A big draw of the Pacific Northwest for many is the unparalleled natural beauty available here. But research shows people of color are much less likely to enjoy nature through outdoor recreation.
Segregation historically extended to the outdoors, but groups in Western Washington are working to repair the divide.
“It’s not too many faces, people of color out there,” said Joseph Mitchell, a lead organizer with the Facebook group, “Black People Hike.”
Mitchell, an Everett resident, is from Chicago. If you run into him on the trail, his Bears-themed walking stick will be hard to miss.
He discovered hiking nine years ago after being encouraged to go with some friends to Rattlesnake Ledge — the first hike for many newcomers to the area.
“The perspective and the view is something where coming from the Midwest,” Mitchell said, “It was something I’d never experienced before. So yeah, it was life-changing. First hike was definitely life-changing,” he said.
Mitchell says he fell in love with being outside. And when he came across the Seattle-founded Facebook group called “Black People Hike,” he says he was all in.
“Something just clicked in my brain. I just had developed an instant passion to want to expose others to these outdoor experiences,” Mitchell said.
Researchers from all over the world have published studies that show nature is very, very good for us. Of course, there are the physical benefits, but studies show exposure to nature also brings mental health benefits like lower stress levels and anxiety. Then there are things you might not expect, like improved attention span and even greater empathy.
Kathleen Wolf is a social scientist at the University of Washington’s School of Environmental and Forest Sciences.
“Simply seeing nature can reduce stress in a matter of minutes. A physiological response so people might not actually be aware of it when it happens,” Wolf said.
But for many reasons, fewer Black people are accessing that benefit.
The most recent survey data from the U.S. Forest Service found that between 2014 and 2018, 95% of visitors to national forests were white. Black, or African Americans, were the most underrepresented, at 1.2%.
A National Parks Survey showed slightly more diversity, with African American visitors accounting for 6% of visitors in 2018, compared to 13% of the overall population.
One big influence on the disparity is historical discrimination. Many national parks in the south were segregated, like Shenandoah National Park.
Today, Black people enjoying nature still face racism.
There was the viral incident in 2020 when a white woman in Central Park called the police on a Black bird-watcher who asked her to leash her dogs.
Jourdan Keith, a Seattle resident, is the founder and director of the Urban Wilderness Project, a group that works for justice “at the intersection of gender, ethnicity and environment.”
“After that ridiculous event, that horrifying event with the birders. People have been looking for birds for a long time but we had to declare, we’re Black birders,” Keith said.
Colorado-based Instagramer “fatblackandgettinit” posted a video describing his hiking experience.
“You may have seen me on your favorite trail. People always clutch their purses or their kids when I walk past them,” he says with a smile.
One big way the Urban Wilderness Project serves its mission is by bringing young people out into nature to discover the joy of the outdoors.
“We’re focused on African American, Latino, Asian, and Native youth, LGBTQ youth who might feel otherwise not welcome,” Keith said.
Keith recalled one snowshoeing trip with an entire class of eighth-graders at Mount Rainier.
“One of the girls got off the bus when we got back to the parking lot and she said to me, ‘Wow, I never knew I liked nature.’ It’s like my job is done! How would she have known if she didn’t go?” Keith said.
Urban Wilderness Project, Black People Hike, and now an increasing number of groups are working on making the outdoors more accessible.
“I’ll tell someone, I’m going on a hike this weekend. And one of the responses is, Black people hike? And it’s like yes, Black people do hike. We actually do hike,” Mitchell said.
“Black People Hike” helps provide gear like hiking poles, backpacks, and shoes for new hikers by partnering with the Washington Trails Association’s (WTA) gear library. They also organize group hikes almost weekly.
“They’re intimidated about going, showing up by themselves, not knowing where to go, or just being alone,” Mitchell said.
“This wilderness solitude thing seems very much to be a White Western European sort of preference. And that’s not shared by all cultures,” Wolf said.
“It’s a hard feeling to put into words but I just feel good helping other people,” Mitchell said.
Wolf adds you might not need to travel as far into the woods as you’d expect to reap the benefits of the outdoors. Rather, it can be discovered in “near nature,” as Wolf calls it.
“You don’t have to go away for days at a time, out to the mountains far away,” Wolf said. “Ten, 20, 30 minutes outdoors in a place that you feel safe within of course. A nearby nature encounter, can be your streetscape, our own yard, a nearby park — all of that can be very helpful,” she said.
Wolf said research shows what’s key is being mindful of your surroundings, instead of being distracted by something like your device.
“Being intentional of what’s around us,” Wolf said. “It’s a process of mindfulness and immersion in that nature setting. Coming to recognize what’s around you using all of their senses,” she said.
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