From surfing to hiking, Black folks are forming organizations centered around our outdoor experiences, partly to make the space more welcoming and to reclaim the narrative.
Because while it’s true that Black folks do love the outdoors, there are often barriers to enjoying nature, like racial stereotypes and high costs.
“There’s an economic barrier when it comes to recreation. Those activities are expensive,” says Jessica Newton, the founder of Denver-based Vibe Tribe Adventures. “The gear is expensive; the training is expensive. Getting to the location is pricey at times, and typically we don’t have the accessibility to do those things.”
Along with participation in outdoor recreation activities costing a pretty penny, Newton says the stereotypes that we don’t do those things also don’t help. Plus, activities like bird watching and surfing are often associated with white people.
“That’s because of what happened in the Jim Crow era,” Newton says. “The segregation, hanging people from trees, not being able to get into the national parks or state parks.”
But Black naturalists are changing perceptions surrounding Black folks’ relationship with the land. Here are five Black outdoor organizations that should be on your radar.
- Outdoor Afro
With more than 80 leaders in 42 cities, Outdoor Afro is one of the largest groups for Black folks who love to be outside. Founder and CEO Rue Mapp started the organization in 2009. Since then, she has become an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. In May 2020, Mapp was interviewed by Bay Nature, an outdoor magazine focused on Northern California. When speaking with Bay Nature, she stressed the importance of Black folks getting outside.
“Outdoor Afro is focused on reacting to a Black American experience in nature, and how that history is shaped, who we are, and how we connect with nature today,” she says.
“We get to continue to amplify and talk about and stand on the shoulders of the champions of the past in everything that we do.”
- Black Outside
In 2019 Alex Bailey started Black Outside, a non-profit dedicated to educating Black folks about outdoor recreation. Before founding Black Outside, Bailey participated in an entrepreneurial fellowship where he spent three weeks backpacking.
During his trip, he met KiAmber Thompson. She later founded the Charles Roundtree Bloom Project, a program within Black Outside that helps children of currently or formerly incarcerated people connect with nature. Thompson believes that getting outside isn’t just therapeutic for youth involved in the Bloom Project but that everyone could benefit from spending time outdoors.
“Being outside is healing,” Thompson tells Word In Black.
“When it comes to places like parks, beaches, and national parks, it’s super important for Black people to be able to take up space because there has been a history of exclusion for Black people in certain spaces,” she says.
- National Association of Black Scuba Divers
Scuba divers Ric Powell and Dr. Albert Jose Jones know about breaking barriers. They were some of the earliest Black certified scuba divers in the United States. By 1991, they founded the National Association of Black Scuba Divers.
Since its founding, the non-profit has gained over 2,000 members. The founders hope to “build unity and camaraderie to transfer the legacy to future generations,” as it says on their website.
They do that by offering educational programs, giving scholarships to marine biology students, and providing scuba training. Their work is significant, considering only 8% of recreational scuba divers were Black in 2015. Despite stereotypes, Black folks are involved in water sports, riding waves under the sun, or diving into the ocean’s depths.
- Soul Trak Outdoors
Soul Trak Outdoors founder Tyrhee Moore is no newbie to outdoor activities. The mountaineer has climbed worldwide and was a member of the first all-Black group to climb Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. He leads outdoor ventures — including camping, climbing, and hiking — for Black kids and adults.
He launched Soul Trak Outdoors in 2018 to provide opportunities for people of color to engage in activities outside. The organization’s website states they are “committed to increasing outdoor access and opportunities to underrepresented communities to stimulate new learning, growth, and appreciation for our planet.”
- Black Girls Trekkin’
“We use ‘trek’ both in terms of a challenging hike or journey, but also in terms of dealing with challenges that we face as Black women,” Black Girls Trekkin’ co-founder Tiffany Tharpe told the Los Angeles Times in April.
Tharpe and Michelle Warren founded the organization in 2017, and as of April 2023, the L.A.-based nonprofit organization has hosted nearly 100 hikes and 20 events.
“We are striving to show that Black women are a clear, present and strong force in the outdoors,” Tharpe told the Times.
- Vibe Tribe Adventures
In 2019, Jessica Newton founded Vibe Tribe Adventures because she was “tired of being the only chocolate person outside.”
Previously known as Black Girls Hike, Vibe Tribe Adventures has become a haven for Black youth to explore the outdoors. But Newton believes Black people have a complex history with being outside.
“It’s been a rough road between Black people and nature,” she says. “We’re trying to get back to that space where we understand that it is our space, as well.”
And Newton says spending time outside contributes to better mental and physical health.
“It’s vital to our health and our wealth. It’s vital to our being and how we exist,” she says. “Being outdoors creates a space for our bodies to relax and rest.”
- Black Surfers Collective
Black folks who surf recreationally need an inclusive space to learn more about the ocean, the environment, and themselves. In 2011, Gregory Rachal and Jeff Williams created that space — the Black Surfers Collective. The formation of the Black Surfers Collective was an important step in pushing for diversity and inclusion in outdoor organizations.
Despite stereotypes, Black folks aren’t new to surfing. Scott Hulet, the editor of The Surfer’s Journal, says Black people have been surfing for centuries.
“Papua New Guinea, the Caribbean, which would include Barbados, Jamaica, British Virgin Islands — those are Black surfers through and through,” he told WBUR, Boston’s NPR station.
“The vibrant global Black surf culture is historic and thriving. Here in America, it’s still a very minute part of our overall constituency.”
And he’s right— the surfing industry is predominantly white. But that doesn’t mean Black people don’t participate.
And, overall, although the outdoor industry has been white-washed, Black outdoor enthusiasts refuse to stop pursuing their passions. For the people in this list and more, the land is more than something to own or admire from afar. Engaging with it is part of the path to liberation.
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