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This Initiative Is Eliminating Barriers for Women to Explore the Outdoors


This Initiative Is Eliminating Barriers for Women to Explore the Outdoors

Image Source: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock

This Initiative Is Eliminating Barriers for Women to Explore the Outdoors

Missy Wilson, a mother and enthusiast of outdoor adventures, has always enjoyed exploring nature. However, her experiences have often been challenging. When camping or canoeing, she frequently found herself as the only Black person in the vicinity. In encounters with white individuals on trails or in campgrounds, assumptions were made that she was inexperienced in outdoor activities, leading to unnecessary explanations from them.

Wilson’s feelings of isolation and being treated differently are not uncommon. Statistics from the National Health Foundation indicate that nearly 70% of visitors to national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges are white. A report from the National Park Service Visitor Services Project in 2018 revealed that less than 2% of national park visitors identified as Black.

Despite these obstacles, Wilson was determined to find a welcoming community. In 2021, she found what she was seeking in Black Women Who Kayak+ (BWWK+). Created by Tanya Walker, a certified paddle sports safety instructor and community organizer from Texas, BWWK+ is a nonprofit organization dedicated to encouraging Black women and other people of color to engage in outdoor activities more frequently.

Creating a More Inclusive Outdoor Environment

Various factors contribute to the underrepresentation of people of color in outdoor spaces. Studies have shown that issues such as time constraints, financial limitations, transportation obstacles, and distance hinder individuals from visiting national parks. A study published in Elsevier highlighted that Latinos face racial and nativist challenges in wildland parks, including a lack of information available in Spanish. Additionally, entrance fees at national parks can present a financial barrier, as reported by Frontiers.

To address the lack of diversity in outdoor activities near her hometown of Austin, Texas, Walker initially organized one-time events like paddle boarding and hiking in June 2018. These events gained significant traction through social media, prompting Walker to establish BWWK+ as an official organization. The plus sign in the name symbolizes the organization’s involvement in both land-based and water-based activities.

What began as a single group in Austin has now expanded to 11 chapters across the United States, including locations in Colorado, Kentucky, California, Arkansas, and other states. BWWK+ hosts a variety of events such as hikes, yoga classes in parks, wildlife expeditions, and camping and golf outings. Wilson notes, “BWWK+ organizes gatherings that bring the community together and educates about the importance of preserving our natural resources.”

In addition to providing recreational opportunities, the organization offers numerous health benefits associated with outdoor activities, such as improving vision, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, lowering stress levels, combating brain fog, and enhancing sleep quality through increased physical activity.

Reducing Financial Barriers

Financial constraints, such as national park entrance fees, lack of paid time off, and the cost of gear, often discourage potential outdoor enthusiasts from participating in activities like backpacking, rock climbing, or skiing.

Wilson shares her realization when preparing for her first backpacking trip, “For the average person, you have to acquire and purchase all this equipment.” She recalls her experience at a store where the cheapest backpack was priced at $200.

To help alleviate these financial burdens, BWWK+ collaborates with outdoor organizations like REI, NOLS, British Swim School, and the Texas Rowing Center to minimize costs for its members. The organization also offers scholarships funded by sponsors to support individuals facing financial challenges in pursuing their outdoor adventures.

Wilson emphasizes the importance of making the outdoors accessible to everyone and ensuring that future generations do not encounter the same obstacles.

Fostering a Supportive Community

Beyond offering outdoor activities, BWWK+ serves as a crucial source of community for women of color. Wilson recounts an empowering experience during an eight-day trek in Alaska with another BWWK+ member, Kim Fields. Fields’ encouragement and shared hiking experience motivated Wilson through the physical and mental challenges of the journey.

Being a part of BWWK+ allows Wilson to be her authentic self, surrounded by like-minded individuals of color with diverse adventure backgrounds. The community provides a safe space where she can relax, interact without cultural barriers, and receive support from fellow outdoor enthusiasts who understand her experiences.

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