When Julie Gardner walked into Magnolia’s Vertical World last year, the very first climbing gym in the nation, she felt a familiar pang of disappointment. The walls, speckled with a rainbow of plastic nubbins that mimic a craggy rock wall, were hung with lithe athletes on ropes—and everyone was white.
The Asian American local had just returned from a stint in Denver, where she climbed for weeks before she met another person of color. (“And that person was just visiting from San Francisco!” she despairs.) Gardner knew Seattle could do better. She formed Vertical Generation, a nonprofit that introduces rock climbing to underserved children, many of color.
“Sometimes we forget it’s a privilege,” says Gardner of people who grew up with easy access to the outdoors. “We have the knowledge, we know how to get from A to B, we know the permits we need.” It’s just one reason the outdoors has traditionally been for the rich and the white: A 2017 participation study by retailer coalition Outdoor Foundation found that 73 percent of outdoor activity participants were white. More than half are men, and a third make more than $100k per year.
Last year Gardner asked Vertical World to host a mentorship program for refugee children, and for eight weeks kids from Somalia, Burma, and Syria noodled around the indoor gym. “I overheard, ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen a head sari in a climbing gym; this is awesome!’ ” says Gardner.
And the tide may be changing. That same survey revealed that while there may be fewer POC on the trails at the moment, they’re committed: Black and Hispanic outdoors-people take 11 percent more outings every year than their white counterparts. Groups like Gardner’s thrive across the country; when Washington, DC–based Ambreen Tariq started her @brownpeoplecamping Instagram account in summer 2016, she gathered a few thousand followers in the first three months. A year and a half in, that’s grown to 17,700 and an REI collaboration.
Matt Reese, the Seattle-based partnership director for the national group Outdoor Afro, is careful to note that their goal is not some kind of vague diversification. “Our mission is succinct and explicit,” he says, to “make sure that African Americans are reconnected to the outdoors.” OA hosts trips and leadership trainings, not just on hiking but birding and gardening.
And yes, notes Reese, that can mean double takes in the very-white Northwest. “People are friendly, but they notice the difference,” he says. “Change happens when you’re uncomfortable.”
Reese loves that Outdoor Afro helps black Seattleites discover nature, a “magical” experience, but cautions everyone to frame the concept of diversity carefully. “The issue is not thinking of nature as ‘mine,’ then extending and including [others],” he says. “But thinking of it as all of ours, and How do I spend time with others in this space?”