Parks and trailheads are slowly reopening, allowing people to once again enjoy the benefits of being in nature while the coronavirus pandemic continues to play out.
But not everyone has the same access to green spaces. Tara Cooper, like many Black people, felt excluded and unwelcomed from a hike in the forests, well before this spring’s closures that were ordered to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Cooper moved to Portland from the San Francisco Bay Area more than eight years ago. She said she fell in love with Oregon’s lush green forests and what seemed like never-ending opportunities to enjoy nature.
But once she arrived, things changed.
“I quickly realized that may not be for me and my son,” Cooper said. “I would love to have been able to go camping more or do more nature things and even do some off the grid camping if the opportunity came up, but I would never do that in Oregon.”
Cooper said when she did go out for a hike, she felt unwelcomed, invisible and that she didn’t belong. She said she was ignored by white people in these spaces. If she did interact with white people along the trails, she felt a sense of hypervisibility.
“No one’s saying anything, no one’s being overtly negative or mean towards you but just the way they’re staring at you lets you know there’s something wrong, you don’t belong here — ‘Who are you and why are you here?’” Cooper said. “And it’s not like they are looking at all strangers that way, they are looking at me and my son that way.”
Cooper still likes the idea of enjoying Oregon’s vast outdoor opportunities with her son. But she said the experiences she’s had of not belonging in the outdoors are constant reminders that have kept her from going out on hikes or camping.
Inequitable access to nature
There is mounting scientific evidence that spending time surrounded by nature helps reduce stress, aids in the healing process and improves our physical and mental health. As we deal with COVID-19, many are resorting to — or at least longing for — the great outdoors to find an escape.
But not all outdoor recreation is accessible for everyone, especially for Black people. And it's not strictly a matter of economics. Outdoor diversity groups like Outdoor Afro have found that it's common for Black people to feel excluded, uncomfortable and unwelcomed when they try to enjoy outdoor activities.
Cooper said that sometimes it could be one person in a large group of people that makes her feel unwelcomed, and people in that same group turn a blind eye and don’t speak up.
She’s also experienced a need to put on a show for the white people she encounters on the trail: a show that involves the avoidance of any stereotypes that negatively depict Black people. Sometimes she said it means answering uncomfortable questions about her income and her job, being extra smiley or making sure she lowers her voice so she won't be considered as “being too loud.”
“So now I’m not even out there enjoying myself because now I’m having to perform and do and be something so people around me can feel comfortable,” Cooper said. “There’s nothing that I’ve done naturally to make them uncomfortable other than have black skin.”
Oregon's racist history is no secret and the effects are still seen today, even in the outdoors.
Recent data from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department shows Black people are underrepresented as visitors to state parks. They make up 2.2% of Oregon's population and 0.9% of daily visitors and 1.9% of overnight visitors to parks. Other underrepresented demographic groups include American Indian and Alaska Natives, with an estimated 1.8% population, and 1.4% day visitors and 1.2% overnight visitors and Latino people, with 13% of the Oregon population and 6% of day visitors and 5% of overnight visitors.
On the other hand, whites account for 76% of Oregon’s population but 88% of the system’s day visitors and 87% of its overnight visitors.
OPRD Spokesman Chris Havel said this is an issue his department has been struggling with for years. It’s been working with different community organizations to find solutions to make sure every person feels equally welcome when they visit state parks.
Rue Mapp is the CEO and Founder of nonprofit organization Outdoor Afro, which focuses on empowering, connecting and celebrating Black people in nature. Mapp said she founded Outdoor Afro after realizing there was no media representation of Black people in the outdoors and recognizing a need to encourage more people to recreate in nature.
Mapp’s research revealed to her that many Black people have shared the same experience of being made to feel unwelcome in nature and discouraged from enjoying outdoor recreational activities.
“There is a history in our public lands where Black people were segregated and not welcomed,” Mapp said.
She said fixing the issue is not as easy as throwing up welcome signs at parks.
"There's the widely believed history of Oregon itself as being a state for white people," Mapp said. "We have to really remember our history when we're talking about Black people and the outdoors and not forget that there's people — like a living generational memory of people who experienced terror and all kinds of signs and symbols of unwelcoming."
Mapp hopes her work will bring healing and atonement. She said it’s her hope that Black people will continue to persist and enjoy the outdoors whether they feel welcomed or not.
The 'white savior mentality'
U.S. Navy veteran Chad Brown has experienced racism beyond hiking trails and campgrounds. His favorite outdoor activity is fly fishing, which is a predominantly white sport. But when he enters the wilderness or reaches a remote part of a river and white people are around, he senses that they immediately start sizing him up, even down to what kind of gear he has. This is what he calls “the white savior mentality.”
“This white savior mentality is this mentality that ‘I’m the expert’ or ‘this is my house’ or ‘this is my land’ or ‘this is my river’ type of mentality,'” Brown said. “That I need to come to you for permission.”
Brown said most white people carry themselves as the gatekeepers. He's been thinking more about racism since George Floyd was killed by a white police officer on May 25. He wrote an essay calling for justice for George Floyd and sharing his racist experiences in the outdoors. Brown wrote about his tires being slashed while fly fishing and being accused on social media of taking fly fishing from white people and being told: "This is our sport not yours! And you need to ask permission to fish my river."
And the racism hasn’t stopped there. He said his life has been threatened on several occasions.
“The sad thing about it is that, if that day presented itself, and I have to protect myself, or protect my dog out of ignorance, the bottom line is two things are going to happen to me,” Brown said. “Either I’m going to go six feet under or I’m going to get hauled off and go to jail.”
Creating leaders in a safe space
But Brown said he's not one to let racism keep him or other people of color from enjoying the outdoors. He created an organization called Soul River Inc., which works with veterans and youth of color from cities like Portland to bring them outdoors and introduce them to what he calls outdoor environmental education experiences they may not have been able to afford. Most importantly, he provides a safe space for them and said the organization works to dismantle the ignorance, hate and racism Black youth and other people of color face in the outdoors.
Brown said that he had to break a lot of barriers when he first started Soul River Inc. He was told that investing in youth of color would be a waste of money.
But Brown said he’s proven the opposite to be true.
“We are providing a platform for our youth," he said. “They’re blossoming and they’re being shown many different things and have taken on many different interests and we have a strong outcome.”
Brown takes his groups on what he calls deployments into wild places so he can educate participants about the ecosystems they are experiencing and the environmental challenges confronting these places.
He said it’s important to help young people of color claim their place and discover their passion in the outdoors. But his measure of success for the kids who take part in his Soul River Inc. program goes beyond the number of Black and Latino recreation-seekers who feel at home in the mountains and forests and along the rivers of the Northwest.
Brown wants to see his program develop future generations that will bring diversity and change to the ranks of scientists and environmental leaders. And so far, with some former participants working through college and into jobs in conservation and in an Oregon senator’s office, he’s seeing promising results.
Among the people he’s worked with: Tara Cooper and her son.
“I was actually assigned as an adult volunteer to go on a ‘deployment’ and my son found out and had a fit!” Cooper said. “He said: 'You’re going camping? Am I going?'”
She said one of the reasons she felt comfortable going on one of the Soul River deployments with her son was that she was able to observe what they did on the trip up close and how they worked with kids. Another reason she was comfortable, was the fact that the leader of the group was a Black man.
Correction: June 22, 2020. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the estimated Black population in Oregon. It is 2.2% of the Oregon population.