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New groups are changing the narrative about Black women and the outdoors


Black women enjoy taking part in outdoor and nature activities just as much as anyone else. But that's not the typical image you see in magazines and in ads. Groups like Outdoorsy Black Women and Blackpackers are working to change that narrative. Cody Short from member station WBHM in Birmingham has more.

CODY SHORT, BYLINE: A group of women met at Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, Ala. Before they start their two-mile hike, they stretch. Leaders ask if any of the women have allergies or need inhalers. Then they hit the trail.

So how did you find out about Outdoorsy Black Women?

LAKEITHA CLARK: I love to have Black women to do stuff with 'cause usually I'm just by myself, you know, in places like this. And none of my friends or family - I'm the crazy one. Like, oh, you like to...

SHORT: Adventure one?

CLARK: ...You like to go out? Yeah, they call me crazy.

SHORT: Lakeitha Clark fell into this group when she was approaching her 50th birthday. She wanted to take a trip that would involve a lot of time outside. After looking on Instagram, she came across the group.

CLARK: I found my people, you know, 'cause this - I have other friends, but to have Black - other Black women - I mean, and they don't even have to do everything I like but to just have the love for the outdoors in common.

SHORT: Outdoorsy Black Women is a national organization, but Clark started the Birmingham chapter in early 2022. Toyin Ajayi is the actual founder of Outdoorsy Black Women. She started the group in the middle of the pandemic. She had been working remotely for an online magazine since 2011 but always dreamed of trading a stationary life for living in an RV. She made that jump in 2020 and wanted to find other Black women like her. Plus, when racial tensions heightened after the murder of George Floyd, Ajayi wanted to create a safe space for Black women.

TOYIN AJAYI: One thing I recognized is the outdoors can be experienced different ways by different people, right? And it's going to be different things that people connect with.

SHORT: She says within three months, Outdoorsy Black Women grew to a thousand members. The organization has chapters all over the country, including a popular location for outdoor activity - Colorado. That's where Blackpackers is located. That's a group started by Patricia Ann Cameron. In 2019, she realized there is a gap in representation and wealth in regard to the outdoors in the Black community.

PATRICIA ANN CAMERON: The three top economic drivers are beer, cannabis and the outdoors.

SHORT: Cameron wants Black people to utilize outdoor activity to help change that. She also says that Black people specifically have a different type of relationship with the outdoors due to the history of enslavement.

CAMERON: 'Cause a lot of times it was work and/or how we fed our families. So it's not like we didn't go outside. It's just that sometimes outdoors was necessary to live, and that changes your relationship with the outdoors.

SHORT: Samantha White, a sports studies professor at Manhattanville College, says this isn't new for Black women. She says W.E.B. Du Bois would take his daughter Yolande to a summer camp in New York during the early 20th century.

SAMANTHA WHITE: These are stories in magazines such as Ebony. You can find narratives and write-ups about Black women skiing and hiking in the 1970s and the 1980s.

SHORT: Despite that history, White says outdoor activities have always been seen as something that only white people do. When you look at the marketing materials for some outdoor recreation brands, you don't see many Black faces, says White.

WHITE: Some of these companies have had trouble imagining their larger audience or envisioning who uses the trails or who hikes or who kayaks or who canoes. It's a very narrow vision of what kind of communities take part in that.

SHORT: And Black people are pushing against that in a real way. Outdoor lifestyle brand REI is recognizing those efforts. They recently formed a partnership with Outdoorsy Black Women and Blackpackers that focuses on creating more diverse communities for outdoor leisure and adventure. This past fall, REI launched a new line of hiking gear intended to be more inclusive of Black people's body shapes. And although it's cold outside, Outdoorsy Black Women and Blackpackers will continue their hikes through the rest of the winter, with each step representing Blackness and the outdoors.

For NPR News, I'm Cody Short.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Cody Short