Evelynn Escobar Wants To Help the BIPOC Community Reclaim Outdoor Spaces
Evelynn Escobar didn't visit her first national park until she was 23 years-old, and she was stunned by the experience—just not for the reason you might expect. Being that Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon, which she also visited on that trip, were such popular tourist destinations, she anticipated seeing a diverse mix of faces taking in their splendor alongside her. Instead, she found herself a little lonely among a sea of white people—especially since some of them were giving her "you don't belong here" vibes.
This experience, coupled with her regular hiking habit, got Escobar—one of our 2021 Changemakers—thinking about the need for more BIPOC representation and participation in the great outdoors. She started what she called "Hike Clerb" soon after, with an Instagram page and a simple call for friends—other womxn of color—to join her for a Sunday hike to Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles.
That casual event blazed a trail to what is now a full-fledged charitable organization, one which still organizes hikes (when it's safe to do so) but is now stretching to fulfill Escobar's greater mission: to reconnect Black, Indigenous, and People of Color to the nature from which they have been systemically separated so they can access its scientifically-proven health benefits. In service of this goal, Hike Clerb is also offering a free education on the racist history of that separation, detailing how, when, and why BIPOC populations have not been welcomed nor represented in outdoor spaces such as pools, beaches, and parks.
I spoke to Escobar about the long history of her activism, and how it enabled her not just to notice inequities with respect to the outdoors but to do the hard work of correcting them, too. Below, we discuss her journey to Hike Clerb (including a stint interning for Michelle Obama), why she thinks both community and activism are integral to wellness, what it will take to truly restore the relationship between BIPOC and nature, and the newest change-making venture she's currently endeavoring to birth.
Well+Good: You were an activist long before you started Hike Clerb. When and how did that calling come for you?
Evelynn Escobar: Growing up and hearing stories from my grandma—who is indigenous to Guatemala (we are Maya K'iche')—about her upbringing, and not being able to complete elementary school because she had to help her mom and things like that. From a very early age, I had it instilled in me that I have to do what I can to help others.
I have been in community work in an official capacity since I was in middle school. A friend of mine's mom started this little program to get us into our community doing different sorts of community service, like bringing meals to retirement homes and senior centers and things like that. So community work is a foundation on which I stand, and I think that's just because of the influences I had early on in life, just having that North Star and that sense of purpose and that sense of responsibility.
It's something I carried with me once I got to high school. I was doing Youth Advisory Council and student government and I was the president of the Young Democrats—just very much into anything I could possibly get into. I also interned for the Obama community campaign office in my city, and that led me to later becoming an intern at the White House for the First Lady Michelle Obama after I graduated college.
I went to school for journalism and again, it was in a very intentional way—to become a person able to champion the plight of others. In college, I was also a chairwoman in the student government. Serving the community has always been a guiding light in all of this.
After graduation, I started working in a traditional sense, and because I had done a bunch of internships in social media specifically while in college, I ended up going down the social media route. And I always knew in the back of my mind that social media is a tool and if you can master it then you can literally do anything with it, whether it's building a community, starting a business... whatever you want to do. If you can talk to people, if you can reach people in a way that they can truly relate to and it's authentic, it's a just huge asset.
Obviously you reached people in way that was authentic, because Hike Clerb is a success. What did that journey, from inviting a few friends to hike with you to having thousands of followers, look like?
I moved out to LA a little over six years ago. That's when I really was able to dive deeper into my career, just doing my [own personal] social media management and strategy. I was also strengthening my own connection to nature. I already had so much experience with being out here and hiking all the major trails—because of all the time that I had spent in LA previously [visiting my aunt]—so when I moved here I started doing those trails by myself. That's not the safest thing to do when you're a woman.
And then my husband and I went on our first national park trip, and because I always thought of these places as these big touristy destinations, I did not think that they were going to be so homogenous. So I was really surprised when I got out there to see that there was such a lack of representation and participation by Black and brown people, specifically. And I just remember it catching me so off guard. I also remember getting curious stares while being out there, which I also just did not expect.
So that experience, paired with hiking alone and having other friends who were womxn of color who were interested in nature and went hiking casually or whatever it may be, and just knowing that there wasn't necessarily a space carved out for us or anyone really speaking to us to say, "This space is for you, too," it just really motivated me. I wanted to create something to bring all of us together to not only collectively heal in nature—because you know there are so many scientifically-proven effects of what spending time in nature does for your own health—but also to really build this community and take up space. But also, to hold space, so that we can destroy this notion that the outdoors is this place of white privilege and to reclaim the land, so to speak.
The womxn who were already out there definitely felt a lack of representation that was noticeable but also, there were a ton of womxn who weren't out there yet because they didn't see it as something for them. [The idea of Hike Clerb] was not only to create community for people who are already out there but really to get more of us out there so we can realize that this is a place where we belong as well.
[The idea of Hike Clerb] was not only to create community for people who are already out there but really to get more of us out there so we can realize that this is a place where we belong as well.
So I created an Instagram page for Hike Clerb, and I told my friends that we were all going to go hiking to the Griffith Observatory one Sunday, and I had my husband photograph the hike, and then after the hike I posted all the photos. That is literally how it started, just by getting a group of friends to go on a hike and creating content from that to motivate others to join us.
We started out as a group that met monthly, but we have obviously transcended that model by a lot. [We offer] education to teach people the reason why we're even out here, the reason why these cultural differences exist, the reason why the outdoors are so homogenous and these spaces aren't these idyllic places that so many people think of them to be because of the history of this land, starting with just erasure of the indigenous people who inhabited it before.
What we're also trying to do is just make things more accessible, specifically from a socioeconomic standpoint, so that people will realize they can come out [in nature] and they don't need all the fancy gear. We give away annual national park passes every month to three BIPOC womxn.
So we're really trying to incorporate and round out all the ways that we can help, whether it is literally providing people with passes, educating people, hosting these [outdoor] events so that people feel comfortable and have an experience out there that they can later build on, or supplying people with the gear that they need to go beyond entry level experiences. We're trying to give everything we can to the community so that it can flourish and grow.
Currently, we are doing virtual events and also in-person events when things are safe. We recently had an Earthing 101 session [on Instagram Live] and we're going to continue that virtual content to bring recreation to life in a different way than that which requires you to be present in real life with us.
The beauty of it all is that because I'm not a typical outdoorsy person, I don't really have that frame of thought. Everything I do is just based on all the other weird collective experiences that I've had. And we are coming with this super unconventional approach because nothing necessarily like Hike Clerb existed before, which is why we're doing it. And it's just been so fun—it's just been like this huge experiment, and it's growing by itself, and it's insane!
What do you think Hike Clerb means for the women of color who've joined it?
I've had a lot of people reach out to me about what it has done for them. And, you know, mostly I go into it just wanting to hold space for other womxn, womxn of color, to feel seen, to feel supported, to feel represented, to feel empowered, to be able to do something that they might not have had an experience in doing or might not have thought was for them. And to really help them understand that we are limitless and we can conquer whatever it is that we want. But also that we are these multifaceted beings, and we can have an interest in nail art [Escobar has a booming nail art hobby], we can have an interest in fashion, or sports, or whatever it is, and also be outdoorsy.
So I do have people who reach out and thank me for just inspiring them to get out there. One of my favorite stories is of a woman who told me that she went on her first hike with Hike Clerb and realized that she actually really enjoyed hiking, and from there she just continued to choose to go out. And it really helped her mental health and just changed her entire perspective about what she was capable of. Stuff like that is really why I'm doing this work, because it's obviously so much bigger than me. And also just to really inspire other womxn to maybe live out loud in a way they didn't realize they could before.
Do you see Hike Clerb as a tool for educating white people, too?
Our center or scope for Hike Clerb is centering Black and brown womxn and their experiences in the outdoors. As a byproduct, we speak to a much larger group, but really everything that we're doing is through this lens of having Black and Brown womxn at the forefront. We want to make sure that—because we are historically so excluded—we are intentional about speaking to this group, first and foremost, and as a result of speaking to this group we'll be able to speak to everyone else.
Where do you want to go next with Hike Clerb?
We have a lot up our sleeve. We are in the process of creating a new website, where we will be able to host much more educational content, and guides, and really put an editorial focus on what we're doing. We'll have an army of contributors to help promote this idea of accessibility and inclusion by making things easier for people not only in Los Angeles but across the country, and one day around the world.
We also have plans for much larger events [once it's safe with respect to the pandemic] where anyone from around the country or the world can come and join us, and can get that Hike Clerb experience that includes recreation and sport in nature, the healing components of nature, and sustainability in one large week-long even. We have so many ideas and so much work we want to do that we have to grow our team this year.
To be recognized as a changemaker on this list is incredible, and we're only operating at one percent right now. It's me as the founder and executive director, my friend Stephanie Sleiman, who is our art director and our designer who helps bring what Hike Clerb looks like from an aesthetic standpoint to life, and another friend of mine, Jennifer Martinez, who helps out as our Director of Operations. Everyone has other jobs and responsibilities, but we're still dedicating our time and effort to making this as cool as possible. Once we actually have a team and we're able to make all of our ideas come to life... world domination is for sure imminent.
You make getting involved in the community as an activist look easy, but I've tried to insert myself in a meaningful way and can't figure out how to really get in there and make a difference. What's your advice?
We all have our own innate, unique talents and interests that make us who we are, and we should play to those strengths to help other people because that's why we have them. Most of the time, the answer is dangling in front of us—we just have to be able to see it. That's where the block is, because usually people aren't able to see it until they take a step back and realize like, "Oh my gosh, I love dogs and I'm so passionate about helping animals. I should maybe volunteer with a local shelter or become a foster." The things that are in you are in you for a reason, and you should use them. And so I think when it comes to how you can help your community—whether it's starting your own thing or being a part of something that already exists—it's about finding what really lights your fire, what you're really passionate about, and then using what you've got to help that mission or organization in your own unique way.
It's important to remember—because I think you get to this point where people are telling you you're so inspiring and this, that, and the other—that we are all just human and the light that is in me is in you, too. And I think if there's anything that I hope people take away from this, it's that they can make a difference. It doesn't have to be in a huge way, or in a way that is hyper visible to others, but that difference matters. And that's what's going to change the world, is people deciding to make a difference, no matter what size it is.
It's important to remember—because I think you get to this point where people are telling you you're so inspiring and this, that, and the other—that we are all just human and the light that is in me is in you, too.
How do activism and wellness connect for you?
For me, they've always just coexisted in the sense that in order for me to feel like I'm in alignment, to feel well, I always have to be doing something that is contributing to the greater good, that is helping to serve others, that is helping to uplift others. That, in turn, feeds me, and I guess it then becomes a form of wellness. It comes with an energy transfer, though, so to do that you also have to balance it, you have to take care of yourself. You have to have your own releases and things like that. But at the end of the day, activism is something that fills my cup and feeds me.
It seems like the well-being of the community is at the forefront of your work as an activist. Why is it important to take that broader lens—not just focused on your own health, but that of your entire community—when thinking about the concept of wellness?
Collective care has been a foundation of my life, and it's something that I speak about a lot. None of us got to where we are alone—it's taken a village of family, friends, teachers, mentors, and all these people along the way to get me, specifically, to where I am today, and [the same is true for] so many of us. So when it comes to wellness and community, they've always been synonymous when I think about them because in order to be well, it's something that you have to share. I If it's just individualized, that's a disconnect. At the end of the day, wellness is the betterment of other people's lives, not just your own.
One thing we always talk about with nature, and even with self, is just this interconnectedness of all things. We are all, like I said, a part of this grand ecosystem, and so when we do something good for other people, we feel great in return. And it can be as small as helping out a stranger or buying someone lunch—whatever it is, you will always feel so much better for doing that. Mainstream thought, especially in this country, is just very much individualized. But if you were to lean on the things that truly make you feel good, then collective care and helping others is definitely something that you would see reoccurring over and over again. We're not meant to journey this existence alone. We very much need to lean on each other, and I'm really thankful that society's frame of thought is changing to accept that in a bigger way.
Speaking of community, I notice there's a new account, @communitycentered, linked on your Instagram bio right now. Is this a new project? Spill the deets!
Community centered is another community project that is way in the wings right now just because Hike Clerb requires so much of me until I can build up our team. I don't want to give away too much, but I'll say this—it is going to be a community organization bringing together the change makers across this country to support and empower and help each other on their missions.
You're doing so much to evolve the way the BIPOC community engages in nature. But what still needs to happen for outdoor spaces, and the way they're perceived (as belonging to whiteness), to change and become more welcoming, safe, and inclusive to BIPOC?
The fact that we all exist on stolen land and that it's such a fight to not only have the native people of this land recognized, or supported in a way that allows them to really flourish and to take care of the land that they traditionally have always taken care of, is an issue. Land sovereignty needs to happen—we need to put trust back into the native people of this land to show us how to take care of it, to allow them to exist in these places and really allow them to take the lead.
Even being indigenous to Guatemala like I am (versus indigenous to America), it is a struggle—a struggle of oppression and a struggle of erasure. That needs to flip, because we can do all of these diversity measures and hire more inclusively and things like that, but at the end of the day, we're not breaking down the structures of white supremacy that exist and allow these outdated concepts to flourish, that have people still thinking of the outdoors through this very white privileged lens. We have to flip the system upside down and rebuild.
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