GIf you row in Louisiana, once dubbed “An Athlete’s Paradise,” you might think I’m at least a little familiar with the outdoors.
That was not the case.
However, it’s not entirely my fault: for me, nature was a place that only served the needs of hunters and fishermen. Although I grew up in a state with an abundance of natural beauty – there was always a fishing hole, hunting ground, or campsite nearby – I never felt compelled to go out and enjoy it other than ride my bike or mine Friends day to play.
It also didn’t help that most of the outdoor-themed films I’d seen (You watched, Every Slasher Movie in the Universe) made the outdoor life seem like a less hospitable experience.
After attending the Refuge Outdoor Festival last fall, I’ve since rethought my stance on outdoor living.
The Refuge Outdoor Festival is a three-day camping experience aimed at people of color who are focused on building community through outdoor recreation, conversation, music, and the arts.
Chevon Powell created the event for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities after a 2015 solo backpacking trip in Vermont resulted in a terrifying encounter with a local law enforcement officer who described her reasons for being in the area as “incredible “Felt.
It was this harrowing experience that inspired Powell – an event planner for REI at the time of the incident – to start her company, Golden Bricks Events, and the Refuge Outdoor Festival was born.
Now in its third year, the festival is helping to rewrite the narrative about who nature is for.
Refuge’s programming addresses the common misconception that only non-POCs take part in outdoor recreation. In reality, a 2019 report by the Outdoor Industry Association found that the rate of non-white Hispanics taking some form of outdoor recreation about once a month (considered moderate participation) over the past decade has increased from 5 to It almost doubled from 3 percent in 2008 to 10.3 percent in 2018.
Over the same 10-year period, the moderate participation of African Americans rose from 6.8 percent to 8 percent, while the moderate participation of Asians rose from 4 to 5.8 percent, according to the report.
The numbers reveal a narrative that runs counter to conventional wisdom regarding BIPOC’s participation in outdoor activities. However, the data alone doesn’t tell the full story of an industry where there is a lot of misunderstanding about what is considered an outdoor activity and who is allowed to enjoy it.
To give you an idea, although many believe that “outdoors” and “hunting” are synonymous, you don’t have to shoot or kill anything to consider yourself a nature lover. If you bird watch, gather berries, or make medicines from plants, you are as much a nature lover as those who fish or chase big game.
Likewise, the belief that all outdoor activities require a significant financial investment adds to misunderstanding, as many dismiss the inexpensive, simple pleasure of visiting your favorite park as a legitimate outdoor activity. It is certainly true that some outdoor recreational activities require specialized equipment that can run into the hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, which can be prohibitive to BIPOC communities, but a visit to your neighborhood park is practically free – they’re not tools required.
However, other societal barriers can affect BIPOC’s participation in and enjoyment of the outdoors.
Racial stereotypes play no small part in influencing what many imagine when they think of an outdoor enthusiast. As a result, many BIPOC nature lovers have been marginalized for not seeing the part. Additionally, many of them are preoccupied with otherness as they are often in bird watching groups, treks, and other activities where they are the only or one of the few who associate their favorite activity with a sense of self-awareness.
Another often overlooked issue is the psychological barriers BIPOC communities face when registering for nature-related activities. A 2018 study found that many African Americans felt that the racial violence during the country’s Jim Crow era was enough to reconsider all attempts to find joy in the outdoors – a perception that pursued the outdoor leisure industry to this day.
The Refuge Outdoor Festival was created to remove and remove the cultural, economic and emotional barriers that affect BIPOC’s participation in outdoor life.
T.The festival, which ran from September 18-20, 2020, was held entirely online due to COVID-19. Even with the adaptation to a virtual camp-in – undoubtedly proof of the adaptability of the organizers – at no point did I feel that I was not getting a real outdoor experience and a real feel for what the Refuge Outdoor Festival gave its participants bot.
In fact, there was so much to choose from that putting my schedule together for the weekend was more of a challenge than I expected. Over the weekend, Refuge offered a variety of workshops – Bird Watching 101, Micro-inclusion in the great outdoors, and Plant-Conscious Relationship Building, to name a few – that were already at full capacity and with a crowded waiting list for the weekend start.
Still, I signed up for as many workshops as possible. As someone with limited experience with the outdoors, I wanted to have the most immersive experience possible.
I was not disappointed.
In the “Collective Racial Healing Series”, the participants got to know the Somatic Wellness Anti-Racist Practice (SWAP), a practice that combines traumatized mindfulness and anti-racist philosophies in order to interrupt the status quo of workplace wellness.
In How Disability Equality Will Build Caring Communities, participants learned the importance of building nurturing, caring communities that move away from workaholism, impatience and the dehumanization of the human body and mind and move towards a more caring, loving space that creates welcoming and accessible environments for everyone regardless of (disability).
With “Micro-Inclusions in the Outdoors” participants had the opportunity to share with other BIPOC communities using journal announcements and music and be vulnerable to create a “healing toolkit” for healthy coping methods that involve healing, nutrition and herbs, the focus is on medicine and natural therapy.
While I haven’t been able to attend every workshop, here are some of my takeaways from those I have attended:
“There is no art without community.I got to know Gretchen Yanover’s music through the community gathering part of the virtual camp-in. Gretchen is a talented BIPOC cellist who, with her incredible skills, has created an inviting space for us to relax and reflect. With nature as the only accompaniment, Gretchen helped to transport each of us into our individual inner safe space, where we experienced the connection between art, nature and healing firsthand.
Herbs are powerful. Alternatives to treating certain non-life threatening diseases can be found in the wild. For example, witch hazel leaf can be used for hemorrhoids, while turmeric root can be used for yeast infections. We also learned the difference between adaptogens (herbs that regulate mood), astringent herbs (herbs that can dry, tighten, or shrink tissue), and vulnerable herbs (herbs that can heal or treat wounds).
Artistic inspiration can be found in everything, including water. Latinx surfer, climber and nature lover Olivia VanDamme took us into a collective poem writing exercise using water as a theme.
I wrote the following: “Water is powerful, nurturing and yet destructive / the sound of the waves, the sound of the rains, the sound of a fountain / I feel renewed, refreshed, reborn / blue, blue-green, green / The Scorpion’s water is deep, sometimes dangerous, but always transforming and deeply healing. “
Not my best work (I think I’m too far off the mission), although I have to say that collective poetry writing as a community building practice is pretty hard to beat.
For an event forced into digital space, the Refuge Outdoor Festival more than fulfilled its promise.
If we have the all-clear by then, I’ll try this year.
Editor’s note: REI has been working with the Refuge Outdoor Festival since 2018. Through this partnership, Refuge receives, among other things, financial support, benefits in kind and support for events hosted by the organizations.