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An Association Forming Eliminating Boundaries For Women To Journey Outdoors

Missy Wilson, a mother and thrill-seeker, enjoys venturing into the natural world. However, it has been a challenging experience. When she would go camping or canoeing, she frequently found herself as the sole Black individual present. She would encounter white individuals on trails or campgrounds who would assume she was inexperienced in outdoor activities and felt the need to explain things to her.

Wilson’s feeling of isolation and marginalization is not uncommon. According to the National Health Foundation, nearly 70 percent 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 percent of national park visitors were Black.

Yet, Wilson was determined to find a group that embraced her. In 2021, she found what she was searching for: Black Women Who Kayak+ (BWWK+). Founded by Tanya Walker, a certified paddle sports safety expert and community facilitator from Texas, BWWK+ is a non-profit organization aiming to empower Black women and other individuals of color to explore the outdoors more frequently.

Creating a Welcoming Outdoor Environment

There are several factors that hinder people of color from engaging in outdoor activities. In a study from 2019 entitled “Equity in Access to Outdoor Recreation—Informing a Sustainable Future,” participants cited constraints such as lack of time, money, distance, and transportation as obstacles to visiting national forests. Another study published in Elsevier found that Latinos face racial and cultural barriers in wildland parks, including insufficient Spanish-language information. Entrance fees to national parks also present a financial obstacle, according to a Frontiers analysis.

To combat the lack of diversity in outdoor spaces near her hometown of Austin, Texas, Walker initially organized one-time events like paddle boarding and hiking in June 2018. Subsequently, with the aid of social media, she started attracting large crowds, leading her to establish BWWK+ as an official organization. (The plus symbol signifies that the organization occupies spaces in both land and water.)

What initially began as a single group in Austin has expanded to 11 chapters across the United States, including in Colorado, Kentucky, California, Arkansas, and other states. Today, BWWK+ organizes hikes, park yoga sessions, wildlife expeditions, and camping excursions. “BWWK+ hosts events that bring the community together,” states Wilson. “Through this, we educate on the significance of preserving our land and water resources.”

The organization offers its members more than just recreational activities. Research indicates that spending time outdoors has a variety of benefits, such as improving eyesight, reducing the risk of heart disease, and lowering stress levels. Engaging in outdoor hikes and increasing physical activity can even combat mental fog and help regulate our sleep patterns for better rest.

Lowering the Barriers to Entry

It is widely recognized that financial impediments like park entrance fees, lack of paid time off, and the expense of equipment can discourage many potential adventurers from participating in activities such as backpacking, rock climbing, or skiing.

“For the average individual, you need to acquire and purchase all this equipment,” Wilson explains. This fact stood out to her when preparing for her initial backpacking trip. “I didn’t own any gear,” she shares. “I visited REI, tried on some backpacks—the least expensive was around $200.”

To alleviate these costs, BWWK+ collaborates with other outdoor organizations like REI, NOLS, British Swim School, and the Texas Rowing Center to reduce the fees for BWWK+ members. For individuals facing financial hardships, BWWK+ also provides scholarships—funded by sponsors—to enable them to partake in outdoor adventures.

“The outdoors is meant for everyone, and it’s crucial that future generations do not face these challenges,” expresses Wilson.

Fostering a Community

Beyond the activities and events, BWWK+ has also served as a community hub for women of color. Wilson, for example, recounts how having a fellow BWWK+ member accompany her on an eight-day, remote trek in Alaska last summer inspired her to persevere through the mental and physical challenges of extreme temperatures, limited visibility, and steep terrains.

“To be able to exchange a look with her like, ‘Hey, are you okay?’ was incredibly empowering,” shares Wilson.

Despite having a similar level of physical endurance as Wilson, Kim Fields, the other BWWK+ member on the Alaskan journey, possessed more backpacking experience and supported Wilson during challenging sections of the route. It was these subtle interactions that motivated Wilson along the trail. “Whenever I struggled or marveled at the steep slopes, I would glance back at her, and she would encourage me to complete the path,” recalls Wilson.

Being part of BWWK+ permits Wilson to relax and embrace her authentic self. This entails letting loose, sharing laughter, and being surrounded by other adventurous individuals of color with diverse experience levels. “There’s no need for altering behavior, explaining slang, or having things explained patronizingly,” shares Wilson. “You are among people who comprehend where you stand.”

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