Author to talk about racial inequality in outdoor recreation
The first few times author and outdoors adventurer James Edward Mills hiked into the wilderness around the Bay Area, he noticed something: There weren’t many people out there who looked like him. Black people like himself were almost nowhere to be found.
Over the following years, it always perplexed Mills that there weren’t more Black people out enjoying nature. So in 2013, he set out to change the outdoors recreation landscape by chronicling the story of the first all-Black team of climbers on Alaska’s Denali, the tallest peak in North America. Although he had planned to join the team in attempting to reach the top, Mills ended up joining the expedition as a journalist when osteoarthritis required him to have hip surgery. Nine fit climbers, ages 18 to 56, spent three weeks on the mountain but fell just short of their goal when a storm forced a dramatic retreat just below the summit.
The experience forced Mills and other participants to confront two herculean challenges: the towering and unforgiving mountain and the reality that minority populations in the United States are much less likely than white people to seek recreation, adventure and solace in our nation’s wilderness spaces.
“There was always this current that, as a person of color, outdoor recreation just wasn’t something you were supposed to do,” Mills said earlier this month. “It was as if people were saying, ‘Wouldn’t your time be better spent in a traditional sport that Black people do?’” such as basketball, he added.
The Denali journey resulted in Mills’ 2014 book, “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors,” and a subsequent documentary film, “An American Ascent.”
Mills will give a talk on Zoom about the book, film and his lifetime of outdoor adventures at 7 p.m. on Feb. 24. The 90-minute conversation will be hosted by Sonoma Land Trust, which has a mission to connect people from all walks of life to nature, said Executive Director Eamon O’Byrne.
O’Byrne added that the conservation movement must confront and dismantle systemic barriers it has sometimes helped create.
“Because we’re saving nature, we thought we were on the side of the angels,” O’Byrne said. “When you put down your blinders, you realize it doesn’t look anything like being on the side of the angels. That’s what we need to fix.”
Minding the gap
Data from the U.S. Forest Service, National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reveal significant imbalance in the racial mix of visitors to public lands. While the most recent U.S. census shows that non-Hispanic whites make up approximately 63% of the U.S. population, they comprise 88 to 95% of all visitors to public lands. Blacks comprise 1 to 1.2% of all visitors and Latino people between 3.8 and 6.7%.
According to Mills, there are several explanations for these discrepancies. Among them are affordability of outdoor sports, systemic racism and a long history of housing discrimination that has hindered access to public lands.
“Our cultural identity has been tied up in spending time on concrete and asphalt, with glass and steel. Urbanization is all we’ve known.” said Mills, who plans to dig into this topic in his next book, which he’s working on now.
A history of segregation hasn’t helped. It wasn’t until 1947, for example, that Shenandoah National Park in Virginia integrated Lewis Mountain, the separate area it had planned and maintained for Black visitors. In 1945, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes mandated that all national parks be desegregated, but it took years for this to be accomplished throughout the parks system, Mills said. With the exception of the Buffalo Soldiers, the National Park Service didn’t hire its first Black park rangers until the 1960s.
Without examples they can relate to, Mills said, it’s difficult for people of color to envision themselves engaged in outdoor recreation.
To that end, Mills includes stories in “The Adventure Gap” of Black people and other minorities who have made significant accomplishments in the world of the outdoors, such as Matthew Henson, a Black explorer who accompanied Robert Peary on expeditions to the Arctic and North Pole, and Sophia Danenberg, the first Black woman to climb Mount Everest.
Black Sonoma County residents said they have firsthand experience with the “adventure gap,” even in our mostly rural county of about 500,000 people.
Take Malia Anderson, founder of Style by Malia, a wardrobe styling firm in Santa Rosa. Growing up in the Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, Anderson didn’t have access to outdoors recreation until she experienced sleep-away camp in junior high school through the local outpost of the Boys & Girls Club. She added that “as a Black woman there was always a safety factor; most adventure leaders were white men, and it never felt safe.”
But Anderson would not be denied. She has spent most of the pandemic quite literally chasing waterfalls, seeing eight of them in the last year. She said that getting to them has comprised “small personal triumphs (over) getting uncomfortable to experience something beautiful.”
To feel more comfortable, she has read articles by Black and minority authors about how to be safe and enjoy the outdoors adventure.
Several local nonprofit organizations said they are taking an active role so residents of color can expand their comfort zones in other ways.
Sonoma County Parks, for instance, has rolled out a handful of new programs targeting the local Latino population. One of these initiatives, dubbed the Vehicle Entry Pass Program, rewards income-eligible visitors with a $5 annual parking pass to the parks. (The pass usually sells for $69.) Another is Caminitos, which introduces Spanish-speaking families with preschool-age children to the wonders of parks and nature.
Bethany Facendini, community engagement division manager for Sonoma County Parks, said anything short of equality for all is a missed opportunity, and that inequality in park use won’t go away until there’s foundational trust among everyone involved.
“When we think about access, we’re thinking about access not only to our park lands but also to all of the services including programming that our parks provide,” she said. “We also consider ourselves an integral part of the community health care system. Parks provide a myriad of benefits for our community to thrive.”
People in the majority, white people, can play a role in building equality in the outdoors, too, Mills said. One way is by outwardly encouraging underrepresented segments of the population in outdoor spaces and recreation.
Removing barriers to access to the parks also would be a step in the right direction.
“Eighty dollars for a National Parks pass is cheap, but it’s still expensive,” he said. “We need to legitimize people’s experience on their own terms.”