Lehigh Valley Environmentalism and Equity in the Outdoors

The Lehigh Valley Sierra Club’s recent meeting was a workshop-style dialogue for Sierra Club members to consider equity in the outdoors. The discussion was premised around the question of who feels safe or unsafe in outdoor spaces and doing outdoor activities. The main goal for the meeting was to  investigate how the mainstream environmentalist community can change its policies and practices so that marginalized people—people of color, LGBTQ, and disabled individuals—don’t have to fight barriers to feel safe in the outdoors.

The workshop opened with a viewing of a documentary that is part of the #EveryoneOutside series, created by The Outbound Collective. The documentary featured the story of Christine Hill, an environmentalist and angler. Chris tells the story of her love for the outdoors and conservation work, as well as how being Black has shaped how welcome she feels in the sportfishing community. In particular, she speaks about not seeing Black, Indigenous, or other people of color role models in her sport or in any outdoor media until recently. Hill also reflected upon moments when she has felt unsafe in the outdoors because others acted as if she shouldn’t have access to outdoor spaces. A key part of the message of Hill’s story was how alive she feels in the outdoors, a message that certainly connects with many of the reasons other outdoor enthusiasts participate in conservation efforts and outdoor sports. Chris Hill’s story debunks the false idea that people of color do not like to or want to participate in outdoor activities, and makes visible how prejudice operates and can make outdoor spaces unsafe for people of color.

The Outbound Collective’s #EveryoneOutside series has included documentaries exploring disability, race, and gender in the outdoors, and how attitudes and policies in the outdoor community have made outdoor spaces unwelcoming in the past and present. With this background, the LV Sierra Club members broke into groups to reflect on their own experiences feeling safe or unsafe in the outdoors and to connect these experiences to larger patterns of inclusion and exclusion. Some women shared about interactions in which their skills were questioned; they also discussed experiencing harassment in wilderness spaces. Others relayed how rural areas that had been littered with Trump signs and Confederate flags created a threatening atmosphere for themselves and BIPOC friends going on a hike. Some of the male participants reflected upon never really having felt uncomfortable or unsafe in the outdoors, and considered why that privilege might be afforded to them but not to others. Others recounted stories of Black individuals being threatened in our nearby Nockamixon State Park. Overall, these discussions and reflections made personal the realization that there are barriers to access to the outdoors that have nothing to do with desire to be outside but are more reflective of systems of white supremacy and sexism. Yet there was also a considerable lack of voices of color sharing their own perspectives in this zoom room, a lack that hopefully made evident some of the holes in inclusion and belonging that the Sierra Club itself can address in its policies and membership.

The community garden facilitated by Afros in Nature resides along the South Bethlehem Greenway.
Over the winter, the garden has been largely inactive of course, but Afros in Nature has planted garlic bulbs to mature in the cold temperatures.

In our city of Bethlehem, one organization—Afros in Nature—is already addressing the discrimination and lack of access and inclusion for BIPOC in outdoor activities. As Afros in Nature proclaims on their website:

“Our mission is to plant seeds of safety in natural environments so that individuals of color—regardless of their gender identity, sexual orientation, creed, or economic status—can create self-sustaining lifestyles with love, support, and community… We are taking a pastime historically dominated by white culture and showing BIPOC how to take advantage of its benefits for themselves, for the betterment of their health and well being, and the improvement of our community as a whole.”

Afros in Nature hosts meet-ups and events to facilitate access for local people of color to participate in the outdoors, including bike rides, a rock climbing event, paddleboarding, and birding. In addition, Afros in Nature has an ongoing community garden initiative. You can find out more about the work they are doing to create safety and equity in the outdoors on their website or on instagram

In many ways, Afros in Nature is already doing the work that the LV Sierra Club is setting out to explore. Both the existence of Afros in Nature and the Sierra Club’s efforts for equity and inclusion emerge out of a growing awareness of how racism permeates all aspects of society, including the environmental movement and outdoor sports industry. The Sierra Club and many others’ equity work can benefit from the work of Afros in Nature and other groups like them as they move beyond considering how privilege shapes the outdoors and towards changing policies and practices. 

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