We sat huddled around a slowly dying fire, watching marshmallows turn from a bright white to a charred black. It was about 7:00 p.m., and I had just finished eating a congealed mass of rice, beans and cheese. Now, my focus was on perfecting my marshmallow roasting technique. I hoped the sweet gooeyness of a perfectly burnt marshmallow would offset the unpleasant feeling the beans had left in my stomach.
When I decided to participate in a three week backpacking trip with the National Outdoor Leadership School, an outdoor organization that promotes wilderness education and service, I expected it to be grueling — both mentally and physically. However, I was not prepared for the lessons hidden behind each and every task we accomplished. Learning how to purify water was meant to teach patience. And practicing emergency first aid skills taught us how to use our voices and speak up — especially in times of crisis.
As we sat around the fire that night, one of the guides said he had a question for us. He stood up and, standing in front of us, asked, “What is missing from this group gathered together right now?” We all looked up from avidly focusing on not setting our marshmallows on fire and pondered the question in silence. I knew there was a hidden lesson to be learned, but I didn’t know what it was. The silence stretched into minutes, and for the first time on the trip, it was a truly uncomfortable silence. It was clear that we were missing something important.
One of the guides finally sighed and said, “This is a group that is entirely white. That’s not okay, guys. You see that, right?” He spoke to us then about respect in the outdoors and how it is harder for people of Color to access hiking trips like the very one we were on. He asked us to consider how a Black individual might feel hiking alone and coming across a group of white hikers. He suggested that their very body could be perceived as a threat. The stakes of entering outdoor spaces were undeniably higher for people of Color.
I was ashamed that I had not realized this lack of diversity sooner. I’ve grown up with frequent reminders about the importance of recognizing the injustices that prevail in all-white spaces. Yet, I had failed to notice the predominant whiteness of this trip. Our guide was not just trying to get us to see how this particular group lacked diversity — he was explaining how it is far too common for people of Color to be excluded from outdoor spaces all the time. The joy of eating s’mores and hiking until my legs shook from fatigue had overtaken my ability to consider the injustice that I was actively participating in.
I hadn’t considered the outdoors as a space where systematic exclusion might occur. The lack of society in the backcountry had made it seem like we had escaped the issues that plague our communities. However, the lack of diversity in outdoor spaces is an extremely relevant issue in the United States and its repercussions are profound.
People of Color are less likely to participate in outdoor recreational activities primarily because of a lack of access to natural spaces. Communities of Color are about three times more likely than their white counterparts to live in areas without access to green spaces, such as parks, trails and community gardens. Higher-income, privileged white individuals are more likely to have access to funds to afford living in areas where a variety of outdoor recreational opportunities are available. Communities of Color do not always have such financial access and as a result are relegated to green spaces that are overcrowded and many times smaller than the green spaces found in predominantly white communities.
This lack of access follows the broader trend of environmental racism that many communities of Color face in the United States. Environmental racism refers to the unequal access to natural resources based on race. For example, communities of Color are far more likely to be the victims of widespread pollution, suffer from poor air quality, and be affected negatively by natural disasters. Communities of Color are negatively affected by these factors because of their lack of access to green spaces. Living in poor environmental conditions perpetuates the effects of natural disasters and these communities’ living situations become even harder to escape.
Additionally, as the white population has become a minority in urban settings, initiatives created to connect urban youth with the environment are most often found in upper class neighborhoods — neighborhoods which are predominately white. Farmers markets are found in areas with little demographic and socioeconomic diversity, and outdoor trips led by NOLS and other such organizations can cost thousands of dollars, a price range that excludes many from participating.
It is clear that lack of access to green spaces perpetuates exclusion in the outdoors. However, such exclusion carries even greater consequences. Having a revelatory experience in nature is a powerful way for one to choose a career path that focuses on the environment. When there is a lack of diversity in who is afforded such experiences, environmental occupations will be dominated by certain demographics.
In recent decades, as the climate crisis facing the global population has become more and more dire, specific fields that focus on environmental sustainability — environmental science, environmental law, environmental engineering — have seen an influx of professionals. But the people who dedicate their lives to reducing the impacts of climate change are, in large part, white.
Although other general science fields are somewhat more inclusive, industries that specifically focus on environmental sustainability lack representation. White women have fared better as their representation in these fields is far greater than that of racial minority groups. A comprehensive report conducted in 2014 by Dorceta E. Taylor, environment and sustainability adjunct professor — found that white women make up 60% of new hires across environmental conservation and preservation organizations. They are also significantly more likely than other racial minorities to acquire leadership positions in the future.
Progress in the environmental sector has remained far more stagnant for racial minorities. According to the same report, ethnic minorities comprise only about 16% of general staff in environmental organizations. Taylor suggests that this figure is troubling, given that ethnic minorities and those of multi-racial heritage make up 38% of the United States population.
In the professional conversation about how to best address climate change, important and relevant voices are missing — just as they were missing from my group around the campfire
When outdoor experiential learning and participation are not accessible to all, the repercussions can have severe consequences. Of course some people will come to care about sustainability on their own terms, but society cannot assume commitment to the environment from populations of Color when they have not been granted access to green spaces.
Minorities who face barriers to participation in outdoor recreation as children and young adults are not afforded the opportunity to become passionate about such spaces. This ultimately culminates in a lack of entry into programs that focus on environmental reform. And as a result of minority voices missing from environmental policy decisions and initiatives, minority communities are overlooked and not benefited by environmental action. A lack of access to outdoor spaces and the corresponding lack of diverse representation in the environmental sector is clearly of a cyclical nature.
Throughout my life, I have cared about the environment. While in the backcountry, I felt like I was actively caring for the outdoors in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I was consciously thinking about how every action might negatively impact the ecology and biodiversity of the area.
During the trip, we maintained the “Leave No Trace principles” with no exceptions. The principles were central to the trip and if you actively disregarded them or were careless, you were pulled aside to have an uncomfortable conversation with the guides.
But it was only after arriving back home and returning to my regular mode of life that I truly realized how much of an impact the lessons about sustainability and service to the wilderness had on me. For example, every evening after our ritual meals of rice, beans and cheese, I would scrounge for dirt that was soft and damp enough to clean my dinner dishes. We weren’t allowed to use soapy water and then pour that water out into the bushes, per the guidelines of Leave No Trace. Instead, the natural properties of dirt were supposed to mop up the food particles left in our dirty bowls. Back home, I cringed as I stood at the sink doing the dishes. So much water was being wasted. I could accomplish this task with dirt. Endless small lessons like these continually jumped to mind in the months after I returned from that trip. And they still do.
After those three weeks in the outdoors, I feel called to pursue a law degree in environmental justice. Devoting my life to advocating for the environment would be fulfilling and provide me with a sense of purpose. However, I am a white woman, and my voice and opinion has already been amplified in spaces where environmental action is pursued. I did not grow up in an area where it was hard to breathe because of the pollution in the air; I did not have to walk miles in order to escape concrete. I cannot speak to how such spaces might most effectively be transformed. I cannot advocate in the same way as those who have grown up under the hand of environmental injustice. But I’d like to work with those who can.
Standing at the sink washing endless dishes and watching water circle continually down the drain, I am always reminded of the urgency for environmental action. I want to work towards progress, but without intervention, the cyclical nature of whiteness in green spaces will continue to negatively impact our response to climate change and hinder the efficacy of environmental movements.
Statement Columnist Olivia Kane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org