Story at a glance

  • Surveys show minorities make up only a small percentage of visitors to America's national parks and monuments.
  • A history of racism may explain low minority participation in trips outdoors, but grassroots groups are working to change that.
  • “The sisterhood outdoors is providing resources and building your network and empowering one another,” says one of the founders of the group.

Take a hike in one of America's national parks and the faces you'll see are overwhelmingly white. Surveys have found around 2 percent of visitors to national parks, monuments and other park types identify as being black or African American. 

Jessica Newton and Tinelle Louis, the co-owners of Vibe Tribe Adventures, decided earlier this year that they wanted to establish a group that would help move the needle and increase the participation of black women in outdoor activities.

Newton grew up around the outdoors in Pennsylvania when her parents sent her to a Montessori school. She fell in love with nature and wants to share that love of outdoor activities with other black women. In 2016, she started a community hiking group in Colorado that eventually became a huge success. 

After being featured on a news broadcast, Newton says black women from around the world wrote her letters, saying they would love to get involved with outdoor activities. Early in 2019, Newton and Louis officially established Black Girls Hike Global, which is now named Vibe Tribe Adventures to show they go beyond just hiking. The group is managed in addition to Newton’s career in renewable energy project management and Louis’s career in web design

“The sisterhood outdoors is providing resources and building your network and empowering one another,” Newton says, noting the group provides more benefits than just participating in outdoor activities together.

Newton and Louis currently live in Colorado, but there are nine other chapters around the country currently led by local women. Angel Okrah, a software engineer and the leader of the Phoenix chapter, leads hikes in the area once a month and believes in the mission of the group. 

“For me, it’s important to let black folks know that we’re out there...we are out there doing all those types of activities that people might not expect us to be doing,” she says. 

Beyond this, Okrah enjoys leading the group because of the friendships that form along the trail.  

“Something I do like about the group is that we do try to help each other. Whether it be on the hike, or if we can help each other outside of the hike.”

Racism outside

Tourism scholars propose a number of explanations for the low numbers of minorities visiting parks in the U.S., such as limited economic resources, differing cultural priorities, and geographic proximity to outdoor.

A history of racism is also a factor; facilities were once segregated in parks like Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. The land was purchased by the state then donated to the National Park Service. Local officials in Virginia insisted on segregated facilities in the park to conform to accepted customs of the state at the time. 

“For a long time, we weren't allowed to leave our neighborhoods,” says Newton, speaking of the fear black people had — and still have — traveling in the country. She hopes groups like hers, as well as increased efforts by federal agencies like the National Park Service, will help reduce anxiety about  heading outdoors.

Vibe Tribe Adventures is not the only group looking to get more people of color involved in outdoor activities—Melanin Base Camp, Latino Outdoors, Brothers of Climbing and Brown Girls Climb are all groups looking to make the outdoors accessible to everyone. 

A well-known by-product of being outdoors? Health benefits. Minority health disparities are a significant issue in this country, and exercise is one way to help alleviate these issues. Outdoor activities can increase vitamin D levels, improve mental health and generally lead to more exercise than happens indoors.

“We've got to find small ways that we can start to change our behavior and the habits that we have in our families,” Newton says.

Overall, she says, being outdoors is something black women can do to care for themselves. “We can move ahead and build healthy habits of self-care. I love that.”

Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately describe the founding of the hiking community group in 2016. The section on Shenandoah National Park has also been reworded to better reflect its history.

Published on Dec 05, 2019