I often wonder what environmental educators and outdoor retailers mean when they say “the outdoors”. As someone who has a master’s degree in urban environmental education, I am very familiar with the trope of taking city children into the wilderness for life-changing experiences and the urgency some feel to specifically reach out to children from lower income communities of color. At one point, I was one of these children, so I understand the importance of natural experiences. However, I am troubled by some of the assumptions made about lower income communities of color in regards to their experiences with “the outdoors”
As a child, I remember congregating with my friends on the neighborhood corner. Underneath the sun rays on muggy, hot, summer days in Chicago, we’d laugh and play in the spraying water of fire hydrants. Air conditioning was a luxury not always afforded to my mostly lower income neighborhood, yet it was a necessity in a city where humidity and high temperatures have been known to claim lives. Being outside in city fire hydrants mixed needed relief with playful joy. These outdoor experiences along with barbecues, outdoor family reunions, block parties, and rural Deep South family visits are some of my fondest childhood memories. As a child in inner-city Chicago, my friends and I were always outside, yet I often hear a narrative of how inner-city children need to be exposed to “the outdoors” more because they are not spending time outdoors.
Children playing in Brooklyn via The U.S. National Archives
Recently, with the increase and push for diversity and inclusion in the outdoor industry, companies and organizations market beautiful images of people of color against beautiful backdrops: people hiking mountains, kayaking in pristine rivers, taking group photos in towering forests, and black and brown children overcoming fears in new terrain. It is easy to be enthralled with this progression in a field where representation can be scarce. However, just what does the outdoor industry mean by “the outdoors”?
An industry that lacked diversity in its conception, progression will need more than simply changing the face of the outdoors. Perhaps, progress will take deconstructing the narratives and misconceptions that are threaded within the field. And one of those false narratives is that lower income communities of color do not enjoy the outdoors and are in serious need of intervention to get outdoors.
There is no denying that the world is facing a crisis in terms of children being increasingly exposed to technology and decreasingly spending time outdoors. China has become the first country to consider internet addiction a disorder, according to The Guardian . According to the article, there are even a growing number of boot camps meant to help treat this addiction in young people. A recent episode of ABC’s 20/20 titled “Digital Addiction?” followed three families caught in a downward spiral of over consuming and misusing technology. The episode featured the digital addicts’ brain CAT scans while consuming too much technology and while being “unplugged”, supporting positive brain changes from being in “the outdoors”.
Thus, I am not arguing that being outside does not have its positive effects. However, I often feel engulfed in a narrative that overshadows the differing ways people of color engage in the outdoors. I am often left with a sour feeling that makes me feel less than. The outdoor industry can sometimes be one big “should” show that tells me that my positive natural experiences of my childhood don’t fit with the qualifications of an “outdoor” experience. I see pristine images of faraway places, and I see natural experiences as a commodity that requires access incapable of truly being extended to all.
People of color in inner-city communities live in complex systems that require more than simply advocating getting them “outdoors”. As someone who both lived in an inner-city and had previously gone to Yosemite National Park, I cringe when I hear people refer to these communities with blanket statements. Communities with complex issues like lack of access to quality food, gun violence, litter, over-policing, poverty, and drug addiction require an extension of the definition of “the outdoors” than what is often promoted. It is important for people of color in inner-cities to see their communities as backdrops for positive change as well. It is a shift that takes resources and investments from outside into these communities.
How can we increase positive natural experiences, meet communities where they are, demystify “the outdoors”, and present pristine natural experiences as one of many? When we demystify “the outdoors” through diverse lenses and experiences, the field becomes more inclusive. Everyday natural connections that people of color participate in need to be included into the concept of “the outdoors” as well in order to lessen the“Savior mentality” that too often misconstrues reality and limits progress.