The group Outdoor Afro brings Black joy to a Vermont lake
It’s a sunny and clear yet windy day at Shelburne Bay. We are paddling our colorful boats to where today’s kayaking lesson will take place.
“I'm learning how to be a kayak instructor at 64-years-old, why not?” Valerie Morrow says. She’s coming all the way from Chicago to be part of this annual leadership training.
“It's a beautiful day. It wasn't hot at all," Morrow says. "But it was warm enough that I was comfortable getting in the water. And that was important to me."
She joined Outdoor Afro a few years ago because she was looking for other Black people to share in her love of nature.
"It smashes the stereotype of what we do and don't do and what we do and don't enjoy," Morrow says. "And it is a myth. Both my parents grew up on farms, fishing, gardening, making their way to the woods. And it's also been a source of healing for me.”
Outdoor Afro is a nationally-recognized adventure group that works to provide access for Black people to natural areas. They have over 100 volunteer members across more than 60 cities. They do not have a Vermont-based representative yet.
The national nonprofit partnered with the boating and fishing equipment brand Northwest River Supplies, Inc. to bring their annual training to Vermont. The week-long summer session hosted by St. Michael’s College includes in-class and lakeside courses, where each volunteer will earn a kayaking or canoeing certification.
This is the first time they are ever doing this in the Green Mountain State. For some of these leaders, it's their first time experiencing Vermont.
“Like some of our teammates, they may have not came up here on their own. But you know, with an invite from Outdoor Afro, it's like, we're gonna have a team with 17 [people]," says Chaya Harris, the program director. "And it's like, what? 17-plus Black people in Vermont? I'm in. Definitely, I can't miss it. And so just having that that space together helps, helps us find ways around those barriers.”
Harris says that being an Outdoor Afro leader means creating access for potential Black adventures in your community.
“The culture, the history, the joy, and of course, the struggle that we bring, it just all goes together and creates that comfort, where you know, you're going to be supported, you know, you're going to have a more psychologically safe environment, you know, that you can express yourself, and it helps you be vulnerable,” Harris says.
Back in their home states, many of the leaders are educators and business owners. When they come here, they leave all of that behind to be fully present as Outdoor Afro leaders.
“Outdoor ... Afro!” the group chants. Celebrating Black joy is at the heart of this organization.
Some leaders came from as far as California for this year’s training. China Walker came from Washington D.C. and said part of the goal of this trip is to train new leaders and bring some Black joy to Vermont’s outdoors.
“My experience in Vermont has been pretty positive," Walker says. "I think for me, what I got out of the state is definitely a greater appreciation for the nature and the recreational opportunities that are available here."
Vermont is well-known for its miles of well-preserved natural areas. But outdoor adventure culture has a history of being white-washed. Representation is a problem the industry is currently trying to address.
“If you can see other Black people thriving and enjoying the space that they're in, or at least attempting to, it makes you feel recognized and seen,“ Walker says.
Despite people of color making up nearly 40% of the total U.S. population, close to 70% of people who visit national forests and parks are white according to federal data. Black people remain the most underrepresented group in these spaces.
Chaya says Vermont was chosen as the location for this year’s training because of NRS Team Paddler Todd Johnstone-Wright. He is the former director of the Adventure Sports Center at St. Michael's College.
Johnstone-Wright has led research into barriers to access for Black and Brown people to participate in adventure sports.
"That really kind of got the conversation going of how can I as a professional paddler," he said. "Maybe move the needle a little bit in creating some access points."
From there he began exploring all the different groups across the nation seeking to expand access to the outdoors.
"And I think it's amazing that, you know, outdoor Afro and NRS chose Vermont, and you know, St. Michael's College, a small liberal arts college to host this big national event, which is amazing," Johnstone-White says. "I think it's a great Vermont story.”
Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Marlon Hyde @HydeMarlon.