I didn’t expect to see anyone atop the mountain, a local summit I knew to be infrequently visited. But there was Yolanda Mason, smiling at me despite my spoiling her solitude.
If you come across Yolanda on the trail, that wide and toothy smile will strike you. She calls it her “outdoor smile,” and she shares it with everyone she passes.
Something else might strike you. In these hills dominated by white people, Yolanda is black.
So yes, that factored into my surprise on the mountain that day. I shared this with her later, feeling conflicted, and she agreed, somewhat reluctantly, to join me on a hike to discuss what was indeed an issue in her mind.
She didn’t want to come off like some role model – though her wilderness knowledge is enviable, as is her ability to bushwack through canyons and scale 100-foot ice slabs. She didn’t want to overstate the lack of diversity across Colorado Springs’ trails and open spaces – look at Census data estimating African Americans make up 6.7 percent of the city’s population, and you’re on to the answer, she said.
Yolanda didn’t want to sound as if she had the answers. She only knows that she doesn’t see anyone like her on the trail, and something’s wrong with that.
She shrugged. “The more we read about different kinds of people out here, maybe that empowers others to be curious.”
So we hiked Section 16, stopping here and there to enjoy the view, and Yolanda had to stop to greet the dogs and compliment people, including one with the shirt reading: “It’s a good day to have a good day.”
As much as Yolanda likes the region’s secluded places, “I enjoy interacting,” she said. “Plus, it also lets people know (I’m here). Especially when I hike alone, I always say hello. Because then if I don’t come home, they’ll say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember meeting that black woman!'”
Among groups surveyed by the Outdoor Industry Association, African Americans are the least active outside. White recreation in the U.S. is also significantly higher than that of Hispanics and Asians, the association found. And that’s alarming, considering that people of color under age 18 in this country are expected to outnumber their white peers next year. Whites overall will become the minority in 2044, Census data shows.
“Who’ll be around to fight for these open spaces if we aren’t connecting to the land now?” asked Teresa Baker, a California-based advocate bringing down barriers to the outdoors for minorities, as are nonprofits such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors
Baker founded the African American Nature and Parks Experience with the realization that came to her in 2013: During regular visits to Yosemite, she saw no one like her. Three years later, as part of its centennial celebration, the National Park Service heeded the call of that organization by announcing an initiative to become more inclusive.
Officials said record visitation was not reflecting the country’s demographics, and they recognized ranger staffs as overwhelmingly white – critical, Baker said, as diverse workers could help people of color feel comfortable in places where it’s easy for them to feel they don’t fit in.
Not only should federal land managers take a hard look at their staffs, Baker said. For their majorly or totally white leadership, she’s constantly reaching out to community organizations claiming to connect locals with the outdoors. Those in the Springs should be on her list.
But kudos to city parks for its “Out the Door!” project aimed at underserved neighborhoods. The project was awarded a $1.3 million grant late last year to improve amenities on the city’s southeast side.
Look there if you don’t believe minority residents appreciate the fresh air and sunshine. Randi Hitchcock would ask: “Have you been to Prospect Lake?” Every summer on the water, her UpaDowna nonprofit introduces African American and Hispanic families to stand-up paddle boarding.
Hitchcock attended a conversation on diversity, or lack thereof, at Denver’s Outdoor Retailer, the premier trade show I also attended in January, adding to the white, bearded masses. The industry admitted its mistake, its overly white social media and brochures.
Then there are other publications, such as this one, featuring outdoor subjects who tend to look pretty similar, too.
“I don’t believe that I’m unique,” Yolanda told me, shrugging again, allowing for photographs because, though they made her uncomfortable, she knew they were important.
She stopped again to say hello to another hiker, a fellow member of the Colorado Mountain Club who couldn’t recall Yolanda’s name. But she looked familiar. She’s one of the two active black women in the club’s local chapter, so of course she looked familiar. That’s how it goes, Yolanda said.
She’s the black woman mountaineer, because society makes it tough to be the mountaineer who happens to be a black woman. She carries the reputation with that “outdoor smile.”
“You’ve seen most of the people I talk to, they’re smiling because they’re outside,” she said. “So why not be outside?”
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