Genevieve Slaton — a grad student at the University of Oregon and co-director of the Native American Student Union — donned a pair of green hiking boots and loaded into a van with 10 other black students in November 2021 at the Outdoor Program Rental Barn. Slaton and her classmates were traveling along Oregon Route 126 to the Blue Pool Trailhead in McKenzie Bridge, Oregon. Here they wandered through a landscape adorned with moss, trees and ethereal light to an “absolutely beautiful” turquoise water.
The Outdoors program hosted this hike in partnership with the UO Multicultural Center as part of their Redefining Outdoorsy initiative. Slaton says the outing was an amazing experience because it allowed her to go outdoors with other people of color — something she hadn’t experienced prior to her college gig.
Growing up, the outdoors was accessible to her, but Slaton says she rarely saw people who looked like her during outdoor pursuits.
“I didn’t realize at the time how much I was missing out and how much I needed that sense of community,” she says. “Back then, all I knew was being surrounded by white people.”
Slaton’s previous experience of nature as predominantly white space reflects a larger trend in the United States. According to a study by the Outdoor Foundation, whites are overrepresented in the outdoors, accounting for 71.5% of outdoor participants in the US, despite only making up 60.9%. the US population.
But the UO’s outdoor program is making the outdoors a more inclusive, accessible and equitable space through the Redefining Outdoorsy initiative. The initiative began in 2020 and featured a series of speakers to amplify the voices of underrepresented outdoor communities.
This year, the outdoors program expanded Redefining Outdoorsy by hosting a fall semester conference and raising more than $20,000 to conduct fully-funded affinity trips — similar to the excursion Slaton attended at the Blue Pool. Affinity trips are organized in partnership with student organizations. They are only open to students with a specific identity to help underrepresented groups get out in a safe and inclusive environment free from financial barriers.
According to Slaton, Redefining Outdoorsy makes the outdoors more accessible to them because it provides a space to engage in outdoor recreation with people who look like them. Before the Blue Pool excursion, she says, she had never hiked with so many other people of color.
Slaton says she loves the outdoors as an Indigenous person, but Indigenous people “haven’t really gotten anything” from the outdoor program until now. She says she noticed that the outdoor program outings weren’t as diverse before the initiative started.
Diversity is lacking outdoors, but Sarah D. Wald, professor of English and environmental studies at UO, says stories about BIPOC outdoors often go untold.
“There are really wonderful stories of outdoor recreation heroes and conservation heroes who are BIPOC leaders,” she says. “But we don’t tell those stories, and that then reinforces this notion of what scholars have termed ‘racialized outdoor recreation identity.'”
According to Wald, outdoor recreation became racialized due to white people’s over-representation outdoors.
While stories about BIPOC often go untold in nature, Wald says that doesn’t negate the fact that outdoor recreation is still inaccessible to many people with marginalized identities. Nature is inaccessible due to the history of public lands where most outdoor recreation takes place.
“If we’re talking about racial justice and outdoor recreation — or other forms of exclusion based on gender, sexuality, ability — there’s a long history of how public lands were created, for whom public lands were created, like the people used it the way people thought they would use it,” says Wald. “So there are a lot of ideological and material stories of exclusion that have shaped why the country is welcoming to some and not to others.”
According to the Center for American Progress, the creation of public lands was based on the genocide of indigenous peoples. The US stole lands from Native Americans in the 18th and 19th centuries and designated those lands as places for white leisure, Wald says, which continues to influence who feels comfortable on them.
But Redefining Outdoorsy, led by student leaders like Matthew Katz — the outdoor program’s collaborative program coordinator — seeks to make the outdoors a much more inclusive environment.
Katz says participating in the outdoor program has helped him improve as a person and has given him opportunities to explore the great outdoors and connect with others. He wants everyone to experience these benefits.
While Katz says he was fortunate not to experience many barriers to growing up outdoors, little knowledge and limited queer representation prevented him from finding easier access to outdoor recreation.
“When I was younger, there weren’t many queer people in the Midwest suburbs who were talking about going outside,” he says. “I love my position because I see all these really cool people on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter doing all this really amazing advocacy work to show that no matter what your identity, you can go out there.”
Simon Scannell is the Education Coordinator for UO LGBT Education and Support Services and has worked with the Outdoors program to organize outings for LGBTQ+ students. In middle and high school, he experienced barriers to outdoor recreation due to limited time, distance from natural surroundings, and gender dysphoria.
In college, the outdoors has become more accessible to Scannell because he can get outside with people with similar identities and experiences.
“I used to do cross-country skiing in middle school, and then I really quit doing sports, mostly for dysphoric reasons,” he says. “It’s been nice to be around other trans people specifically and to know that we just accept our bodies for who they are. And it’s okay to just leave our bodies as they are.”
Scannell says many LGBTQ+ events at the UO are stationary and held indoors, so outdoor outings provide a unique space for community building. He says this community building is important because it allows LGBTQ+ students to share their experiences and interests.
Additionally, Katz says access to nature is important because it can develop support for environmental issues like climate change by fostering a connection between people and nature. It’s also beneficial for mental health, according to the American Psychological Association.
“I really appreciate being outside because I feel very connected to nature. That’s where I feel most comfortable,” says Slaton. “If my mental health deteriorates, it means I have to go outside. It means I have to be near trees, grass or whatever because that makes me feel at home.”
Access to nature for the benefit of mental health has proven more important during the pandemic. According to the CDC, mental health problems have increased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, like racial justice movements, the pandemic has exposed and exacerbated existing injustices.
According to the Center for American Progress, racial justice movements have shown that many people of color in the United States do not have adequate access to nature. Christian Cooper, who was threatened with police coming to him while birdwatching in Central Park, and Ahmaud Arbery, who was murdered while jogging in a Georgia waterfront neighborhood, are among many black people who have witnessed outdoor violence.
The Center for American Progress also reported that communities of color are three times more likely to live in “naturally disadvantaged” areas. Without adequate access to nature, communities of color are more likely to develop immune-depleting diseases like asthma that increase their risk of COVID-19.
However, in addition to initiatives like Redefining Outdoorsy, Wald says supporting tribal sovereignty and land reclamation can promote equality in the great outdoors.
“For the most part, when we talk about nature in the United States, we’re talking about stolen homeland,” says Wald. “And I want us to think about what it means to recognize this land as a homeland and how that might change our relationship with this land and how we respect tribal sovereignty on this land.”
According to Slaton, settler-colonialism in the United States has affected public lands and ideas about what it means to be “outdoors.”
According to Slaton, people believe they need to own outdoor gear and have elaborate plans to get outside, which makes outdoor recreation intimidating and inaccessible, Slaton says.
“I think that puts a lot of people off, especially people of color, who don’t have access to all of these things. And I don’t think they realize that being outside even means taking a walk in nature,” says Slaton. “You don’t really need all those things and all that gear to experience nature or just to be outside.”
While getting outside doesn’t have to be expensive, the cost of outdoor recreation remains a barrier to access, according to Katz. He says the need for time off for recreation — on top of the cost of equipment, transportation and more — can pose financial challenges as it requires time off work.
According to Katz, knowledge barriers can also prevent access to the outside. Knowledge of nature is often passed down through family and community; Therefore, gaining awareness of outdoor recreation without these connections can be difficult.
But the Outdoors program, alongside its Redefining Outdoorsy initiative, also offers resources — like affordable gear rentals, clinics, and field trips — to help UO students overcome these obstacles.
“Redefinition of Outdoorsy makes the outdoors more accessible because you’re traveling with people who look alike and relate to you,” says Slaton. “You feel more welcome there. It’s a lot more fun and exciting to meet new people who share these similarities.”