Meet the Organization That’s Breaking Down Barriers for Women of Color in the Outdoors

Photo: Getty Images/andreswd
Missy Wilson, a mother and adventure seeker, loves heading to the great outdoors. But it's long been a fraught experience. For years, whether she was going camping or canoeing, she often found herself to be the only Black person around. She'd sometimes meet white people on trails or campgrounds who would assume she was new to the outdoors and didn't know what she was doing, so they'd decide that they needed to explain things to her.

Wilson's experience of being alone and othered is far from unique. According to the National Health Foundation, nearly 70 percent of people who visit national parks, forests, and wildlife refuges are white. And in a 2018 report, data collected by the National Park Service Visitor Services Project showed that less than 2 percent of national park visitors were Black.

Yet Wilson was determined to find a community that welcomed her. And in 2021, she discovered just what she was looking for: Black Women Who Kayak+ (BWWK+). Founded by Tanya Walker, a certified paddle sports safety and community facilitator based in Texas, BWWK+ is a nonprofit that seeks to empower Black women and other people of color to venture outside more often.

Making the outdoors more welcoming

There are a number of factors that keep people of color out of the outdoors. In a 2019 study titled "Equity in Access to Outdoor Recreation—Informing a Sustainable Future," participants reported a lack of time, money, distance, and transportation as barriers to visiting a national forest. Another study, published in Elsevier, found that Latinos experience racial and nativist barriers in wildland parks, including a lack of Spanish-language information. Entrance fees to national parks also pose a financial burden, per a Frontiers analysis.

To help fight the lack of diversity in the outdoor spaces near her hometown of Austin, Texas, Walker initially began hosting one-off events like paddle boarding and hiking in June 2018. Soon, with the help of social media, she began drawing crowds so big that she decided to form BWWK+ as an official organization. (The plus sign symbolizes that the organization holds space in both land and water.)

What started as a single group in Austin has now grown into 11 chapters throughout the U.S., including in Colorado, Kentucky, California, Arkansas, and other states. Today, BWWK+ puts on hikes, yoga in the park, wildlife expeditions, and camping and golfing sessions. "BWWK+ hosts events that bring the community together," says Wilson. "With this, we teach about the importance of protecting our land and water conservation."

The organization is offering its members more than just a fun pastime. Research has shown that getting outdoors has a flurry of benefits, including advancing vision health, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, and decreasing stress levels. Hiking in nature and getting more steps into our day can even combat brain fog and sync our circadian rhythm for better sleep.

Bringing down the cost of entry

It's no secret that financial barriers like entrance fees to national parks, a lack of paid leave, and the cost of gear can deter many would-be adventurers from participating in activities like backpacking, rock climbing, or skiing.

"For the average person, you have to collect and buy all this gear," Wilson says. This particularly struck her last summer when she was preparing for her first backpacking trip, which would take her through Alaska. "I didn't have anything," she says. "I went into REI, and I tried on some packs—the cheapest was like $200."

To help offset these expenses, BWWK+ partners with other outdoor organizations such as REI, NOLS, British Swim School, and the Texas Rowing Center, to minimize the fees that BWWK+ members have to pay. For folks undergoing financial hardships, BWWK+ also assists with scholarships—funded by BWWK+ sponsors—to pursue their adventures.

For Wilson's trek through Alaska, BWWK+ set up a GoFundMe page, which Grape-Nuts ended up finding and donating $12,500 to as part of the brand's effort to fund women adventurers in celebration of Women's History Month and the company's 125th anniversary.

"Outdoors is for everybody, and it's important that the next generation doesn't have this issue," says Wilson.

Building a community

Beyond the opportunities and events, BWWK+ has also been a source of community for women of color. Wilson, for instance, says having a fellow BWWK+ member with her on the eight-day, remote Alaskan trek last summer inspired her to push through the mental and physical challenges of harsh temperatures, miles of low visibility, and steep inclines.

"To be able to look at her and exchange a look like, 'Hey, are you good?' was just so empowering," says Wilson.

Photo: Missy Wilson

Although Kim Fields, the other BWWK+ member on the Alaskan trek, had similar endurance levels to Wilson, Fields carried more experience backpacking and pushed Wilson when parts of the route got tough. It was these subtle exchanges that propelled Wilson along the trail. "Whenever I was struggling or was amazed at the inclines, I would look back at her and she would encourage me to finish the route," says Wilson.

Being a part of BWWK+ means that Wilson can relax and embrace her truest self. This looks like letting her hair down, laughing, and being in the presence of other adventurists of color with varying levels of experience. "There's no code switching, explaining colloquialisms, or even mansplaining," Wilson says. "You have people who understand where you are."

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