Posted on May 10, 2019

Black Communities Are Reclaiming Space Outdoors, from Backyard Gardening to Mountain Climbing

Carla Bell, Yes!, May 9, 2019

Ieisha McIntyre grew up the youngest of five on an acre of land in Spanaway, Washington, a predominantly White rural town. {snip}

{snip} When McIntyre was a child, she wasn’t aware that other Black families didn’t live the same way. Recently she’s learned that many didn’t even want to. Other Black women she’d encountered saw growing food as a throwback to the antebellum South — something left over from slavery, she says. But McIntyre was set on introducing Black and Brown children to the outdoors she’d always known, even without support from other parents pursuing the same interest.

With the H.A.P.I. [Health, Art, Play, Inquiry] School Early Learning and Family Life Center, an expansion on her existing day care business, McIntyre plans to provide a trauma-informed safe space for children of color, both ethnically and culturally, and support learning, growth, and healing.

A divorced mother and former educator, she is designing the H.A.P.I. program (which stands for “health, art, play, inquiry”) to teach children their role in nature, to respect and care for the land and its creatures; and how to grow, preserve, and cook the food made available by the land. Access to food is more than just having a grocery store nearby, McIntyre says, but these ideas weren’t necessarily shared in the Black community.


But she was surprised at the resistance of other Black parents to the idea of fostering a relationship among themselves, their children, and the outdoors. “I just couldn’t find other moms of color to get out there with.”


So, she sought a community of like-minded people and joined Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California, that encourages Black people to take part in more outdoor activities. She also sensed that time in nature might help her to move beyond the rejection and discomfort she’s felt in outdoor spaces around the Pacific Northwest — a feeling of alienation from result of not seeing any Black people outdoors and perceiving it as a White domain only, and other Black people’s general lack of interest in going there. And perhaps the outdoors held the promise of healing and rejuvenation — another benefit, after the pain of divorce.


ChrisTiana ObeySumner, of the social equity consulting firm Epiphanies of Equity, says there are many layers to Black people’s negative experiences and feelings about the outdoors. They include how systematically Black and Brown families have been displaced and gentrified into paved urban centers with little if any access to the outdoors, the harassment they face in public places such as parks and pools, the correlation between where they live and toxic air, soil and water, and the general history of violence inflicted on Black people.


Matthew Goodrid’s recent master’s thesis at the University of the Pacific explored Black people’s relationship to the outdoors. He says their experience is complicated and connected to multiple facets of historical oppression.

For his thesis, he asked to what extent outdoor recreation was seen as a “White activity” within Black communities, and how that affected their participation in outdoor activities. To answer these questions, Goodrid looked at Black representation within large outdoor recreation companies, and then at their advertising behaviors. “My first question is always ‘how many people of color are on this committee?’” he says, “and every company has told me zero people of color are a part of those committees. This reflects the Whiteness embedded in outdoor spaces.”

Goodrid says we need to understand the experiences of people of color pertaining to the outdoors, address the history, and then address the related issues identified by people of color. White individuals in positions of power must understand environmental trauma and its complexities.

ObeySumner looks forward to the day of institutional and societal parity, when Black people will be able to just to spend time outside without fear or the need for social programs to encourage them.