Two Black Outdoor Enthusiasts Share Experiences of ‘Making Space’ During a Pandemic

Two African American women talk about what being outdoors meant for their health during the pandemic.
Two African American women talk about what being outdoors meant for their health during the pandemic.

It is a common belief that Black people do not engage with the great outdoors, an outlook that ignores the long history of Black foragers, farmers, naturalists, and hikers. 

The Outdoor Foundation’s national 2021 report shows that while the pandemic did inspire a huge push in outdoor participation gains, diversity is still lacking. In 2020, 72% of outdoor participants identified as white while 9% of those participants identified as Black. Nationally, the Black/African American population stands at 12.4%.

Oakland Voices spoke with two avid Black hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who are a part of the Oakland-based Outdoor Afro organization to learn how they’ve been connecting with nature during the pandemic. Outdoor Afro is a national organization and network that advances Black connections and leadership in nature. Founded in 2009 by Rue Mapp, the organization has grown to include hubs in over 56 cities across the country and programming that centers on Black experiences and history.

SK Williams: Camping, Trekking, Hiking  

A smiling woman with braids and glasses takes a selfie outside
SK Williams enjoying the outdoors.

SK Williams is a member of the Norcal Outdoor Afro group. Camping, trekking, and hiking come naturally to her as her roots are in Belize. An important part of SK’s Belizean heritage is foraging as “my people are coastal country people,” Williams said. Because of that, “we forage mostly sea vegetables and small shellfish.” She is a retired lawyer and currently teaches at KIPP Academy Charter School in Oakland. In addition to teaching, she is obtaining her Ph.D. in education at the University of Southern California. She defines herself as a coastal hiker and enjoys going to places like Pacifica, Point Reyes, and Pinnacles National Park in Hollister, California. This practice is actually inspired by her time as a lawyer. “I have a tiny little fundraiser that I do called ‘Trekking For Justice,'” which raises funds for the legal fees of people on death row.

Williams said that anecdotally, she has noticed an uptick in seeing more Black folks while hiking and trekking. During the pandemic, “I have witnessed firsthand an increase of Black people on some of my trekking. I’m very aware of the presence of other people of African descent because there have been so few of us.” She says that often other Black people are surprised to encounter her but “we will almost always greet each other with no accompanying suspicion.”  

Williams said she tries to get outdoors on a walk every day. “​If I don’t walk in a day, I feel like something’s missing.” On good days, her walks could start in Richmond and end in Crockett. “The outdoors for me since I was a child has always represented freedom,” Williams said. KIPP Academy reopened to in-person instruction back in April 2021 and since then, it has forced her to be even more intentional about her walking. “That’s what my walking is for me, in that I forced myself to create some space within my teaching life and student life,” Williams added. 

Being Black and visible in nature is not always well-received. Racism in outdoor spaces continues to be an issue. Williams recalls a time when her family as well as several other children and their parents went on a big backpacking trip to the Eastern Sierra Mountains. “​​People were stopping to take pictures of us because they never saw Black people up there before.” Groups like Outdoor Afro and Black Naturalist Group, a safe space to share stories, tips, and lessons around being Black and outdoors, are breaking the stereotype and reclaiming Black space in the outdoors. “Given especially our history as agrarian people, it’s a little bit strange that there’s an attitude of ‘What are black people doing out here?” Williams said. 

Having access to the outdoors is also a layered and complex issue. “Access is also a state of mind,” Williams noted. At the root of it, the idea of access is a mental block. There is “this idea that we don’t want to be outside because of inherited emotional trauma.” Trauma from the history of American slavery and its associations such as lynchings from trees, water, scent-hunting dogs, and more. That trauma continues to seep into the lasting implications of institutionalized racism. That is one reason why Williams wanted to teach elementary school–to attempt to break that cycle early on. 

The Outdoor Foundation 2021 report also concludes that the Black youth gap in outdoor participation still persists: 49% of Black youth between the ages of 6-12 participated in outdoor activities. That number drops to 46% Black youth in the 13-17 age group. For Williams’ students, it is crucial that they know that these spaces are open to them. Another way Williams has tried to combat this trauma is with her own children in sports. “I had my children do the kinds of sports that white people have laid claim to,” Williams said. Lacrosse, basketball, and football are just a few popular American sports with indigenous roots, she points out to note that many sports have non-white origins. “We’ve got to reclaim all of our dignity.”  

Karen Martin: Hiking, Gardening, Fishing

An older Black woman with grey hair wearing a purple shirt stands in front of a garden bed holding a rake.
Karen Martin stands by a garden. Photo courtesy of Karen Martin.

When the pandemic hit Karen Martin, a sommelier, urban farmer, and a member of Outdoor Afro group, she thought to herself, “I can’t let anything prevent me from being outside.” During the height of the pandemic, she describes feeling a huge amount of cabin fever and the increased need for outside recreation for her and her family. Simple outside activities such as hiking relieved stress as well as just sitting on the front porch and video-calling a relative, making all the difference for Martin.

Pushed by the Black Lives Matter movement, the pandemic also shed a light on some of the under-told parts of Black history like the legacy of Black rodeos, Black cowboy identity, and the importance of Critical Race Theory in education. Martin believes that this time pushed us to re-examine the ways in which African Americans have contributed to this nation’s history. 

Martin said she observed a greater movement in urban farming during the COVID pandemic, particularly in balcony and community gardening. Similar to Outdoor Afro, she is a member of a variety of Facebook affinity groups focusing on Black outdoor communities such as “Black Women with Green Thumbs,” “Black Naturalist,” and Black Girls Fishing.” Black Girls Fishing started in June of 2020 and now has over 1.5K members. Black Women with Green Thumbs continues to gain over 300 new members a week with 10.5K members.

“The number of people asking to join is astounding as folks are really getting back to basics and want to learn self-sufficiency,” Martin noted. She recalls getting a flood of inquiries through the social media groups she is a part as well as phone calls and emails on how to start a garden and how to raise chickens. “I’d go to my local feed store, and there’d be, like, no baby chicks,” Martin said. “Black people were coming outside in their own spaces,”  Martin added. Now, with the skills to feed themselves and families, “it’s my hope that they continue to do so.” 

Martin’s family’s roots are in Louisiana, and like many families down South, generations of a family would grow up on 10-20 acres of land. They would live on two of them and the rest would be cultivated farmland or forest, she said. This kind of sustainable living is rooted in our history, Martin believes, and the pandemic created a pathway to return to her roots in the South.

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Black Voices in the Town’ is funded by The African American Response Circle Fund. In 2020, the Brotherhood of Elders Network in partnership with the East Bay Community Foundation established the fund in response to the impact of COVID-19 as a public health crisis for African Americans who live, work, and worship in Alameda County.

Update: A correction was made to Karen Martin’s section regarding her profession.

About Iris Crawford

Iris M. Crawford, is a poet and social justice advocate. Hailing from New York City, she is a first-generation Guyanese- American. Her journey has allowed her to empower communities through health care advocacy, education and environmental justice. In 2018, Iris was selected as a semi-finalist Fulbright Scholar for an English Teaching Assistantship in South Africa. She also just became a resident of the 2020 Shuffle Collective Literary Arts Residency where she will be working to strengthen her creative work, gain skills to continue growing professionally and build community. She earned her BA in Political Philosophy and African American Studies from Syracuse University. View all posts by Iris Crawford →

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