This past spring, Christian Cooper’s name went viral: He, a Black man, was bird-watching in New York City’s Central Park when he saw a dog off-leash. He asked its owner, a white woman, to put a leash on the pup, but she refused—and then called the police claiming she was being threatened by an African American man.
For some Americans, the scene was a shock—unfamiliar and confusing. For others, it was yet another example of the racism that pervades the experiences of people of color in outdoor spaces. “I personally saw myself through the lens of [Cooper’s] cell phone,” says Juan Pérez Sáez, energy and climate campaign manager at the Wilderness Society, a national public lands conservation nonprofit. “If I told you how many times I’ve been on the trail in Colorado and I have not felt safe, and I know the reason why I don’t feel safe is directly related to fact that I am going through a space that historically, traditionally, and systemically has been created for people that don’t necessarily look like I look…”
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Cooper’s experience got Pérez Sáez and others thinking about the fact that there isn’t anywhere to track the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) on public lands. It seemed like a project well-suited to Next 100 Colorado, the local arm of the Next 100 Coalition, a national alliance of POC-led civil rights, environmental justice, conservation, and community organizations focused on making the outdoors more diverse, equitable, and inclusive.
In late September, Next 100 Colorado (of which Pérez Sáez is a member) launched the Incident Reporting Pilot Project, an effort to collect stories—positive and negative and in-between—from BIPOC about their time spent in Colorado’s outdoors.
“When we say these places are for all, are they really for all? And if they’re not, how are we going to address that?” asks Teresa Martinez, executive director of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, a Next 100 member. “This [the Pilot Project] is really an anecdotal way of elevating the important conversation we need to have.” Colorado, she notes, is in a position to lead this important—and long overdue—discussion.
The initiative utilizes an online form that asks individuals to describe what happened and where and how the experience might influence future visits; answers can be submitted anonymously.
The goal is to better understand how people of color are experiencing our open spaces and start an ongoing dialogue with change-makers to ensure these lands are inviting and safe for recreationists from all backgrounds. “This form and this tool are helping us understand how we can better have these conversations and unpack these layers,” Martinez says. “We need to start acknowledging that sometimes it’s not all perfect for everybody out there…Something in your mind [may be] benign, but for some person’s first time out there, it’s life-alerting.”
She adds: “When you come with privilege, you don’t always recognize that. When you come from where we come from, it’s always there; it’s always in the back of your mind.”
These situations aren’t unique to Colorado. Stories about racism in the outdoors have been publicized from Missouri to Maine. Martinez, Pérez Sáez, and another project leader, Tracy Coppola, Colorado program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, have all experienced instances where they didn’t feel safe while recreating—like a park ranger subtly putting his hand on his pistol as they drove by or lying in a tent and realizing they were the only POC at the campsite. Recently, Pérez Sáez and his husband were going dispersed camping with a group of friends—all of whom are straight. Their buddies decided it would be fun to hang a rainbow flag to alert Pérez Sáez to their exact location. He was certain it would cause problems. Sure enough, some folks on a four-wheeler swore at the group, choking them with dust circles before driving away. “It happens more often that you might think,” Pérez Sáez says.
“There’s not really an understanding of BIPOC experiences on public lands that there should be,” Coppola says. “[We want to] capture that and evaluate trends and continue this real dialogue. Long-term, it would be great to have policy change… Very few people are talking about this and feeling like they can share their experiences in a safe forum.”
With the Incident Reporting effort, Next 100 aims to break open the conversation and curtail some of those common tensions—using individual stories, rather than just statistics, to change future behavior and policies.
“There are a lot of assumptions that are made: People of color don’t like to go outdoors. We don’t really recreate. I think this will help with trying to peel that back,” Coppola adds. “Systematic exclusions—that is a real thing, an ongoing thing. There’s a lot of not seeing yourself represented by staff that’s at the National Park Service or in Colorado Parks & Wildlife, for example.” (More than 80 percent of NPS’s permanent and temporary employees are white.)
But it’s not all grim. Next 100 and its members recognize there’s a lot to celebrate about our public lands. The project isn’t just about collecting the bad—respondents are also invited to share enjoyable, accepting, and purely fun anecdotes. Pérez Sáez had a stressful moment at that campsite, but on another summer day he saw five moose and jumped into an alpine lake. He had fun in a place he loves, a place he’s built his career around. Creating welcoming outdoor spaces for all is a win-win, he says: It gets more people outside—and the more people who fall in love with the land means, ideally, a larger and more diverse coalition who will work to protect it for future generations.
To contribute to the pilot project, fill out the Incident Reporting Form here.