Here’s how BIPOC youth-led nature groups are adding colour to the great, white outdoors
Why It Matters
Many racialized youth face barriers to accessing nature, but bridging this gap can improve their physical and mental health, and also help bring more Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) into Canada’s very white environmental sector.
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Patricia Wilson’s first in-person outdoor event for Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (BIPOC) was an intro to cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. It took place on a warm, sunny winter day — unseasonably warm for winter at 13 degrees — just north of Peterborough, Ontario. Wilson was worried that many people would cancel because of the weather, assuming that the trails would be in less-than-ideal conditions for cross country skiing and snowshoeing.
But 40 participants showed up that day. All diverse faces, many international students, and none of them had done cross-country skiing or snowshoeing before. There were some people who even drove up to Peterborough all the way from Toronto — a two hour drive.
“My mind was blown,” says Wilson, on the turnout.
The goal of the event was to create a welcoming, non-intimidating environment for BIPOC folks to feel comfortable learning a new sport. It was the first of its kind for Diverse Nature Collective, a BIPOC-led organization founded by Wilson that aims to create space for racialized folks in the outdoors and the environmental sector.
At the end of the event, Wilson recalls that everyone sat in a big circle, sharing their experience of the day. “There were so many people that were like, ‘I’ve always said the outdoors isn’t for me and I’m thinking maybe it is; I actually really enjoyed it.’”
Wilson says she was thrilled to see that folks who participated in the event were starting to gain confidence just being outdoors and trying a new activity.
“The biggest thing for me was that they had brushed off the sport before, like, ‘I don’t like nature, I don’t like the outdoors’ or they have this perception that it’s not for them because they don’t see themselves represented in these spaces,” says Wilson. “For me, the biggest success of the event was just how excited everyone was afterwards.”
The great outdoors isn’t open to everyone
The 2020 report ‘Race and Nature in the City’ by Jacqueline L. Scott and Ambika Tenneti, looked into the way racialized communities lack the same access to nature and nature-based programming as white Canadians. Though the report primarily focused on the barriers that racialized youth face in the Toronto area, it noted the relevance of the issue across the country.
For instance, new immigrants in Canada face barriers like high transportation costs, language, and economic barriers that keep them from activities like camping or skiing. The lack of knowledge around how to break into these spaces that are occupied by predominantly white populations is also a major challenge, reads the report.
For Black youth, the report stated that their experience in nature can be “tinged with the fear of race-based violence from white people.” In a high-profile 2020 case, Christian Cooper was bird watching in central park in New York City, when a simple exchange with a white woman prompted her to call the cops on him. In 2018, Phillip Morgan who was on a cross-country biking trip across Canada was continuously questioned what he was doing and where he was really from.
Given the many barriers Black, Indigenous, and people of colour face when it comes to accessing and enjoying nature, there are very few mainstream environmental organizations that deliver programming catered to the specific needs of different racialized youth.
BIPOC youth are creating their own space outdoors
Similar to Diverse Nature Collective, BIPOC youth across the country are creating their own organizations to make space for racialized youth in the outdoors.
Brown Girl Outdoor World is creating a community for BIPOC youth through hosting a range of outdoor activities. All Out Canada, an initiative under Monumental during summer 2021, was a resource for racialized millennials to feel empowered to get outdoors. Nurrait | Jeunes Karibus encourages Nunavik youth in Quebec to reconnect with nature through outdoor adventures.
Another one of these organizations is Colour the Trails, founded by Judy Kasiama, who formed the group back in 2017 to help racialized folks gain more confidence in nature, and be able to do outdoor activities on their own or have a community to do it with.
Kasiama is an avid hiker and nature enthusiast. But she was very aware of the way outdoor sports and being in nature felt like a very “white space.” Even the way outdoor culture is promoted through brands like MEC showed a huge lack of diversity as to who is allowed to be in nature.
“It becomes very exclusive to the predominantly white community because that’s what they do; they figure out the system and they just share that knowledge generation to generation,” explains Kasiama. “Whereas our communities, for many of us who are first or second generation immigrants, our parents come here and they’re working multiple jobs, trying to make life better here, so they don’t have time. Having time is a privilege and not everybody can take time off to go hiking or camping.”
While financial barriers to get into expensive activities is a major issue, Kasiama says that sometimes it’s the knowledge gap that’s preventing racialized folks from feeling comfortable in nature. Through her programs at Colour the Trails, Kasiama wants to share knowledge with people, whether that’s how to get cheap gear, or tips on how to mountain bike, and create a support system for each other.
When it comes to funding, Kasiama says that in her experience a lot of funders tend to give money to white-led environmental organizations. She adds that it’s frustrating because these organizations often claim to support Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour to get outdoors, but usually have no relationship to these communities.
“We create reports, share it with [funders and investors], and they love it but they’re just not willing to give money to address the issue, unless it’s coming from a white savior,” says Kasiama.
Also, many organizations, like Colour the Trails and Diverse Nature Collective, are small and don’t have full time staff to search and apply for grants.
Despite the challenges though, Colour the Trails has grown to have four chapters including in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Southern Ontario, since 2017. There’s a leader in each area who creates different outdoor programs and hosts events for the folks in the area. Activities include skiing, snowboarding, backpacking, hiking, and mountain biking.
Cheralyn Chok, a participant in Colour the Trails, says that she never thought about who occupied the outdoors before she came across Colour the Trails and took part in one of their trail running events in Vancouver.
Chok’s parents are immigrants from Singapore, and though she grew up by the mountains in Vancouver, they never did outdoor activities together as a family, like she saw a lot of her classmates do.
“That’s just not how we spent our time as a family,” says Chok.
But as she got older, Chok started to really enjoy being outside and started getting comfortable running and hiking. Only recently though, did she start to reflect on how the people she did these activities with and those saw in this outdoor space were mostly white.
Doing the event with Colour the Trails, Chok says, “it was really cool to just be out there together and feel that kind of strength in numbers.”
She also says that she’s become more conscious of the way she interacts with nature as well.
“Now, I think that I’ve been mindful of even little signals like when we’re hiking, it’s not about conquering a climb or the mountain (that’s a very colonial approach to outdoors), but it’s about being grateful to be in that space and taking your time,” says Chok. “I love being able to hear the birds and the trees and the water running close by and I think it’s a very different mindset for me in being in that environment.”
Connecting to nature as a way to build more environmental stewardship
Having worked in the environmental sector, Wilson was also very frustrated with the lack of diversity within the sustainability and environmental movement in Canada. Part of her goal with Diverse Nature Collective is to start with helping BIPOC youth connect with nature, but also help racialized people navigate, and find jobs in the environmental sector.
“I want to focus my attention on trying to connect with other racialized folks in my city, and empower folks to get outside, be part of the conversation, to gain some skills, and to get jobs in the conservation environmental field,” says Wilson.
Wilson adds there’s an appetite for these opportunities for youth to gain hands-on experiences in an environment where they feel comfortable, they see other folks that look like them, they’re not being questioned for why they’re there or about how much knowledge they have.
Aside from the outdoor events she hosts, Wilson is also building connections and partnerships with local environmental organizations to bring more diverse voices into their team. And she’s consulting with these organizations to help them figure out ways that they can be better allies, and how they can diversify their organizations in a non-tokenizing way.
“I’m trying to get [BIPOC] folks to be excited to be part of these conversations — because climate change affects us all, and especially racialized communities disproportionately. So we should be part of the solutions,” says Wilson.