Creating Safe Spaces

Promoting more-inclusive outdoor experiences for all

  • Julia Jeanty
  • Equity and Justice
  • Aug 01, 2021

Hiking in Georgia, renowned activist and conservationist Audrey Peterman (center) is a leader in the movement to engage African Americans with the outdoors, particularly the national parks.

NATURE IS OFTEN A PLACE of sanctum, where people go to escape the stressors of everyday life. In a socially distanced world, many turned to hiking, backpacking and camping to safely get outdoors and shake off the monotony of COVID-19 isolation. But what happens when nature is not safely accessible to all?

Last year was a year of reckoning for the United States, when COVID-19 collided with another pandemic: racism. The incident of a white woman lodging a false complaint with police against Black birder Christian Cooper in Central Park revealed one of the many barriers Black individuals face when trying to enjoy nature.

Black Americans make up roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population yet comprise only about 1 percent of visitors to public lands. This is due to concerns about physical safety—a painful legacy of “Whites Only” public spaces fueled by slavery, Jim Crow and racial violence—and other barriers. This lack of inclusivity can fuel the common misconception that Black individuals do not enjoy the outdoors or simply don’t belong in green spaces.

To address this issue, the National Wildlife Federation—in partnership with Black AF in STEM, The Links, Incorporated, Patagonia and Outdoor Afro—launched Creating Safe Spaces, an initiative to increase awareness of the challenges Black individuals face in safely accessing nature. 

Sharing stories to find solutions

Through a three-part roundtable series followed by a national town hall, NWF provided an opportunity for Black individuals—including park rangers, educators and policy-makers—to share their experiences and offer solutions for mitigating the challenges Black people face. The recommendations include expanding Black representation in professional environmental organizations, academia and policymaking; educating the public about Black contributions in nature and conservation; and funding Black-led organizations that can cultivate safe spaces for Black communities.

“It made a lot of white people and non-Black people aware of what really does go on for so many of us,” says Cooper, a town hall participant. 

The Federation seeks to expand the Safe Spaces initiative into a multiyear program focused on the challenges that other identity groups face in recreating outdoors. Only by recognizing the unique experiences that individuals face in engaging in nature can we truly foster a safe and equitable outdoors for all.

Julia Jeanty is coordinator of the National Wildlife Federation’s Tropical Forests and Agriculture program.

More from National Wildlife magazine and the National Wildlife Federation:

New Path Towards Growth »
Art Takes Flight »
Press Release: Black Conservationists, Pioneers Discuss Outdoor Representation, Safety, Access for Black Communities, Communities of Color »

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