When climber Scott Briscoe was in high school, he got involved with the genre of physical activity known as “adventure sports.” You know: hiking, skiing, backpacking, kayaking, rock climbing, and the like. He loved these kinds of sports, but there was something missing from the experience — people who looked like him.
“I remember being on the ski slope or being on the river and I explicitly remember not seeing anyone who looked like me, who had familiar experiences,” Briscoe told St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh. “I remember not seeing many African Americans or Latinos. As I got older, I wasn’t discouraged by that…but I always wondered why. For most of my life, I’ve been working with youth in some capacity or another and I didn’t want them to miss out on nature, on the amazing experiences I had growing up.”
Briscoe was part of the first all-African-American team of climbers to attempt a summit of America’s highest peak, Denali (also known as Mt. McKinley). There’s also a book about Expedition Denali called “The Adventure Gap,” and a new documentary, both of which address the experiences of minorities in adventure sports and youth exploration in the outdoors.
Duane Williams, the organizer of a local meetup group called Outdoor Afro St. Louis (part of a national movement you may have heard about on NPR), had a similar experience growing up rambling in the outdoors with his father. There are over 400 people involved with the meetup, adults and children, and he says that often the first experience of those getting involved in the outdoors is like culture shock.
“It is weird, because they don’t see this as something they can be part of,” Williams told Marsh, calling from Yosemite, where he is participating in leadership training. “I have to explain to them that, as a child, my father took me to the outdoors all the time. The world is bigger than the four blocks you hang out in or whatever the small neighborhood is. That’s the purpose—to show them that they’re just a small piece of this bigger puzzle.”
In March, Williams led the group of a visit to Earth Dance Farms. He also takes members on hikes at least once a month. In late April, they’ve planned a camping trip to Meramec State Park. The meetup has grown in size over the past two years based on word-of-mouth.
“I’ve seen a lot of people come on hikes and now they’re buying camping equipment, now they’re buying hiking boots, now they’re seeing ‘hey, this is something I can do on my own,’” Williams said. “We are building a community to where I can go out on a trail and run into another group of black people on a trail that I may or may not know. That’s awesome.”
In Briscoe’s experience, the biggest barrier to getting people of color out into nature has been exposure.
“With younger kids, once they see folks who look like them … We’ve given presentations to close to 15,000 youth post-climb,” he said. “When you see these kids watch the film, watch the presentation, they’re silent. I can see their minds clicking. I can see them connecting. They’re connecting because they see someone that they can relate to immediately—somebody who looks like them.”
As the New York Times pointed out in July, the conversation about increasing minority participation in parks and outdoor activities has been going on for quite some time. NPR also covered the topic most recently in March. The most recent National Park Service survey about minority participation, found that 22 percent of park visitors were minorities even though they make up 37 percent of the population.
Seeing people who look like you, who have conquered mountains or even their local park, has a profound impact.
“I really feel like it gives them permission to connect with outdoors and then to take the steps forward to get outside,” Briscoe said.
Briscoe said that the expedition up Denali was one of the hardest things he has ever done in his life — mentally and physically. Although he’s scaled a great peak, he says it is important to remember that a lot of kids who could benefit from exposure to outdoor activities may never go somewhere like Denali.
“Wilderness for a lot of the kids isn’t necessarily the forest. It is their local park, it is their city park,” he said. “Of the 15,000+ students we’ve talked to post-climb since 2013, a lot of these kids don’t know what a forest is. They don’t know what the wilderness is. It is important to us to draw a connection to local areas. Areas in their immediately accessibility that they can get to.”
Programs like National Outdoor Leadership School, Outdoor Afro and Girl Trek are all organizations that can help youth of color find a path to get past their local park, Briscoe said. There’s something special about that.
“When you go into the wilderness and have the opportunity to stare at the stars, to sit with a group of friends and discuss as opposed to starting at the internet or bear the burdens of public transportation, I think it creates a moment of peace for the youth when they get outside,” Briscoe said.
What: Expedition Denali: Inspiring Diversity
When: April 7 from 7:00 - 8:00 p.m.
Where: Lewis and Clark Branch, St. Louis County Library, 9909 Lewis and Clark Blvd, St. Louis, MO 63136
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.