Commentary: Can Greg Wolley and Friends Get Blacks Outdoors?

A new leader in Oregon says he wants to change the typical wilderness role model by providing children of color an outdoor explorer who looks like them.

Posted: 06/26/2012 06:39 PM EDT

There are a lot of stereotypes that exist about African-Americans and the outdoors, most of which have very simple and reasonable explanations. You’ve probably heard, for instance, that Black people don’t swim. But when people say that, how often do they add that maybe Black people don’t have an affinity for pools because pools are prohibitively expensive to own and maintain, and that, for many years, segregated public pools banned black swimmers?

 

Similarly, there is a stereotype that African-Americans don’t often camp and fish. Again, this dearth of Blacks in the great outdoors might be easily explained by two normal things: 1. Proper camping and fishing equipment — sleeping bags, tents, rods, etc. — is often expensive; 2. It’s a simple fact that many Black communities are bunched together in urban areas, far removed from camping locations in the wilderness.

 

In a word, it’s totally rational for Black people to be in the outdoors less. But lately, a handful of people are trying to reverse that reality.

 

Last month, Greg Wolley became the first Black person to head up the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission. Oregon has long been known for its commitment to providing residents and visitors a great wilderness experience, so Wolley’s appointment is a big deal in the world of outdoor adventuring.

 

Now, Wolley, who founded the African-American Outdoors Association in 2005, says he’s ready to ensure other Black people come to love the outdoors the way he long has.

 

“They say Black people don’t bike, hike, etc.,” he told online outdoors publication The Skanner.  “Students of color are not seeing images of people in natural resources that look like them — they don’t have role models.”

 

Also in Oregon, but working for a different cause, is Donnell Adair, a Black man in his mid-20s, who’s working to get African-Americans off the streets and behind guns — hunting rifles, that is.

 

In a 2010 Outside magazine profile of Adair and his father, Donny, Michael J. Mooney wrote:

 

A jovial, bespectacled municipal-diversity coordinator with a magnetic personality, [Donny] feels passionately that hunting could help fix some of the problems in the African-American community. "If kids are in the woods with their fathers," he says, "they aren't running in the streets, dealing drugs, getting into trouble."

 

Both the Adair men agree that they’re rarities in the outdoor sporting world, for any number of reasons. As I said, access and cost are two major impediments to getting Black people outside. Another, as Wolley noted, is that Blacks simply don’t see images of themselves in ads and publications designed to entice people to try camping, hunting, and fishing. In a study from UC Berkeley, Professor Carolyn Finney looked at old copies of Outside magazine:

 

She looked at 44 issues of Outside magazine over a 10-year period, from 1991 to 2001, and found that, of 6,986 pictures, 4,602 contained people, but only 103 were of African-Americans. And those were mostly well-known male sports figures in urban settings.

 

In other words, it’s difficult to get African-Americans interested in a pastime that doesn’t seem interested in them. If all outdoor magazines and companies show consumers is ads and stories filled with white people, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the wilderness remains filled with white people. It’s time to change all that and remind Blacks that their place is on the banks of America’s greatest rivers just as much as it on any basketball court.

 

 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

 

 

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