Students scurry around the decrepit warehouse, pulling up the legs of their waterproof pants and zipping up splash jackets, strapping on life vests and organizing themselves into two river-rafting teams. This isn’t just a typical summer afternoon at cityWILD in Denver, Colorado. This is race day, when the kids will demonstrate their abilities on the water with speed and technical skill. They’ll have a three-mile stretch to strut their stuff, and the South Platte River is flowing abnormally high today — running at 2,320 cubic feet per second instead of the usual 800, following a week of steady rain and snowmelt.
Photo by Sonya Doctorian
Anticipation builds, prompting the program director Kevin Nicastro to issue reminders about sportsmanship. “We don’t normally do competitions like this. There will be people who win and people who lose today. So I want you to strategize how you want to win, and how you want to lose,” Nicastro tells the students, who don’t look like the typical whitewater rafters. Most are multi-ethnic and come from poor neighborhoods in northeast Denver where violent crime and gang-related activity are rampant. Since 1998, cityWILD has been getting these kids out of the concrete jungle and on camping, rock climbing, hiking, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and snowshoeing trips. The nonprofit recognizes that starting with youth is key because when kids play around in the outdoors they tend to carry this enthusiasm into adulthood.
Students with cityWILD had spent the month before their big May race learning how to raft the South Platte River, which flows through downtown Denver past homeless encampments, an REI outlet, an amusement park and Sports Authority Field at Mile High where the Broncos play. On race day, 18-year-old Tim Smith paddles a raft confidently through rapids. He joined cityWILD as a seventh grader and by the time he was 14 years old had achieved the status of a junior raft guide, meaning he could help lead excursions. Now he’s about 6-feet tall and a high school graduate with a firm handshake, and preparing to enter the US Army National Guard.
“Before I became a student here, I had no experience (with nature),” Smith tells me. “I went walking once in awhile with my grandma, but that wasn’t really hiking. I went way out with cityWILD to places with no city lights, no cars within a mile.” The organization also paid for him to attend a month-long National Outdoor Leadership School program in Wyoming.
Youth come to the organization primarily from school referrals, outreach at community events and word-of-mouth. These youth are marginalized, whether socially, culturally or behaviorally, some with tumultuous home lives, others who have survived violence. Most have never gone on a trip with their families, says cityWILD executive director Jes Ward. Over spring break, several students camped in Moab, Utah.
When engaged in outdoor recreation, a teenage boy of color like Smith doesn’t often see people who resemble him, and that’s even truer for teenaged girls of color. That’s because for as long as Americans have explored the mountains, forests, rivers or beaches to camp, swim, surf, and play, white people have dominated these activities.
Photo courtesy of Bay Area Wilderness Training
Camping and outdoor recreation emerged after World War II as a pastime of the white elite; poor people and minorities who toiled away in polluted cities and factories were too busy and couldn’t afford to join them, says Deserai Crow, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Plus, urban dwellers were often consumed with other worries such as jobs, crime, transportation and housing. African Americans, for instance, fled the rural South in search of jobs and less bigotry in northern cities.
Even today, about 70 percent of the youth in the United States, from ages 6 to 24, who engage in outdoor recreational activities are white, according to a recent report by the Outdoor Foundation. Closing this racial and economic “adventure gap” benefits not only the youth themselves, but also American conservation, says Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Kids who experience nature are likelier to value the Great Outdoors. “If people don’t see it, feel it, smell it, they’re not going to care about it,” King says. The natural resources department has several programs focused on youth engagement, but King isn’t confident they’re effectively attracting urban youth and minorities. “We tend to market to the same demographic that has always been our bread and butter — rural kids who have parents that hunt, fish, hike and camp,” he says.
James Edward Mills, who wrote the 2014 book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, coined the term “adventure gap” to parallel the more widely used achievement, gender and economic gaps. In his book, Mills chronicles Expedition Denali, a 2013 expedition by a group of African American men and women who attempted to scale Mount Denali in Alaska. “The whole point of Expedition Denali was to have the members come back to their respective communities to share their stories,” Mills says.
Mills, who is African American, says there’s no time to waste in closing the adventure gap. The Census Bureau projects that by 2044 the majority of the US population will be non-white. “What happens when a majority of the population has little-to-no relationship with the natural world?” Mill asks. “We can speculate that if too few people in our country care about the environment, voters will ultimately fail to enact legislation, allocate state and federal funding and elect officials with a vested interest in protecting it.”
A native of Los Angeles who now lives in Madison, Wisconsin, Mills says he was involved in one of the oldest Boy Scouts troops west of the Mississippi during his childhood. Today, he remains an avid fisherman, mountaineer, kayaker, and backcountry skier. Mills acknowledges his thesis is speculative and conservation’s future is much more complicated than simply ensuring that young minority race Americans go hiking.
The US’ first African American president has shown support for conservation and outdoor recreation by launching the America’s Great Outdoors initiative in 2010. (In August 2016, the National Park Service will commemorate its centennial, making this the ideal time to further its commitment to encourage diversity within its parks, through its Find Your Park campaign.)
Since Barack Obama took office, he has protected more than 260 million acres of public lands and waters, which is more than what any other president has done. Wilderness has also increased, growing from 704 areas to 756 areas, encompassing 108 million acres. In October 2014, Obama designated 346,177 acres of national forest land in California’s San Gabriel Mountains a national monument, permanently protecting the area against development and mining. The mountains are located in Los Angeles County, which has the highest poverty rate in the state and limited options for disadvantaged youth to enjoy the outdoors. One of the goals in making the site a monument is to improve citizens’ access to the outdoors. But, according to the Outdoor Foundation report, accessibility isn’t as the main deterrent to spending time outside. The main deterrents are lack of time and interest.
The first step in getting youth of any economic or ethnic background interested in nature can be simple: Introduce them to it, says Eric Hjelstron, a superintendent with California State Parks. “In my experience, once a person has a positive introduction to the outdoors, Mother Nature takes over from there.”
Being out in nature has other benefits, — for people of all ages — besides the well being of outdoor spaces. Playing outside benefits cardiovascular and muscular fitness, improves the immune system and alleviates stress, says Andrew Lepp, assistant professor of recreation and park management at Kent State University. “It’s unfortunate, but I do think there is a sentiment, particularly among urban African-Americans, that the so-called ‘great outdoors’ is a white space and that outdoor recreation is an activity identified with whiteness,” Lepp says. “Outdoor recreation doesn’t discriminate. It provides benefits for everyone.”
In February 2015, Obama’s administration launched the “Every Kid in a Park” initiative, providing fourth-grade students and their families with a free pass to all national parks, federal lands and waters for a year. Considering the entrance fee to Rocky Mountain National Park, which is near Denver, costs $20, it’s not hard to see how a free pass could help low-income kids, like cityWILD students, spend time outdoors.
Back at the cityWILD race, Nicastro directs his paddlers over to a shoreline to dump out water accumulated in the raft. The light drizzle has cleared and the sun now shines overhead. Nicastro points to trash littering the river’s edge. He sometimes has to remind the kids that even though their outdoor expeditions should be fun, they’re also about learning appreciation and responsibility for the outdoors. “The kids don’t like walking through this,” he tells me, motioning to the garbage. “I say, ‘Well, clean it up.’”