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Black and Outside in Columbus

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Black and Outside in ColumbusNicole Jackson birding near Alum Creek — Photo by Lauren Garms.
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Nicole Jackson grew up in Cleveland where, as a child, she didn’t have many options to go outdoors and connect with nature. Much of her time was spent inside watching television, usually nature programs like National Geographic and Kratts’ Creatures.

Jackson went on to study environment and natural resources at the Ohio State University with the intention of becoming an animal doctor. She eventually turned her attention toward environmental education. Participating in an undergraduate research study on bird migration made her into a passionate bird watcher, or “birder.”

Bird watching is not an uncommon hobby. Over the first weekend of October, Columbus hosted the American Birding Expo at Grange Insurance Audubon Center, an event Jackson attended. But while birding may seem like an innocuous hobby, available to anyone with a staggering amount of patience, there’s a significant difference between birding as a white person and birding (or hiking, biking, walking or doing anything outside) while black.

The stereotype that black people don’t participate in outdoor activities is widely accepted as fact. In September, Burning Man founder Larry Harvey explained away questions about the festival’s lack of diversity by saying, “I don’t think black folks like to camp as much as white folks.”

As any thinking person might suspect, that stereotype is false. Plenty of black people enjoy the outdoors. But as with many things, being black and outside comes with slightly more baggage. Outside is where slavery happened. Outside is where lynchings happen. Outside is where unarmed black people are shot.

“It’s scary now,” says Jackson. “I have to think about my life. It could be life or death. To have those thoughts in the back of your mind that really, really does make the situation depressing and sad and frustrating. Because you want to be able to enjoy those things but you have to think about your life and how it’s going to be affected. And if you say the wrong thing, things could change within a split second. So that’s become a big thing now and I feel like that’s gonna be a major factor in black families in particular wanting to do more outdoor activities with their kids.”

Jackson points to the work of Dr. J. Drew Lanham, an ecology professor at Clemson University, who actually came up with “rules” for black bird watchers, which include things like “Don’t bird in a hoodie” and “Nocturnal birding is a no-no.”

“He created these guidelines to show people, these are the things we have to think about versus white people,” says Jackson. “They can go out, be up as early as two or three in the morning and do those things and be fine with it and not have to answer to anybody. But us, it’s like, ‘What are you doing with those binoculars? Why are you in the bushes? What are you looking for?’ That’s the stuff that’s happening nowadays, and it’s mind boggling because we should be able to do these things together.”

In addition to possibly feeling uncomfortable or unsafe going into the outdoors, African Americans might also be missing out on the health benefits that come from outdoor recreation.

“I feel like we have a lot of health issues that aren’t addressed as African Americans. It’s not really talked about within the community,” says Jackson. “We don’t really have those conversations publicly or even within our families…So to be able to get that information out to people and let them know that this does impact your health, whether it be from going to a famers’ market and getting fresh fruit or vegetables and that improving your health, or walking or biking, all that affects your health in some way.”

With her fierce interest in nature, environmental education and disrupting the stereotypes about what she ought to be into as a black woman, maybe it was natural that Jackson should become the local leader for Outdoor Afro. Founded in 2009 by Rue Mapp, Outdoor Afro is a national organization “where black people and nature meet.” Local chapters take anyone who is interested out hiking, biking, climbing, birding, apple picking or really just anything to do with being outside.

For a typical Outdoor Afro outing, Jackson would lead about 10 people on trips to Alum Creek trail, Nelson Park, the Scioto Audubon, Wolfe Park and to Cuyahoga Valley National Park.

“That was really interesting because a lot of people don’t realize that we have a national park in Ohio.”

Jackson says Columbus is a good city for being outdoors, with parks scattered throughout the city and easy access to hiking and biking trails.

“In Cleveland, unless you’re living in the suburbs, you’re not going to be thinking about doing stuff outdoors,” says Jackson.

Jackson’s Columbus Outdoor Afro chapter was the first and only one in Ohio. She became an Outdoor Afro leader in 2014 as part of a yearlong fellowship, just as the national conversation was shifting toward a closer examination of police violence against black people.

“During that time there was a lot of frustration, hopelessness, people scared, people confused, people feeling hurt and not heard,” says Jackson. “So with Outdoor Afro, they had started these Healing Hikes where people could just go out, do these hikes but also have these conversations of what their feelings were in terms of these events happening throughout that time.”

Jackson says the people on the Healing Hikes talked about the National Park system and how it deals with diverse communities, the Civil Rights movement and the national protests against police brutality.

“We were still including the environment part,” says Jackson of the Healing Hikes, “but we knew people were hurting at the same time, so how do we get people to heal and be able to feel comfortable through nature, walking, biking, getting people together outside and having these…spiritual connections to nature to help them kind of figure out the craziness that was going on in the world?”

Nicole Jackson birding near Alum Creek — Photo by Lauren Garms.

Nicole Jackson birding near Alum Creek — Photo by Lauren Garms.

Jackson pointed out that just as nature is not just a white thing, her chapter of Outdoor Afro “doesn’t just have to be a black thing.”

“People see the logo and it says ‘where black people and nature meet’ and they just assume ‘Oh this a black organization.’ But we’re not excluding anybody, it’s all inclusive, anybody can come to these outings,” says Jackson. “Take all that away, we’re here to hike, bird, whatever, we don’t need to make this big deal about being outdoors, we just want everybody to be included in those experiences. So I think that’s the biggest misconception with Outdoor Afro.”

She added that African Americans are, “the group we want to get to the most because those are the groups that are affected as far as, ‘Yeah we don’t want to do that, that’s a white people thing.’ No, it shouldn’t be that way.”

Jackson is no longer the Columbus Outdoor Afro leader since her fellowship ended, but she still connects people to the organization and to other chapters if they’re travelling. She remains extraordinarily active in the community, in nature and recreation groups and, of course, with her birding. Approaching Jackson while she’s out in nature can result in a “10 minute conversation” about different bird species.

“I’m more than happy to have those conversations with them and just let them know that I’m just like anybody else who has a hobby and I’m interested in sharing that knowledge as much as possible.”

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