Challenging Racial Boundaries in the Great Outdoors
Quick: Imagine someone hiking. Quick: imagine someone skiing. Quick: imagine someone kayaking.
Okay. If you actually completed this exercise, I will lay a dollars-vs.-donuts bet that in every instance, you imagined a white person. The fact is, American outdoors, wildland and wilderness recreation is a stereotypically white realm. Why this should be, exactly, is no doubt the stuff of complex sociological doctoral theses—suffice it to say that the pale of skin dominate our nation’s public forests and parks. (In fact, one relatively recent study found that 32 percent of white Americans had visited a national park within the two years preceding the survey; the same was true of only 13 percent of black Americans.)
An organization in my crunchy, outdoorsy and notably white home city of Portland, Oregon, is trying to turn that stereotype around. The African-American Outdoors Association, founded in 2005 by experienced environmental educator Greg Wolley, works on a local, grassroots, and volunteer-run basis to get black and other people of color out into the nearby Northwest wilderness. The AAOA runs free or cheap hikes, winter sports expeditions, kayak trips and other adventures, all departing from inner Portland, almost all taking place within two hours of the city. According to Wolley, a 55-year-old Bay Area native who now works for Portland’s city government, the AAOA aims to provide a painless and convenient introduction to the outdoor recreation. I called him to learn more.
GOOD: Talk about why you started this organization.
Greg Wolley: The impetus basically comes from the health disparity issues we see in the African-American community and communities of color in general. It’s no secret that African-Americans suffer disproportionately from most deadly diseases, and it’s also no secret that lifestyle issues have a lot to do with that. Whether it’s obesity, heart disease, or depression, it’s pretty clear that African-American communities need to be more active than they are.
G:To what extent does your own background inform what AAOA does?
GW: I studied environmental education and I’ve worked with kids in that field since early in my career. The thing is, kids tend to receive a fair amount of environmental education and be exposed, at least, to outdoors activity and opportunities. But then, if they come home and their parents are not plugged into that, it’s basically happening in a vacuum. So we have a family approach. We try to get whole families out doing things, so every member of the family has a great experience and learns something.
G:Your organization seems like it might be particularly important in the Northwest, which has relatively small African-American communities (Portland is renowned as the whitest big city in the country) but great outdoors activities.
GW: The Northwest is a cool place to live, and people from all over the country move here to take advantage of our wilderness and outdoors opportunities. But you often find that our urban communities are not engaged in any of that—they don’t participate. So we focus on creating opportunities to try new activities, meet some new people, and learn about places that are easy for people to return to on their own. A lot of times, those places are just 15 or 20 minutes away.
G: I don’t know a politically correct way to ask my next question, so maybe you should just talk about some of the cultural barriers or issues your group is working to address.
GW: Right. I think there’s a general cultural perception, inside and outside of African-American communities, that people of color just don’t go out in the woods. And I’m sure that there are historical reasons for that—in the South, in the era of segregation and the KKK, a lot of bad things happened in the woods. There is a fear of the unknown—fear of wild animals, a lack of knowledge of how to handle yourself in the outdoors—that is a reality for many. Economically, there’s a perception that these activities are luxuries or that they are expensive in terms of equipment. And that can certainly be true, but I would say that the vast majority of our activities are completely free. When we go hiking, there’s no equipment cost, and our transportation is covered by our grants. When we do have equipment costs, we’re able to subsidize them substantially.
G:So do you feel that you’re chipping away at those perceptions?
GW: Sure. We were on a bike ride in the Portland suburbs not long ago—some of our folks hadn’t been on bikes in 20 years, so it was a little wobbly, but they got it together. And as we were heading back into town, a car pulled up alongside us, and the person rolled down their window and said “It’s so great to see brown people on bikes!”
G: Wow. Only in Portland, in so many ways.
GW: Yes, it was definitely a Portland comment. But we just cheered, you know? The fact is, and you can’t deny it, if you see a bunch of African-American people out skiing or snowshoeing, which we do in the wintertime, that’s unusual. So part of what we’re doing is countering the perception that those people don’t do those things.
Photo of the AAOA's snowshoe trip at Oregon's Trillium Lake via AAOA.