Published: February 15, 2022
Celebrating Black Outdoor Leaders and Organizations
By: Nicole Rawlinson, Blue Star Outdoors DEPLOY Fellow
‘Mirrors and windows’ is a phrase that often comes up in my line of work. What does it mean? It is a phrase that highlights the importance of diversity in the information and media we consume, the spaces we enter, and the stories we hear. A mirror is a term used to describe one’s shared identity thriving in a space or positionality. At the same time, a window is an opportunity for someone to see another person’s identity and humanity thriving in that space or positionality. The diversity in what we see, hear, and experience can provide those windows and mirrors for ourselves and future generations and expand the possibilities for what we think is possible. The outdoors is no exception. As humans, we have an inextricable connection to the land and nature. Still, there are significant gaps in the public representation of Black leaders, influencers, and experts in the outdoor space.
I have been fortunate to have the experience of supporting Blue Star Families members in getting outdoors, finding space, healing, and community in nature. I have been introduced to several organizations and people who have made a huge impact on my understanding of leadership in outdoor spaces through this opportunity. The action of finding yourself in a movement toward growth, healing, and joy is motivating. Seeing yourself in that mirror of representation is strengthening. Feeling the support of others advocating for a connection to the outdoors is empowering.
The healing that is possible through a connection outdoors is unmistakable. I had a wonderful opportunity to connect with two leaders who share a mission that promotes that very type of healing. CJ Goulding and Linda Harris are both strengthening the bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood through outdoor wellness and working to heal their minds, bodies, and communities through their work.
Linda Harris is an outdoor leader and interpreter who unexpectedly walked into her role. What began as a personal healing journey has turned into walks of liberation and healing for her community in Dorchester County, Maryland. Linda began walking in 2020 to honor the ancestors by walking their footsteps along the Underground Railroad. She felt compelled to walk, not only to reflect on history but to heal from the trauma of violence against Black bodies battering the news cycles and the isolation caused by the impacts of COVID-19. She felt she had lost her own freedom and sought to get it back through this healing process. Linda’s mission is to reconnect with the land and her innate connection to it while honoring the enormous strength and resilience of the people who came before her and walked these same paths.
Linda has led walks with groups along the routes that guided enslaved people to freedom. These walks grounded the groups in reflection, conversation, and bonding. Since she began hosting walks, the relationships she has made have been lasting and impactful. Through her walks, Linda has expanded her work with the interpretation of Harriet Tubman’s life and legacy. She is now the director of programs at the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center.
She recently purchased land that she lovingly named “Camp Harriet,” and she will continue to offer walking experiences twice a month. Each walk will happen during weekends, and span approximately 50 miles between Dorchester and Caroline Counties in Maryland. These walks will be intimate, with groups no larger than 8. They will focus heavily on healing, connecting with the land, sharing experiences, and honoring the resilience of the ancestors that walked these miles and paved the way for Black Americans seeking freedom. “Sharing is key,” Linda said, “we have a responsibility to realize our potential and then share it along the way.”
CJ Goulding has been working to create space and encourage communities to connect with nature since his first opportunity to go to Grand Tetons National Park. However, that isn’t what influenced his love of nature. His connection to the outdoors has been a thread throughout his entire life. He credits his connection to nature, growing up as a child, acknowledging his role as child of women who “always had their hands in the dirt.” “Everything outside [his] doorstep has been a part of [his] connection to the outdoors.”
Feeling a sense of belonging and connection to the outdoors can seem daunting to those who have not seen themselves represented. Still, the foundation of self-worth Goulding credits his parents for instilling in him, supports his relationship with the outdoors, even if he doesn’t see himself represented. “Me being a minority in a space hasn’t ever been a referendum on me, but rather on that space that wasn’t built to be equitable.” He knew that not only did he belong, but he also had as much to teach as he had to learn. Coming from a place of inclusion and self-value has given CJ the opportunity to use his love of the outdoors to make it a place of healing and community. With that, he also uses his ability to tell stories to help grow connections to the outdoors. His perspective is clear, “ Humans are creatures of story. It’s how we pass information, signify our values, build community, fill our time and show what’s important to us. Stories are powerful tools for elevating what is important.”
He continually asks where the stories he shapes lead, how he can call people of color into them, and how that calling can combat the feelings of isolation that they might experience outdoors. “People feel like they don’t belong when the story is written without them, and they feel like they DO belong when they feel like they’ve been a part of writing it.”
Recently, Goulding has been giving his time and intention to start a nonprofit called Boyz N the Wood. The organization aims to support Black men by providing outdoor experiences to help improve their mental and physical health. The retreat model features an immersive experience and combines sessions that connect participants, provide mental health support, and share resources to build the pillars of healing and brotherhood. He looks forward to the future of the organization and better understanding the connection among brotherhood in the outdoors, mental health and physical health, and community health.
This Black History Month, I hope you’ll find a Black organization or leader in the outdoor space that inspires you and serves as either a window or mirror as you connect with nature and all it has to offer. Below are just a few of the individuals and organizations leading the charge to create a more diverse and inclusive outdoors. These organizations are making a difference in their communities and throughout the outdoor world, and are names to know! Take this invitation to not only learn about these people and organizations, but seek out other Black leaders in the outdoors, support their missions, and amplify their work.
Founded in 2009 by Rue Mapp as a blog, Outdoor Afro has grown exponentially throughout the last several years. Outdoor Afro creates thousands of opportunities for Black people to get outside, build leadership and community, and reconnect with nature. Participants can enjoy these opportunities through meetups, online community platforms, policy advocacy, and partnerships with major outdoor organizations.
Outdoor Afro chapters are led in 56 cities by community-minded outdoor enthusiasts committed to uplifting the Black community with joyful, educational, and memorable experiences outdoors.
GirlTrek, founded in 2010 as a movement led by friends, T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, is the largest public health nonprofit for African-American women and girls in the United States, and connects its 1 million members across the country to “take a walk and join a movement.”
Just as the Civil Rights movement was grounded in walking together and building a movement, GirlTrek has created a walking movement for Black women in the 21st century to help heal, improve health, and community build.
“GirlTrek encourages women to use walking as a practical first step to inspire healthy living, families, and communities. As women organize walking teams, they mobilize community members to support monthly advocacy efforts and lead a civil rights-inspired health movement.”1
“Teresa Baker is the The Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge and the African American National Park Event founder. Her vision is anchored in interacting with outdoor entities (i.e., retailers, NGOs, federal agencies) who are having difficulty engaging diverse audiences within their organization and in outdoor arenas, such as national parks.”2
Last month, Baker, alongside Jose Gonzales, founder of Latino Outdoors, Pattie Gonia, founder of the Pattie Gonia Community, and Gabbacia Moreno, a National Monuments Fellow for Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, launched the Outdoorist Oath. The Oath is “a commitment to action any outdoorist can take to support our planet, inclusion, and adventure.”3 In its first month, over 2,000 people have already taken the Oath to embrace planet, inclusivity, and adventure together.
“CJ Goulding is passionate about facilitating growth in three things: people, community, and leadership. He has trained, mentored, and supported national networks of 500+ leaders creating equitable access to nature in their communities.
This work draws from experience leading outdoor trips, conservation crews, and youth internship programs for the National Park Service. He completed a MaED in Urban Environmental Education, where he studied the power of community and its connection to nature in urban settings. His essay “Why I Wear Jordans in the Great Outdoors” has been published and featured in culturally relevant outdoor curricula across the country. He is an eager facilitator, writer, photographer, and lover of sharing and amplifying stories.” 4
Linda Harris is the program director for the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, dedicated to developing and delivering opportunities for the public to learn about the life and work of Harriet Tubman through interpretive programming and activities.
She has been in her role for just over a year after she successfully completed a series of walks with a group of eight women along the underground railroad across the state of Maryland.
The act of walking in the footsteps of the ancestors is a reminder of the resilience of Black people in the United States, and an opportunity to explore the innate connection to the earth humanity shares.
Danielle Williams, founder of Diversify Outdoors
Diversify Outdoors is a “coalition of social media influencers – bloggers, athletes, activists, and entrepreneurs – who share the goal of promoting diversity in outdoor spaces where people of color, LGBTQIA, and other diverse identities have historically been underrepresented.” 5 Danielle Williams, the founder of Diversify Outdoors, is also co-founder of Team Blackstar Skydivers, and the senior editor and founder of Melanin Base Camp, a platform to increase the visibility and representation of outdoorsy black, indigenous, people of color in outdoor media.. She’s a disabled Army veteran with 10.5 years of service, and a disabled skydiver with over 600 jumps.
James Edward Mills uses his passion for photography, journalism, and storytelling to shape his work. The Joy Trip Projectis a newsgathering and reporting organization that covers outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving, and practices of sustainable living. Mills’ work highlights the historical contributions and cultural legacy of people of color in the outdoors throughout history. He was named a Yosemite National Park Centennial Ambassador in 2016 for his work highlighting the Buffalo Soldiers of Yosemite National Park.
He is also the author of “The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors,” the co-writer/co-producer of the documentary film “An American Ascent,” and is a contributor to several outdoor-focused print and online publications. In fall 2021, The Joy Trip Project documented the Capitol Christmas Tree’s cross-country trip from Six Rivers National Forest to Washington, D.C.