By Jessianne Wright EBS Contributor
BOZEMAN – Erasure, invisibility, inaccessibility. These are feelings many people of color face in the context of spending time outdoors.
“So many times, when we’re outdoors, white people look at us like we shouldn’t be there. It’s weird, but it’s what we’ve come to expect,” said Judith Heilman, founder and executive director of the Montana Racial Equity Project, an advocacy group for minorities in Montana and the only black-led nonprofit in the state.
“The outdoor industry presents itself as white,” Heilman added, describing the predominantly white presence in outdoor advertising, branding and promotions.
Tired of feeling like they didn’t have a place to belong in Bozeman’s outdoor community, a handful of recreation enthusiasts, who identify as people of color, started Earthtone Outside Montana, a group dedicated to promoting diversity in Montana’s outdoor recreation scene.
“There are invisible barriers to going outside. There’s a lot of wounding there,” said Maya León, who owns Bozeman’s concept boutique MaYarising and is one of several founders of Earthtone Outside.
“The problem is bigger than just the hostility we face outdoors,” she added. “This is just one example of what we face every day. [Earthtone Outside] is a way to raise awareness about race. Ultimately, all humans want to be seen by other humans and that’s what we want.”
In January, the group met for the first time, with funding and support made available by Heilman and the Montana Racial Equity Project. Since then, Earthtone Outside has hosted sledding and skiing events, and several Earthtone Inside social events.
After their first public appearance in April during the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s “Our Shared Place” symposium on recreation, where seven members shared their insights on recreation and race, Earthtone Outside hosted a summer kickoff party at Hyalite Pavilion on June 10.
Amid temperatures hovering in the 40s, and wet snow flying, 30 people turned out to hike and enjoy a barbecue.
“A group like this … it’s really needed and wanted,” said co-founder Frances Kim, who works in the Montana State University Center for American Indian and Rural Health Equity. “I think there’s definitely comfort knowing you have a community where you know you won’t have to face microaggressions. … I think that’s why this group has flourished in a short amount of time.
“I feel like this group has been really healing for us, so we can have difficult conversations about these really difficult things,” Kim added. “We’ve created this community that is welcoming and isn’t hypercompetitive and it gets people outside in any way. Being a part of this group has shown me that I can embrace my culture and heritage and reflect on what I can do to make this community better.”
Vasu Sojitra, a North Face ski athlete and adaptive sports director for Eagle Mount, added to this sentiment. He said that in order to become who he is today, he had to assimilate and lose some of his Indian heritage.
“I’m trying to gain that back through this community,” he said. “Groups like this will hopefully grow that personal identity and culture.”
In addition to creating a community for diverse outdoor enthusiasts, Earthtone Outside is seeking to change perspectives on what it means to be a person recreating outside.
David Samollow was adopted and grew up in a white household in Texas. He spent a lot of time with his family doing activities outdoors, but said that when he came to Bozeman, he realized other people with multicultural backgrounds didn’t have the outdoor opportunities that he had.
“Coming here, I realized that [white] people are into a lot of activities and they think they’re welcoming, but they weren’t aware of the issues people of color are facing,” he added.
Angelina Gonzalez-Aller, co-founder and health policy researcher for the RWJF Center for Health Policy at the University of New Mexico, expanded on that sentiment. “You can face prejudice on the trails, in the campgrounds, in REI,” she said, adding that retail clerks in outdoor gear stores can make assumptions that a person of color doesn’t have the necessary skills.
That said, she believes Earthtone Outside has a critical opportunity.
“Bozeman is a really special place for this kind of work,” she said, adding that MSU brings in diverse student demographics and there is a strong indigenous population present as well.
She went on to say that by instilling a love for the outdoors in people of color, the environment will gain new advocates as recreation serves as an entry point into conservation. “There’s so much to do,” she said. “There’s a lot of opportunity to make sure we keep these places around for everyone to enjoy.”
This summer, Earthtone Outside will host weekly hikes as well as cookouts, rock climbing events and more. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more, or check out the group on Instagram or Facebook.