For many Oregonians, the healing power of outdoor recreation is intuitive. Whether we’re hiking, kayaking, swimming, or simply sitting in a green space, many of us have felt what studies by social scientists and health-care researchers have shown: that empowering outdoor experiences lead to reduced stress, increased happiness, and greater emotional resilience. But because exposure to racism, heterosexism, transphobia, and other forms of oppression can undermine a person’s sense of safety, those of us who could benefit most from the healing power of nature often face greater barriers to accessing it. For people who have experienced oppression, the common outdoor risks posed by weather and wildlife are compounded by the risks that come from the actions of other people.
Wild Diversity, an outdoor adventure and education organization that serves Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC) as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people (LGBTQ+), has been developing risk-management strategies that ensure people in these communities can experience belonging and connection in outdoor recreation. While these approaches do not remove risk altogether, they suggest ways that we—as organizations and individuals—can take action to increase physical and psychological safety outdoors.
In 2019, Wild Diversity hosted Risk Management for the Future, a series of community workshops focused on making the outdoors safer. “The goal was to identify what risks in the outdoors are unique to [BIPOC and LGBTQ+] populations and then brainstorm how an organization can help to mitigate those risks,” says Taylor Feldman, a risk management consultant and Wild Diversity board member. As a result of these workshops, the organization developed the PACK framework: Prevention, Action, Care, and Key Learnings.
Over the last several years, Wild Diversity guides and staff have been exploring what it means to put this framework into practice with BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities in mind. One of the primary ways that these leaders practice prevention is through careful planning that balances structure with choice. “One of the things that’s important is the design of a trip and the intention going into it because there’s only so much that we can do to prevent something from happening, but [we can] try to understand what can cause trauma, or cause stress even,” notes Michelle Lin, a Wild Diversity adventure guide.
Charelle Stanley, program coordinator for Wild Diversity, designs trips with a focus on information that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities will likely want to know. “For us it’s a conscious thing,” says Stanley. “I can speak from experience from other guiding companies that I worked for, that’s not part of their trip planning process. They will give you the logistics information like ‘Meet here; this is how you run a trip,’ and that’s it.” For Wild Diversity, planning and prevention includes ensuring that guides and participants have a broader awareness of the environment where they will be recreating. For instance, on a recent scouting trip, Stanley observed that many of the other recreators at a boat launch were unfriendly and stared at their group as they were unloading boats. By sharing that information with guides and participants in advance of an event, Stanley seeks to support individuals in determining how to navigate that hostility. “Group agreements start to come into play. How do we want to interact with other visitors that want to approach us? What are the things we can do to help mitigate negative interactions?”
Sharing multiple options and inviting participants to choose how they want to interact with other people—both inside and outside of the group—is key, says Turtle Farahat, a Wild Diversity paddle guide. “What do we want to do today? Do we want to chill in the morning and paddle in the afternoon? How quickly do we want to get ready? And how much time do we want to have?”
Including the whole group in answering questions breaks down authoritative power dynamics that can activate trauma responses. “When you’re outdoors and you’re doing something new, you’re already feeling very vulnerable,” says adventure guide Susan Ngọc Wagstaff. “Coming in with questions [shows] this is not all about you as the knowledge keeper or the facilitator. It’s about the people who are participating.” Asking questions also helps ensure that everyone’s knowledge contributes to prevention. “We’re not going to decide everything for the participants,” says Stanley. “They’re going to have different experiences than [the guides], so they’re never going to be left out of the conversation. You’re out there as a group and when it comes to situations like this, we’re all there for each other. It’s a team effort at that point.”
Vivian Satterfield, who leads workshops through Wild Diversity’s BIPOC Swim Program, recommends making space for everyone to explore how they want to engage not only with people but also with other beings, including water. “I always offer the invitation to just go try to greet [the water], whatever that means to you, whatever feels good to you right now. Some people are more hesitant, some people just want to sit by it. I know that when I was first exposed to this idea of greeting the water, I immediately put my hands in it, but I noticed that other people around me really had to look and observe, so everyone greets the water a little bit differently.”
Satterfield credits Oshun Swim School and Chandrika Francis, who led the field training for the BIPOC Swim Program, for inviting guides to explore their own personal and cultural histories around water. For Black people and people of color who were excluded from swimming pools, or for immigrant communities who may be separated from their families by water, these histories can be emotionally complex. “All the water that exists is all the water that’s ever existed in the world,” says Satterfield. “You’re greeting ancient water, you’re greeting your ancestors, maybe greeting some joyous experiences and some tragic experiences with that water.”
Satterfield aims to reduce the stress some participants may feel in relationship to water by making several workshops water optional. “If you want to get in the water, I will be here. We have a lot of tools to facilitate being in water, but it’s not an absolute necessity. If today’s not the day, it’s fine. There are days where it’s not for me either.”
In the process of providing information and offering options to participants, many guides and staff emphasize the importance of communication in preventing risk and creating safety. “The way that we communicate trips and the values that are on the Wild Diversity website, that sets an expectation [about] what our trips are like, and so if folks are not in alignment, they probably won’t sign up for a trip,” says Lin.
The language used in that storytelling can be pivotal, says Feldman. “When I’m combing through a lot of organizations’ publications, their media, their internal documents, their risk management plans, I’m copyediting basically with an eye for equitable language, so I created this inclusive language guide.” Outdoor recreation has its own vernacular, and many commonly used words demonstrate bias and may activate trauma responses. Feldman’s guide is collaborative—anyone can contribute—and aims to help individuals and organizations be more intentional about the words we choose to use.
Beginning with inclusive language helps build an open line of communication among everyone involved in an event. “[If] participants feel really aware that their experience is important to me and to the group, they feel like they can ask questions and they feel like they can say what’s going on if something’s not working for them,” says Farahat. “So, if the group is going too fast, I’m not comfortable in my kayak, I am having this kind of pain, or I need help with this, the small things that we can do with our communication can help support that.”
Without thoughtful communication, says Wagstaff, “you’re putting the relationship and whatever it is you’re doing at risk because once you cross the line, that person could just shut down, and whether they shut down and completely disengage, or they shut down and they push themselves too far because they’re feeling pressure, then that’s dangerous, especially outdoors.”
Even with these preventative practices in place, BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities still experience threats or other incidents that activate trauma responses. “Every body carries trauma one way or another,” says Farahat, who is also a bodyworker and acupuncturist. “And also our communities are living in difficult circumstances, and we’re carrying a lot—often more than we know.”
Responding to an incident extends beyond deescalating a situation or removing a group from a threat, says Feldman. It includes demonstrating care—both in the moment and later. “If something traumatic happens in the field, how are you following up with your friend or the participants to make sure it’s ongoing support? It’s not done once they leave.”
This care, which can include group debriefs or other collective responses, is often a rarity in outdoor programs. Stanley describes experiences in school and in other guide programs where that care was missing. “People would know that I had those discomforts. I would tell friends in the group or the actual leaders, and they would listen, but it wasn’t ever addressed with the entire group.” Sometimes, leaders also dismissed their concerns. “They were like, ‘Well, you could do this better. Maybe you can do this to avoid that.’ Okay, but I shouldn’t be doing all the work.”
As they plan trips, Stanley and Mercy M’fon, founder and executive director of Wild Diversity, are cognizant of who will be doing the work of providing care if an incident does occur. “That’s why we’re trying to [pair] the BIPOC and non-BIPOC leaders, so at least in any given situation, it’s not just this one person that has to go in there and navigate that the entire time,” says Stanley. “There’s the idea of [having] a White person be the mitigator while other, more vulnerable people can safely exit. I think that’s an excellent way for a White person to put their money where their mouth is and be an accomplice rather than just a bystander, as long as it’s rooted in community care and not in White saviorism,” says Feldman.
As Wild Diversity continues to build a more robust understanding of how to manage risk for the communities it serves, the organization recognizes that they have opportunities both to share key learnings and to continue learning. “We don’t know everything about everything,” says Stanley. “There are just so many intersections of identity within our communities that we serve. The people that don’t feel like they’re ‘advanced’—the knowledge that they hold is so much more than the physical acts that they can perform, and that’s incredible. Their thoughts are what people build policies around, and that can bring so much more to the outdoor community.”
One way that all outdoor enthusiasts can create more safety for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people is to advocate for the organizations with which they are involved to hire more staff from these communities. “For the organization to be run by QTBIPOC people, that’s the lens that so many places are missing,” says Stanley. “It’s things that they’re having to learn and be more conscious of. Whereas for us, we know what we’ve experienced. We’ve heard the stories of experiences.”
Feldman calls for organizations who have few or no staff from these communities to review their hiring practices. “Why don’t you have BIPOC staff? Why don’t you have queer staff? What in the language or the process of your hiring is preventing people from applying? What kind of outreach are you doing? Where are you posting these jobs? What language are you using? All of that is very subtle, and all of that adds up so that somebody’s going to know whether or not that space is going to be safe for them.”
A diversity of perspectives and experiences among staff translates into a more diverse group of participants, and that in turn can bring about greater resilience to threats. “So much of everything that we do is based off feedback from all our guides, all our participants, all our staff. We are just continuously building off the people,” says Stanley. Whether participants are experienced or new to outdoor recreation, “they’re here and they’re bringing what they can to the table, and it’s not just the physical acts of being outside.”
— Jennifer Perrine is the author of four books of poetry: Again, The Body Is No Machine, In the Human Zoo, and No Confession, No Mass. Perrine’s recent poems, stories, and essays appear in The Missouri Review, JuxtaProse Literary Magazine, Cutbank, New Letters, Buckman Journal, and Harpur Palate. A resident of Portland, Perrine co-hosts the Incite: Queer Writers Read series, teaches creative writing, and serves as a wilderness guide. Perrine is a 2022 Oregon Humanities Community Storytelling Fellow.