Valley Information – Dartmouth Faculty membership helps individuals of shade benefit from the outside


Published: 01/14/2023 23:58:32

Modified: 01/15/2023 00:14:40

Valeria Pereira Quintero, a junior at Dartmouth College, grew up in Houston, where she rarely engaged in outdoor recreation.

But since coming to the Upper Valley, the 21-year-old Hispanic woman has made the outdoors another home, in large part through a campus group, expanding interest in and access to outdoor activities members say that they are often too white.

Quintero joined the People of Color Outdoors Club or POCO. The club, founded in 2016, wants to “offer opportunities for underrepresented groups to find their place in the outdoor world,” according to its mission statement.

The group, which hosts weekly meetings, has almost 300 participants in total.

“Being outdoors is inherently uncomfortable,” Quintero said. “But I felt much more comfortable around people who were more like me, as they had very little outdoor experience, little equipment, and little understanding of New England outdoor culture.”

The club saw a surge in membership at the height of the pandemic. Pupils at Dartmouth who had not initially taken to outdoor recreation at school found themselves isolated in their dormitories. Getting outside became one of the only ways they could socialize, but surviving arduous hikes in COVID-19 masks wasn’t the only obstacle college students of color faced outdoors.

Studies have found that people of color are less likely to visit national parks or use public parks and recreation programs. National Park Service surveys found that the most common barriers to visiting national parks—travel distance, transportation, and cost—were disproportionately perceived by people of color.

By understanding that “there are not just physical benefits to being outdoors, there are mental benefits as well,” POCO hopes to shake up that narrative, former club president Scarlette Flores said. The club hosts winter hikes through the White Mountains and canoe trips down the Connecticut River, and truckloads of students drove two hours to York, Maine, to try surfing.

Like Quintero, Flores, a 20-year-old Mexican from Houston, noted a cultural barrier to outdoor recreation.

For people who have only spent limited time in outdoor sports, a sense of competition or an expectation of achievement can be a barrier.

“What I’ve noticed here is that people have this mentality of always wanting to climb the toughest wall or climb the highest mountain,” Flores said. “But at POCO, we’ve been able to create a culture where you do what helps you have fun outside.”

At the club, it doesn’t matter if you don’t finish the climbing wall you’ve started or if you’re moving slowly on a hike. You can still finish the hike, but you don’t have to be the fastest, she said.

“A lot of people come here and say, ‘Yeah, I hiked the Appalachian Trail during my gap year.’ And I go to POCO meetings and hear from students who have experienced nature so differently here,” Quintero said. “We had a girl from Ethiopia who said, ‘I’ve never ridden a bike and now I went on a mountain bike trip. No one had any idea I hadn’t even been on a bike two weeks before.”

POCO oversees an equipment grant designed to minimize the cost of outdoor gear — from jackets to mountain bikes — primarily for people of color who receive financial assistance.

“You see people on campus and they have their big branded jackets, and it means something to people who know what those brands are,” Quintero said. “But for people who’ve never been outdoors, especially people of color, it’s like, ‘As long as you’ve got a jacket, let’s have some fun.’ ”

Frances Mize is a member of the Report for America Corps. She can be reached at [email protected] or 603-727-3242.