The great outdoors: Not just for white people

Meet the people working to make the outdoors safer for people of color

By: - September 9, 2021 6:00 am

Dawn Wing, right, with a canoe paddle with Michelle Kwan. Both are on their way back to the Twin Cities after a trip to the Boundary Waters. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

Mai Nhia Xiong-Chan almost didn’t go to the Boundary Waters with her friends this year. Xiong-Chan, who is the vice president of admissions at Hamline University, had some experience camping, but not the strenuous portaging and canoeing for which the Boundary Waters are famous.  

But Xiong-Chan was glad she went. She was honoring the wishes of a recently departed friend, and what she experienced was markedly different from her past camping excursions.

“We ate mostly vegetarian, we used white gas to light our stove, like I’ve never done anything to that level of sophistication,” said Xiong-Chan during an interview several weeks after her trip, which was led by a veteran Hmong female Boundary Waters camper. “At the time I was like, ‘This is so hard. I can’t believe people do this for fun.’ And then 24 hours after we got home, I was like, ‘That was amazing, I would do it again.’ I can’t believe I got through that.” 

People of color aren’t likely to venture out to the Minnesota outdoors alone. The 2020 Census found about a quarter of the state’s residents are people of color, but data show they aren’t as likely to venture out into the state’s forests, lakes and rivers endemic to Minnesota’s identity. The U.S. Forest Service, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Metropolitan Council between 2007 and 2016 — the most recently available data — conducted research showing that visitors to the Minnesota outdoors tend toward white, above-average income, male and college-degree holders.  

Nonwhite people cite time, money and fear as some deterrents. 

Most of the great outdoors are in heavily white greater Minnesota, disquieting people of color. In addition to struggling with getting to the outdoors without a car, Lee Oglesby sometimes felt uncomfortable being in predominately white places. “(My friend and I) drove past people with Trump signs up. You never know who’s around, and I felt discomfort with people who have a problem with me being out there,” Oglesby said of her most recent trip to Tettegouche State Park. 

Those who do feel confident venturing outdoors interact with it differently. May Hang, a north Minneapolis nurse who went to the Boundary Waters with Xiong-Chan, remembered their family — who are Hmong refugees — fishing as a means of survival. “It was not so much more enjoying nature and looking at the leaves and looking at (the) physical structure (like trees), it was more how many fish can we capture, or how many fish can we get because that’s going to become part of our food for the winter,” Hang said. 

Doing what white people do outdoors is an expensive proposition for those who can’t afford it, either because they don’t have the money or time. Both the Met Council and Minnesota DNR, which are both conducting new studies on the profiles of Minnesotans getting outdoors, found that time was the biggest obstacle to people trying to get into nature. 

Michelle Kwan, who owns Keefer Court and organizes an annual women-only trip to the Boundary Waters separate from Xiong-Chan’s friends, said her family hardly ever went outdoors because they spent all their time working in their bakery. “My parents worked a lot of hours to make a living. They were constantly working, taking time off for a weekend trip was not in their means,” Kwan said. Then there’s the costly equipment. Said Kwan, “It’s never been open and welcoming for us.”

Now, some people of color are getting together to help friends and family get more comfortable with the idea of venturing to the outdoors.

For instance, a private Facebook group is seeking to organize Black, Indigenous and other people of color in the Twin Cities to get outdoors. The group has connected participants to fishing, kayaking, mushroom foraging, bouldering, biking and camping. 

After seven years of venturing to the Boundary Waters with a group of women, Kwan decided she had the capacity to introduce two more women of color to it. Through the Facebook group, she connected with Dawn Wing, a librarian who relocated from Flushing, New York, to St. Paul three years ago. Experiencing the Boundary Waters for the first time with people who looked like her made her feel at home, she said. “It’s a chance for us to get to know each other, understand our shared struggles, but also perspectives and cultural values and outlook,” Wing said. “It’s a sense of like, you belong here.”

Wing pointed to dining on a grouse that a dog in the group killed. An immigrant from Vietnam who was also on the trip had experience plucking chickens. “We can bring our cultural perspectives! Like she brought that grouse, and she cooked and she brought Thai ramen packages and congee, and she cooked (it) up and I’m like, ‘Okay, this is why camping will be really interesting,’” Wing said. 

Three Rivers Park District staff in Plymouth, left to right: Amanda Fong, Chia Xiong, and Giannina Posner. The three pictured are working on initiatives to increase access to Three Rivers parks for folks of color. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

In recent years, Three Rivers Park District, which manages parks in Scott County and suburban Hennepin County, expanded their community engagement department to help broaden access to the outdoors for people of color. Giannina Posner, who immigrated from Peru and works as a community engagement specialist for Three Rivers, said her community is more likely to respond to relationships, not ads. “In my community, everything is personal; it’s more the connection you have is (through) word of mouth,” Posner said. 

Kaja Vang decided to join Three Rivers to bring their background in environmental science to reclaim the outdoors for people of color. “A lot of environmental agencies lack actual inclusion of non-white (people),” Vang said. “I for one thought that paddleboarding was only for white people because that’s all I’ve ever seen, like on lakes and beaches. Black and brown people can be happy too, like, we don’t just disappear and grieve. We’re also happy, and we deserve to be outside.” 

Posner, Vang and their teams have hosted events geared towards BIPOC people, including women and LGBTQ-friendly bike rides, as well as Juneteenth and outdoor yoga. They are also convening a teen council to develop programs to engage their peers, and made camping and winter equipment available to rent for those who can’t afford to buy. Three Rivers also developed a transportation reimbursement program to help schools and groups get their people to Three Rivers parks. 

Adan Torres, who manages Midwest Mountaineering, also uses the Facebook group to promote a series of clinics geared toward people of color who want to head outdoors. The clinics, which have included discussions about ice climbing and venturing to the Boundary Waters, happen every two weeks. 

But what matters to Torres most is being able to get to know the people he helps. “If one person shows up when the clinic comes up, that’s not bad. I’d rather be able to answer a question for one person than to get to the most important questions (from a group). It leads to further questions,” Torres said. 

Adan Torres, manager at Midwest Mountaineering in Minneapolis, has facilitated outdoor clinics geared toward people of color. Photo by Henry Pan/Minnesota Reformer.

It was Kao Ly Ilean Her who floated the idea of going to the Boundary Waters with Xiong-Chan and Hang. Hang had “glamping” in mind — slang derived from “glam” and “camping.” But she decided to challenge herself. “I said (to Her), ‘Just so you know, my version of camping is a cabin and bed and shower and air conditioning.’ She’s like, ‘That’s not camping,’” said Hang. 

Her, who had never been to the Boundary Waters, died of complications from COVID-19 before they could make the trip together. 

“When the opportunity came up to be a part of this trip, I jumped on it because I wanted to honor her, that was her last wish, directly to me. I also just wanted to see if I could do it.”

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Henry Pan
Henry Pan

Henry Pan (pronouns: They/He/佢/他) is a Twin Cities-based journalist, cartographer and photographer passionate about human interests and all things transportation. They have a background in urban planning, a disdain for Minnesota Nice, and a penchant for solitude, transit and bicycle joyrides.