Think for a moment of the typical outdoor enthusiast you see in the media or out on your own adventures. Chances are it’s a scruffy white male. There’s just no denying that we as a society have a certain picture of who enjoys nature.
A number of groups in St. Louis are working to fix this misperception, increasing the visibility of Black people participating in outdoor recreation while also helping make those spaces more accessible. Representatives from these groups echoed one another in their experiences of being the only Black person on the trail or at the starting line of a race.
Historically, the outdoors hasn’t been welcoming to all. “We have generational memories of white-only and colored-only signs at beaches and parks,” said Yanira Castro, communications director of Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and inspiring Black connections and leadership in nature.
That legacy lingers. Debbie Njai, founder of Black People Who Hike, lists five barriers for Black people to more widely participate in outdoor recreation: lack of knowledge, lack of exposure, lack of a safe space, lack of resources, and feeling like an outsider. “The outdoors are largely white spaces, and until we can get more of us out there, we’re going to keep seeing a lack of exposure and representation,” she said.
Building a Biking Community
“When you go out in a group, people are more comfortable,” said Kerah Braxton, a local “Shero” of Black Girls Do Bike, a national nonprofit cultivating a supportive community of Black women riders.
Black Girls Do Bike welcomes participants of all experience levels. When there’s not a pandemic, the group plans rides of varying lengths all around the St. Louis area.
“We have someone leading, someone in the middle, and someone at the end, so it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are,” Braxton said. “We encourage our new members, share tips, and do our best to help people feel comfortable putting themselves out there and trying something new.”
Bringing Running to Town
We Run the Lou, a local group working to build a running community for Black St. Louisans, is all about visibility, support, and inspiration.
“We have members in north county, north city, south city, and downtown — areas where you may not have traditionally seen a lot of people out running, especially people of color,” said Kimberly Berry, part of the organization’s leadership team.
We Run the Lou hosts free group runs and fitness challenges and holds social gatherings throughout the year. The group’s goal is to counteract fears around running, whether that’s hesitation to run in a certain neighborhood or fears about not being fast or fit enough.
“When people see folks that look like them running, it sparks an interest and lets them know they can do it no matter where they live or their age, body type, or ability,” Berry said.
Hitting the Trails
Last September, Debbie Njai was on her first hike with friends. The experience was therapeutic, but she noticed she didn’t see others like her on the trail. So, she decided to do something about it.
“I created Black People Who Hike to encourage Black people to get outside and take advantage of nature, a healing and free resource that we as a community aren’t utilizing because of a number of different barriers,” she said.
Black People Who Hike hosts weekly excursions in the St. Louis area. When COVID hit, the community continued to build, with people participating virtually or hikers taking social distancing precautions.
“More than half the people who have joined so far have been first-time hikers,” Njai said. “I’ve had countless people tell me how life-changing it’s been.”
Njai is also a co-founder of Black Hikers Week, a virtual event that occurred for the first time in June 22. “There are now thousands of posts under #blackhikersweek, people sharing their stories and using the platform to meet others in their community to hike with,” she said.
GirlTrek is the largest behavioral health movement for African-American women in the world. Local membership, which is free, numbers around 2,500.
“Our core message is that a 30-minute walk is a radical act of self-care that can help combat some of the health challenges specific to the African-American community,” said Faye Edwards, a GirlTrek St. Louis member since 2012.
In addition to walking, members get together to ride bikes and do yoga and other activities. Many participants are also solo trekkers, documenting their daily activities on the GirlTrek St. Louis Facebook page, Edwards says. The organization’s national goal is to inspire one million Black women to walk by the end of this year.
“The whole idea is to get out and walk in your community, which can lead to all sorts of activism around reclaiming streets and building walkable communities,” Edwards said. “If you’re thinking about getting active and you’re in need of a community for support, know that there are thousands of African-American women who are here to offer a sisterhood to support you.”
Reconnecting with Nature
Duane Williams has been a volunteer leader with Outdoor Afro for six years, taking St. Louisans on hikes, paddles, backpacking trips, and more. Events are typically free, and more than 1,600 members currently belong to the local network.
“People need to understand that Black people recreate and hike and bike. You don’t have to act surprised when you see us out there,” he said. “We’re reconnecting, not connecting, African-Americans with the outdoors. We try to go places African-Americans have been before, such as Washington State Park in De Soto, which was built by Black engineers in 1931.”
Williams says his job as a leader is to inspire trust and confidence in participants — sometimes not an easy task. “We’re often asking people to come somewhere they’ve never been to do something they’ve never done with people they’ve never hung out with,” he said.
When someone joins an Outdoor Afro event, it’s often just the beginning of a love affair with nature, Williams says. “One year, they’re just taking a walk,” he said. “Five years later, they’re hiking mountains on their own.”
Author: Stephanie Zeilenga is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine.