Plenty of people support the idea of a diverse, inclusive outdoors, but helping to make that a reality can feel complicated or intimidating. It doesn’t have to be. If you don’t have to consider your identity or fear for your safety while birding, running, thru-hiking, or spending time in nature, you are ideally positioned to be an ally to those who do.
Still, it can be hard to know when or how to avoid being a bystander. To help our readers recognize and navigate the times when the right words and actions might make a difference to a fellow birder or outdoors-person, we’ve assembled a few guidelines from diversity, equity, and inclusion leaders in the field. Allyship is an action that involves constant learning, and these tips are only intended as a starting point—there are many more in-depth allyship resources available. And of course, the real work happens in the moment.
“Acknowledgement is important,” says Leah Thomas, the founder of Intersectional Environmentalist, an online resource that provides support, action tips, and reading recommendations. If you notice a situation arise that makes a person with a historically marginalized identity or background feel uncomfortable, say something. It’s a key moment to practice allyship. People from marginalized communities are often made to feel like they are overreacting to a perceived threat or insult. The simple act of validating their experiences can be powerful.
It is also important to remember that people who are visibly from those backgrounds may feel unsafe in nature or in outdoor communities unless explicitly invited. Thomas says it’s helpful to be proactive and invite people to join you in outdoor activities if you sense they are hesitating; for example, she learned how to surf because an ally offered to teach her.
Have tough conversations
If you hear somebody make a racist or bigoted comment, talk to them instead of simply pushing them away, says Ava Holliday, founding partner of the Avarna Group, which helps organizations advance equity and diversity in the workplace. It’s easy to let hateful speech slip by instead of confronting it head-on—but a true ally will have those difficult conversations so that the target of hurtful comments doesn’t have to. “If I’m not going to talk to a white person who says a problematic thing,” Holliday says, “who is going to?”
Making everyone welcome builds safe, inclusive communities, Holliday explains, and examining the roots of stereotypes can diminish their power. That’s why she asks allies not to distance themselves from those in their lives with bias. Instead, she recommends engaging with them, and helping them work on the root causes of their prejudice.
People of color are often met with skepticism—or outright hostility— when going into the outdoors, says Nailah Blades Wylie, who founded an organization for women of color called Color Outside. Once, Blades Wylie remembers, a police officer questioned her and her family while they were snowshoeing; the police officer didn’t believe that Black people would want to go snowshoeing, and even looked inside their car to verify they had snowshoes with them. Dealing with assumptions of these kinds, and having to prove that you belong, can make getting outside an unpleasant experience, says Blades Wylie.
As an ally, you can actively work to undo the harmful but often unconscious assumption that outdoor recreation is a white space. That may be as simple as not acting surprised when someone who is non-white is outdoors, or as active as correcting someone who is acting and speaking on that assumption. Remember, an ally extends their privilege to others. “I don’t think just being nice is enough to undo years of systemic racism,” Blades Wylie says.
Support diversity initiatives
Donate to organizations that work to increase diversity in the outdoors, says Perry Cohen, the founder of the Venture Out Project. Take the time to educate yourself on what they’re trying to do, and use your own voice and platforms to amplify their messages.
It’s also a good idea to share information about organizations that might be relevant to the interests of the BIPOC or other historically marginalized people in your lives. If you know of a local group that does meetups, for example, use your voice to amplify their message and call attention to their offerings.
While it’s good to keep an eye out for people of color, don’t baby them, says Sebastian Moreno, co-founder of the Western Massachusetts chapter of Latino Outdoors. Let them decide how they want to explore the outdoors, and support their efforts. If your friend wants to go into nature on their own, for example, offer to check in on their safety instead of insisting they don’t go or that you should accompany them.