horse and you have a whole mountain to trot, run, gallop or whatever. She was just upset that we were in her room. “

Eventually two Jefferson County Sheriff MPs approached with guns on their hips and asked, “What’s going on?” They had been contacted by rangers who had received complaints about a large group of black women who were followed by camera drones in the park. The drones were owned by a national television news team that filmed a feature about the group. (The segment aired weeks later, but it did not include footage of the confrontation.)

“Move this mob!” Participant Portia Prescott remembered one of the riders barking.

“Why is a group of black women walking a trail on a Sunday afternoon in Colorado considered a ‘mob’?” Prescott asked.

Soon after, a man arrived who, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office incident report, identified himself as the husband of one of the white women on horseback and as the manager of the park, and began to argue with the television producers in the deputy described in the report as “hostile.” “Way.

The tour leader told MPs that the noise from the large group and drones terrified the horses and that when she complained to the news crew, she told her to take care of it herself, the report said. The news crew informed MPs that group members were offended by riders’ use of the term “mob”. The woman who led the riders, identified as Marie Elliott in the incident report, said she did not remember calling the group a mob, but told officials that she would have “said the same thing if the group was a large group of would have been girl scouts. “

In the end, Newton and her fellow hikers were warned that they had not received permission to join the group. Newton said she regretted putting members in an excruciating – and potentially life-threatening – situation by unwittingly breaking a parking rule. However, she suspects that a similarly large migrant group of white women would not have faced as aggressively.

“You should be thrilled that we’re getting more people to use your parks,” Newton added. “Instead, we were beaten up [threats of] Violations and “Who are you?” and ‘Please, get your people and get out of here.’ It’s just crazy. “

Mike Taplin, spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, confirmed that no quotes were issued. The MPs “made positive contributions to everyone with the aim of keeping the peace,” he said.

Newton said the “frustrating” incident reminded her why her group, which she redesigned and renamed Vibe Tribe Adventures, is so needed in the white-dominated arena of outdoor enthusiasts.

With the slogan “Find your tribe” the group wants to create a sorority for black women, “on the paths, on the waterways and in our local churches around the world”. Last summer, she secured not-for-profit status and expanded the focus of Vibe Tribe by adding snowshoeing, fly fishing, zip lining and kayaking to her list. Today the Denver-based group has 11 chapters in the United States (even Guam) and Canada with approximately 2,100 members.

Research suggests their work is needed. The latest survey by the National Park Service found that 6% of visitors are black compared to 77% white. Newton said that needs to change – especially given the opportunities parks offer and the health challenges that disproportionately plague black women. Research shows that chronically preventable health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases are more common in them. A 2020 study found that racial discrimination can also increase stress, lead to health problems, and impair cognitive functions in black women. Newton said it underscores the need for stress relief activities.

“Research at several colleges has shown that if you spend at least five minutes outdoors, it literally lowers your stress levels significantly,” Newton said. “Being in nature is like grounding yourself. This is important. “

Newton said participation in the group generally wanes over winter. However, she is confident that cabin fever due to the pandemic will inspire more black women to try winter activities.

Atlanta-based Stormy Bradley, 49, said the group added value to her life. “I’m a happier and healthier person because I can do what I love,” said the sixth grade teacher. “The most surprising thing is the sisterhood we experience on and off the trails.”

Patricia Cameron, a Black woman who lives in Colorado Springs, made headlines this summer when she hiked 486 miles from Denver to Durango and blogged about her experience to raise awareness of the diversity of the outdoors. She founded the nonprofit Blackpackers in Colorado in 2019.

“One thing that I’ve caught people saying a lot about is, ‘Well, the outdoors is free’ and ‘The outdoors is not racist’ – and there are two things wrong with that,” said Cameron, a 37-year-old single parent Mother of a teenager.

“Nature and outdoors can be free, yes, but what about transport? How do you get to certain outdoor environments? Do you have the gear to enjoy the great outdoors, especially in Colorado where we are very gear conscious and very label conscious? ” She asked. “Nature won’t call me the N-word, but people outside could.”

Cameron welcomes Newton’s efforts and those of other groups around the country such as Nature Gurlz, Outdoor Afro, Diversify Outdoors, Black Outdoors, Soul Trak Outdoors, Melanin Base Camp, and Black Girls Run, who have a similar mission. Cameron said it was also encouraging that the Outdoor Industry Association, a trade group, committed itself to addressing a “long history of systemic racism and injustice” outdoors in the wake of the race riot sparked by George Floyd’s death.

Efforts to attract more blacks, especially women, to the outdoors must include removing barriers such as costs, according to Cameron. For example, Blackpackers offers a “Gear Locker” that allows members to use expensive outdoor equipment for free or at reduced prices. She has also worked with companies and organizations that subsidize and sponsor outdoor excursions. During the pandemic, Vibe Tribe waived all membership fees until this month.

Cameron said she dreams of a day when blacks will be free from the pressures of carrying the nation’s racial luggage when participating in outdoor activities.

Vibe Tribe member and longtime outdoor enthusiast Jan Garduno, 52, of Aurora, Colorado, agreed that fear and safety are pressing concerns. For example, before the presidential election, she took off her “Let My People Vote” t-shirt before going on the solo walk for fear of how other hikers might react.

Groups like Vibe Tribe, she said, create camaraderie and a heightened sense of security. And another plus? The health benefits can also be transformative.

“I was able to lose about 40 pounds and kept it off,” explained Garduno.

Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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