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

For many, fostering new relationships with nature and outdoor recreation starts with their children.
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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.

Photo by Hero Images/Getty Images

Ieisha McIntyre grew up the youngest of five on an acre of land in Spanaway, Washington, a predominantly White rural town. Her family’s orchard held giant rhubarb, plum, cherry, and apple trees, and the garden—what we call a microfarm today—boasted “all sorts of trees to climb and mud to make,” she says. A chicken coop, too. She was outside much of the time.

“To me, a garden was a part of life—an entitlement,” McIntyre says, adding that it’s a basic right to possess both the knowledge and the space to grow your own food.

“My mother is the daughter of Oklahoma sharecroppers, and one of 14 children. There wasn’t enough room in the house; they had to be outside, all day, every day,” she says. Though her mother had been poor, McIntyre envied this about her childhood.

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. 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.

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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.

She’s given part of her yard to an outdoor classroom, and “we have our own vertical garden.” Her own children, a 5-year-old girl and a boy who turns 2 in June, will benefit from the curriculum as well.

“Somehow, I had turned around and that outdoor childhood was no longer an entitlement for little Brown girls (and boys),” she says. For her children, and for other children of color, she says, “this was a justice issue. It was another thing to fight for.”

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.”

“There’s no possible remuneration or resource that could suffice for our decimation and oppression... especially as it pertains to our relationship with nature.”

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.

Matt Reese, director of strategic partnerships for Outdoor Afro in the greater Seattle area, joined the group in 2014 to build a closer relationship with his child, who also enjoys nature. He was challenged to believe that, as a Black man, he was welcome in the outdoors.

But now, Reese says, “we live it.” A recent group expedition to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania reinforced that for him. “From the office staff, to the leaders, to the porters, to the expedition company, it was a Black experience.”

Ieisha McIntyre with her children, Aya and John-Henry Hamaoka, in their garden. Photo from Ieisha McIntyre.

McIntyre looks forward to a first Outdoor Afro excursion with all the H.A.P.I kids, with its established community of Black and Brown outdoor enthusiasts who understand her vision, and champion her hopes to instill a sense of belonging in the outdoors for a new generation.

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.

“There’s no possible remuneration or resource that could suffice for our decimation and oppression, our historical suffering, and intergenerational trauma,” ObeySumner says, “especially as it pertains to our relationship with nature, which is layered across various types of violence.”

“We’re cultivating Black unity in all we do.”

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 spend time outside without fear or the need for social programs to encourage them.

Reese, like McIntyre, is changing that dynamic by giving his children early and intentional exposure to natural surroundings on a scale that he didn’t enjoy in his youth. “My parents weren’t avid outdoors people, [so] we weren’t engaged [in nature],” he says.

About his children, Reese says, “everything they see is a possibility for them to experience. We try it all. We’ve gone RV-ing, whitewater rafting, SUP [stand up paddle] boarding. Our vacations incorporate purposeful outdoor activities. My kids expect it now. This journey has been life-changing for myself and family. It’s brought us closer.” Both Reese and McIntyre believe that empowerment of Black people requires a renewed unity. This is especially true in the Pacific Northwest, where the Black community is both relatively small and siloed, even within itself.

“We’re cultivating Black unity in all we do,” Reese says, “and the power behind that is recognizable.”