By Vivian Tang
Several years ago, an American outdoor magazine published an article that highlighted the importance of diversity and inclusivity in the outdoors at a time where the protection of a national monument and, more generally, public lands were under the threat of privatization and development. The article posited that if individuals, especially those that identify as people of color (POC) or are from historically marginalized groups, never feel welcomed in these spaces, their ability to cultivate a personal and meaningful connection to the outdoors will be limited. Subsequently, these individuals may not participate in voting on policies that will protect our environment and wild spaces. However, it was only until recently did I ask myself, “What was this article missing?”.
At the time, this was a different angle than I was used to seeing with regards to environmental activism. Also, the conversation around the lack of diversity in outdoor recreation was not what it is today. Fortunately, the article underscored that every individual has the power to vote, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation. Every person yields a small but mighty chisel that can shape the future of our planet in the face of climate change. I thought about this message for years, and to its credit, the article did its job. I felt empowered because voting is one avenue in which I, a woman, a child of immigrants and a long-time trail runner, may have my experiences and values recognized.
Yes, I should vote but who is to assume that individuals who may identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC) wouldn’t vote on policies to protect the environment? In the context of environmental protection and conservation, what is the role of outdoor recreation? Who defines outdoor recreation? Also, did this article veer towards stereotyping an entire BIPOC community as one homogenous group? Each of these questions could be an article on its own. I would also be incapable of answering them in a way that represents an entire BIPOC community because we are not a monolith. As a cisgender, Asian-American female, my lived experiences and sense of safety in the outdoors will be different than those of a Black man, an Indigenous woman, a Latinx transgender person, and the list goes on. Moreover, within any group, there will be a range of experiences influenced by socioeconomic factors.
As the reader, I do want to leave you with this: BIPOC communities have always had their own unique relationship to the physical environment and climate change has only brought this into acute focus.
1) This connection may be cultural. For example, Indigenous groups have always had an intimate and profound spiritual relationship with the land. Indigenous activism to protect the environment was necessitated the moment colonization began.
2) The harsh reality is that BIPOC communities have been disproportionately impacted by climate change whether that is through exposure to polluted air, water, soil and/or poorer working conditions. They are often at the front lines, bearing the brunt of global warming. A recent example from the PNW is when an immigrant agricultural worker died of a heat-related illness after working outside despite record-breaking temperatures day after day. Of course, BIPOC voters recognize the impact of climate change on their own communities.
3) BIPOC communities have always valued their connection with nature and enjoy spending time outside. However, when you visualize what a person that is into “outdoor recreation” looks like, what kind of person do you see in your head? The image, at least in media, tends to be a slim or fit-looking white person, perhaps with a rugged mountain range in the background. These images were created by those who are in power and have historically written the narratives we see most often.
BIPOC communities do have their own connections with the natural world. What about the immigrant family that goes to the river each weekend so their kids can play? What about the Black farmer that focuses on regenerative agricultural practices? Why aren’t we seeing or hearing those stories?
Racial justice and environmental justice are inextricably tied. Historically, conversations around environmental activism and outdoor recreation have been missing our stories. They are missing the voices of the BIPOC and marginalized communities. Ask us about our lived experiences. Ask us what outdoor recreation means to us. Ask us how we view our own roles and responsibilities with living on a resource-limited planet. Ask us how we think environmental policies will impact our communities. Ask us questions that might make us all uncomfortable. Ask us if our ability to earn a living and meet basic human needs would be impacted by the environmental policies and their tax ramifications. Ask if transportation or need for transitional housing impacts our ability to get to voting polls or mail in our ballots. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs reminds us that certain requirements must be satisfied for one to fully achieve self-actualization and that includes being able to fully give back to our community and planet.
One’s influence on our planet is also not restricted to voting day. There is a lot of work and education that must occur before we see what is proposed on the voting ballots and who gets to the polls. We must listen and talk with one another. We may be from different communities but perhaps that is our strength. Our diversity of lived experiences can help us come up with more creative, thoughtful, and collaborative solutions to help protect our planet.
Vivian Tang is a long trail runner that also dabbles in mountain biking, skiing and rock climbing. She is willing to give any outdoor sport at least a few tries. She also is the co-leader of Trail Mixed Collective’s Portland trail running club and one of their Portland community leaders (2022-2023). She and her co-leader, Iris Marie Chavez, host twice monthly trail runs. She and other Portland community leaders also host a variety of events for womxn of color that seek community and mentorship in outdoor sports.
If you’re a womxn of color, want to meet others like yourself and don’t mind running a few miles in the process, pull up to our trail running club. Group runs are held at Forest Park the first Thursday of each month and at Mt. Tabor the third Thursday of each month. Sign up to join the Trail Mixed Portland run club or join one of the established groups in Seattle, Salt Lake City and Atlanta here. No womxn of color run clubs in your city? Consider starting one through Trail Mixed Co. Details here.