Between a car breakdown, sickness, and travel for out of state events, we were happy to be able to make it out on Saturday to the inaugural Refuge Outdoor Festival in Carnation, WA from September 28 - 30, 2018. A festival whose tagline was "To Explore and Celebrate Nature, Diversity, and Life", it was developed by Chevon Powell and Golden Bricks Events with and for people of color in the outdoor community. We met Chevon a few months back when she was kind enough to sit down for an AdventShorts interview about her experience in the outdoors, and her motivation for creating the festival. We're white. We know. We'll get to that.
Speaking concretely, the 2018 Refuge Outdoor Festival was a gathering of (primarily) people of color from around the country who are interested in the outdoors enough to pay money and take a bunch of time to go camping with other like-minded people of color.
It was camping, concerts, silent discos, hiking, service projects, presentations, hanging out by a river, and a series of conversations.
And it was genuinely diverse: we met people whose backgrounds were Columbian, Mexican, African, African-American, Native American, Native Hawaiian, Caucasian, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, and almost definitely more. Straight, queer, male, female, non-binary, and almost definitely more.
More abstractly, it was a rare experience - an “outdoorsy” event that was specifically for people of color. For reasons that might be obvious from the photo in the top right of this blog, it was a first experience for me in this kind of environment.
It’s worth us taking a minute to write about for a lot of reasons.
One is to signal boost. Chevon Powell, the organizer, told us that the one thing she wanted us to pass on from the weekend is that it will happen again. Please stop reading right now to follow them on their various social media, so you’ll get the updates.
I'll wait here...
Okay, welcome back!
As Caucasians at Refuge, we were along primarily to learn and listen, but a big direct takeaway from participants was that we should talk to our people about the things that came up during the weekend. While there are plenty of people of color in our audience, it’s more likely, if you’re reading this, that you’re white like me. So, here you have it.
The overarching story: The outdoors isn't, and never was, a "white thing".
A thing that hit us right in our interests at the festival was that a lot of the weekend’s seminars had a storytelling focus, and a major theme of the festival was sharing stories about what it means to be a person of color in the outdoors. It stands to reason: Chevon Powell mentioned in an interview before the event with SNEWS that one of her major goals for the festival was establishing representation - to change the narrative trope that “people of color don’t go outside”.
So it's maybe no surprise that a big takeaway from the weekend was that the story that "the outdoors" is a thing for white people is a myth - not a reality.
The weekend's diverse critical mass made the point clear - it was a group of hikers, campers, runners, backpackers, paddlers, and climbers who were also people of color. But the idea, on the face of it, is laughable when stated directly. One of Chevon's quotes from the SNEWS interviews makes that point: “We’ve been outside for a long time. We didn’t make it to 2018 without being outside.” We all live in the same world - enjoying it, living in it, and interacting with it is a universal human experience.
Another trope that the weekend challenged was that outdoor recreation specifically is "white culture".
The idea made it into Urban Dictionary, so I'm guessing I'm not the only one who's heard the idea that climbing mountains and kayaking and trail running and backpacking is white people shit. While it is true, according to at least one survey anyway, that Caucasians are disproportionately represented among people engaging in outdoor recreation (see The Outdoor Recreation Participation Survey from 2017), a point that came across clearly is that every culture represented had various modern and historical expressions of outdoor recreation - Japanese ski culture, Korean hiking culture, Hawaiian water culture, African running culture, etc. etc...
If you're a person of color reading this, it may be an obvious point that POC go outside and play in a variety of ways, and for a variety of reasons. As a white person, that should be an obvious point too. I'm writing from a McDonalds in Moab, Utah, looking around, and there are dirtbags here from all over the world, and of all skin tones. It shouldn't be news.
But the fact that my operating assumption as a white person has generally been that outdoor recreation is "white culture" gets to the problem of the messaging that “outdoors is a white thing”. Memes (and Urban Dictionary entries) don't necessarily have to reflect the nuances of reality. Even when an idea is obviously false, it can get entrenched and become part of a person's unconscious worldview unless it’s actively challenged. And I think that gets to the value of what Refuge is doing to challenge that idea - both for POC and for those of us with less melanin.
The outdoors isn't white people shit.
The experiences of people of color outside are often different than the experiences of white people.
Having said all of that, another theme that came up repeatedly during the weekend's conversations was that there are some distinct ways in which many people of color experience the outdoors in ways that white people may not.
One positive theme that several people who were first or second generation immigrants mentioned were the historical connection that they made between the outdoors and labor. A couple of people whose parents had immigrated to the urban US from farming cultures in particular said that going outside reminded them of that part of their family past, and made them feel more connected to both their environment and their culture.
(While I said that POC often experience the outdoors differently from white people, this was actually a theme that I could identify with easily - a descendant of Appalachian farmers who moved north to work in Ohio's steel mills, it's not unusual for me to think about my family's history outside when I'm out playing, and I've often thought about hiking and trailrunning as ways that I've figured out how to live out that legacy of hard work in the mountains even though I'm basically a soft urbanite.)
Also positively, a participant who was a first generation immigrant from Africa talked about the historic sense of connection between the land and the gods in the culture he was raised in, and the sort of spiritual sense of meaning that comes along with being outside as a result.
But it was also a major theme across the weekend, and across participants, that many people of color have a relationship with the outdoors that has been informed in some way by trauma - either personal or historic.
Chevon has said on multiple occasions that the genesis of the Refuge festival came from a personal traumatic experience, where on the way to her first solo backpacking experience, she was pulled over by a police officer who called for backup because he didn't believe her story, that she was a black woman going into the woods for fun. And as she pointed out in the SNEWS interview, this type of experience with incredulous, and even hostile, law enforcement isn't unique among people of color going outside.
Multiple people talked about the legacy of colonialism, and the way that traditional cultural patterns of interacting with the world were replaced in recent generations by Western or Christian traditions, and that their most natural means of interacting with the world were presented as primitive or even evil.
And several people who were either refugees themselves, or the children of refugees, spoke about aspects of the outdoor experience - camping, or traveling on boats - as raising complicated emotions due to their history with refugee camps or boats as vessels of escape.
For us, Refuge was a really valuable experience that gave us a much better perspective on what is required to support diversity in the outdoors.
I took away that working to shift the assumption that the outdoors is "white people shit" is important. “Why aren’t there more POC outside?” is a limited question whose answer is that there are - they’re just not there in the same ways that white people are, and they're often experiencing it differently.
A correlated idea is that creating an environment where a diverse group of people can participate in the outdoors comfortably isn't about encouraging them to do things the way I do them - it's about supporting their efforts to get outside into the natural world in a way that works for them.
So, supporting people of color who are creating space for themselves in the outdoors is a key thing. As Chevon said, representation matters, and I really hope readers will put energy, money and time into making sure Refuge, and organizations like it, succeed and grow.
Along with supporting Refuge, for more follow up:
1) Follow Chevon's actual advice on how to support POC in the outdoors on the SNEWS interview I keep mentioning.
2) Listen to Chevon's AdventShorts interview.
3) Listen to this AdventShorts interview with Sophia Danneberg, the first African-American to summit Everest, where she talks about her experience in the mountaineering world as a black woman.
4) And throw some support behind the organizations who are doing the work every day, including: Climbers of Color, Outdoor Asian, GirlTrek, Latino Outdoors, Rainier Valley Corps, and Brown Environmentalist.
And if you like what we're up to here at Boldly Went, check out our Patreon page and consider joining the small but mighty horde of supporters, and pledging anything from $1/month in order to help make it feasible for us to continue creating the Boldly Went podcast and other online content!
Tim and Angel
The goat in the picture lives in Silverton, CO, and tried to kill us. We survived to bring you this dirtbag wisdom for the ages.