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Closing the nature gap: Hiker aims to make outdoors more inclusive

Nelson
Posted at 12:54 PM, Apr 27, 2022
and last updated 2022-04-27 20:20:03-04

In the mountains of Colorado on a gorgeous spring day when snow is melting off the trees, Nelson Holland takes us up one of his favorite trails. Hiking is his passion and there's a reason he does it multiple times per week.

"Tranquility, peace, serenity, this like stillness that you get right now," Holland said. "And then the views that will get up top."

He says the views are more than worth it.

"It's become an addiction," Holland said. "Can't live without it."

It's the journey that keeps him coming back.

"I've seen moose, eagles, elk, ferrets, badgers, foxes, coyotes," Holland said. "I mean, add a bunch of different bird species that I can't even think to describe right now."

His goal is to make the outdoors more inclusive to Black and brown communities. He hasn't been an avid hiker all his life. He grew up in Long Island, New York. It wasn't until he moved to Colorado in 20-14 that he discovered his love for hiking.

"Part of it is that, you know, my parents didn't do it," Holland said. "Like they weren't outdoors as much. So it's just something that's foreign to me. And since the representation wasn't there, I didn't have, you know, like somebody that looked like me that was doing this. I didn't know if I could even do it."

There's a nature gap in the U.S.

University of Vermont professor of sociology Dan Krymkowski has been researching cultural inequality and the underrepresentation of African Americans in outdoor recreation. He recently published a book about it titled The Color of Culture.

"When a space develops as a white space, even if there isn't a particular legal regulation that prohibits members of one group from being there, you just may not feel welcome," Krymkowski said.

According to Krymkowski, systemic racism is the reason for this.

"By systemic racism, I mean any inequality between racial groups that is a result of current or past discrimination," Krymkowski said. "Why are there such big differences in income and wealth between African Americans and whites? Well, that has to do with the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and discrimination."

He says these outdoor activities often aren't free. Skiing is especially expensive, but even hiking, something that you would think doesn't cost a dime, you need to buy gear like hiking shoes and water bottles. You also need to drive there.

"A lot of times you have to drive through predominantly white and rural areas," Krymkowski said. "And African Americans have expressed fear about driving through those areas."

Krymkowski says another researcher learned something else.

"In many cases, nature has come to be seen as negative by African Americans," Krymkowski said. "This has to do with the circumstances under which they were brought to the United States to work in rural areas, in bondage, and also to their experiences later on in the woods, in which there were many, many lynchings from the 19th century into the 20th century."

However, Holland is determined to make the outdoors more inclusive. He has a growing presence on social media. His name is @fatblackandgettinit

"I do get some negative comments like some like body-shaming comments and some people don't like my name and definitely the racist do come to my page from time and time again," Holland said. "But the overwhelming comments are super positive and uplifting."

He's outside to send the message that people of all races, sizes and abilities can enjoy the outdoors.

"Mother Nature has become my everything, my best friend, my hiking buddy, my therapist," Holland said. "She's the cheapest therapist I know."