On the Trails: Race equity an issue in the outdoors, too

By Josie Bourne

Just students check their work on a math problem or proofread an essay, when I finish a section of trail I’ve been working on, the final step is to walk over that portion and see it as a recreational user might. An integral part of trail stewardship is cultivating the experience of others: Trail work is literally shaping the way people move through the world, so it’s imperative that those who build and maintain trails take time to consider how they want others to encounter that place.

This past summer, as the leader of the Upper Valley High School Trail Corps, I facilitated conversations with participants about the kinds of experiences they wanted others to have on the trails we built. While crew members frequently mentioned physical safety first and emphasized creating a wide, level path, we then also discussed other, less tangible but equally important elements of accessibility. Not everyone has the same experience in a place — even if the space itself does not materially change, individuals approach it with different backgrounds and experiences.

While I can only speak from my experiences, acknowledging my identity and privilege as a white woman, I recognize that African Americans, as well as other marginalized groups, have distinctly different relationships with the great outdoors. Geographer Carolyn Finney’s book, Black Faces, White Spaces, explores the relationship between African Americans and the great outdoors, and she proposes that the way people engage with the outdoors is shaped by our history. This nation is still reckoning with historical and contemporary racism, as well as sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination, and the outdoors is not exempt from this reality.

In her book, Finney recounts the story of a white professor from Boston University who planned to vacation at a national park in Canada with his wife and another couple in 1960. Before arriving, he contacted the park to vouch for the cultured and educated nature of the other couple, who happened to be African American; in response, the park refused to grant them a reservation. The African American couple denied access to this supposedly collective outdoor resource was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King.

Finney’s work traces this legacy of exclusion from before the aforementioned anecdote to the present and demonstrates that, even almost 50 years later, the field of outdoor recreation still struggles with its history and the present-day implications. The entire outdoor recreation industry — including private businesses, nonprofits and public institutions like the National Park Service — must work to expand beyond dominant narratives about what nature is and who belongs in the outdoors.

Since the outdoors means many things to many people, that diversity should be represented. Finney points to a “racialized outdoor leisure identity” in popular media that showcases white involvement in the outdoors. This media representation reinforces stereotypes about belonging and obscures Black participation, something organizations like Outdoor Afro and Melanin Base Camp work to counteract.

At times, it can be easy to forget how humans shape the world — both by altering the physical landscape and through the contours of our societies. As Finney argues, the stories that are told about the outdoors matter, both in terms of who tells them and how people are represented in them.

I work in this field because I believe in the value of these spaces and experiences and that everyone should have access to and feel welcome in the outdoors. While there is much work to be done to support access and recognize the diversity of experience in the outdoors, I hope by continuing this conversation in the Upper Valley we can effect change by starting close to home.

Written by Josie Bourne and published in the Valley News on October 8th, 2020.