Ecotherapists Are Working to Make the Outdoors More Inclusive
Awe-inspiring natural spaces in the U.S., like national parks, are also tarnished with racist histories, according to Tracy Perkins, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who studies social inequality and environmental justice. Many environmental conservation efforts starting in the late 1800s were led by eugenicists, like Madison Grant, to create spaces for white people to get fresh air and exercise in order “to preserve the vitality of white race,” she said.
Additionally, the outdoors can bring up connotations of enslavement and lynching for Black communities and violent displacement for Indigenous people, and many continue to experience discrimination in outdoor recreational spaces. The birder Christian Cooper’s encounter with a white woman in Manhattan’s Central Park in 2020, for example, or the fatal shooting of Ahmed Arbery in Georgia while he was said to be out jogging have spotlighted some of the difficulties of being a nonwhite person outdoors.
Seemingly simple activities, like a walk in the park, can unconsciously trigger a fight or flight response for some people, making them hypervigilant for dangers, said Laura Marques Brown, a clinician at Anchored Hope Therapy in Maryland who specializes in nature-based therapy for low-income people of color. “I remind ecotherapists, especially white ones, to consider how walking through dense woods as a Black person might feel.”
Acknowledging the racist history of the outdoors is an important first step toward making people of color feel safer in nature, Ms. Marques Brown said. She, for example, begins her one-on-one outdoor sessions by walking clients through the history of the Indigenous land that the clinic is on in an effort to make them feel less alienated in that natural space.
“I tell my clients that when we go outside, we are with generations of family,” she said.
For others, joining a group outing can also help puncture some of that unease. While Ms. Philips, the 64-year-old camper, went on a solo backpacking trip through Europe years ago, she now feels less confident outdoors in light of the recent spike in violence against people of color. When she started hiking with Outdoor Journal, she found the diversity of the group comforting. It felt “like a village,” she said.