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Episode 6: Celebrating Blackness in the Outdoors | Earl B. Hunter Jr., founder of Black Folks Camp Too

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On a road trip with his son, Earl B. Hunter Jr. crossed North America, visited 49 different campgrounds and ran into exactly one other Black family. The journey led Hunter to found Black Folks Camp Too, to help Black outdoor enthusiasts begin their journeys. Now, he joins host Kristin Hostetter for a conversation about his business, his battle with COVID and his outlook on life—and stay tuned for a musical surprise!

Watch the edited video interview here.

Read the Earl B. Hunter Jr. transcript

Note: Straight Talk is produced as a video and podcast and is designed to be watched or heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that’s not on the page. Transcripts are generated speech recognition software and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Kristin Hostetter: I’m Kristin Hostetter and you’re listening to the Straight Talk podcast by Outside Business Journal. I’ve had a couple extra cups of coffee today because I know I’m going to need it to match the energy level of today’s guest, Earl B. Hunter Jr. of Black Folks Camp Too. Earl is a force to be reckoned with. And he believes that his company can be the bridge between the Black community and the outdoor businesses that want to engage with them. I’m really excited to welcome Earl to the show.

Earl, how are you today? 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: I am fantastic Kristin.  It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Here over in the Eastern part of the country in North Carolina. The weather is amazing and I look forward to having our amazing conversation. 

Kristin Hostetter: Awesome. So am I. So let’s start off by telling our audience in case they’ve been living under a rock, what is Black Folks Camp Too? And how did it come to be? 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: So Black Folks Camp Too is an amazing, delightful company. Our company started because I was actually an executive, one of the only Black executives in the RV industry, which is a $144 billion industry. And I found myself really driving through that industry, understanding the industry, understanding the lifestyle and not seeing a lot of Black folks really in the industry or in the lifestyle period.

And my job is not to harp on the issues. As a person, my job is to talk about the opportunities and I thought it was an amazing opportunity to start to ask the questions, why, to ask the questions where, what, and when, and so I left my post as the vice president of sales at an outdoor company in North Carolina.

And I started Black Folks Camp Too in 2019 at the Outdoor Economy Conference in Asheville. And our company is amazing because Black Folks Camp Too was not created just to get Black folks to go camping with Black folks. We want to get Black folks to go camping and enjoy lifestyle with any and everyone. We don’t care who we camp with as long as there are some Black folks around the campfire.

And so our company is a marketing consultant firm that is exciting and amazing, but we stand in the gap for the industry and also the consumer. So we remove fear, generational fear, add knowledge, and invite more Black folks to enjoy the outdoors. We also work with the industry to help them remove fear of wanting to advertise and to seek the Black folks in the outdoors.

We help add knowledge to them. And we also invite them to invite more Black folks to enjoy the outdoors. So it seems like we’re right in the middle of the bridge to bring the two together. That’s who we are. 

Kristin Hostetter: I love it. And to be clear, Black Folks Camp Too is not a nonprofit organization, right?  You’re a businessman and you’re in business. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: Absolutely. We are not in non-production. As a matter of fact, when I started our company, I wanted to start our company as a dot-com, a for-profit business. I didn’t want the all the industry, folks that I knew, particularly RV industry, folks, and retailers that I’d seen at outdoor retailers, didn’t want them to feel like I was coming to them, asking them for somethin. Our job as a company is to show them that we can help you do the very things that you do every day, which is do business with folks, right? It’s an ROI, which means return on investment to some folks. But for us it means return on inclusion, right?

Because the more folks we get included into the outdoor industry, particularly Black folks, the more of the bottom line that those companies will see in regards to helping us drive the business, to get more Black folks in the outdoors. And again, when I’m having these conversation with with the CEOs of some of the larger companies that we’ve been dealing with, or the States that we’ve been dealing with, or the counties and things of that nature, listen, this is a very serious situation, right?

We’re really helping two birds, right? We’re helping two birds with a ton of hands fly, right? We’re really doing an amazing thing. We’re getting people who have really never explored the outdoors to explore the outdoors. And we’re getting those same folks to explore the outdoors, using the equipment that the industry actually sells. This is like a no brainer, and it should be.

Kristin Hostetter: So Earl, we were so excited to do a feature story about you in our most recent magazine. And Sarah Ali wrote an incredible profile. And you took her camping– her first time ever camping, which is exactly what we were just talking about.

It was like a match made in heaven. And nd so she wrote about this experience, this camping experience with you, and that’s basically what Black Folks Camp Too is all about. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: Listen, let me tell you what’s so  exciting about that? Number one, thank you for the piece. It was very well done.

It was classy, but it was fun, but it was dope. And it had this rad feeling about it that particularly being in the magazine, but also Sahra, when she wrote it, she immersed herself into the story. Because she was in it, she did something that a lot of Black folks are going to read and feel like they were there. And so my job as a person, more than just a company, my job as a person was to show that young lady that the outdoors is fun and it’s exciting and it’s good for her health. It’s good for her mind . It’s good for her body is good for her soul. When she was standing on the mountain, even before she got there, when she was actually preparing for this, I can see it in her eyes that she had never been camping before and looked like it’s the feeling that I was having, what I had never been backpacking before.

And so to see her get immersed into this exciting adventure to see her backpack and to get on top of that mountain and see those stars and see that campfire, it was amazing. 

Kristin Hostetter: Because, and she wrote about this in the piece, there’s a real difference between going on a hike, like a dayhike or a walk which Sahra has done plenty of, and then actually  putting everything on your back and hiking into the wilderness, where there’s no buildings and no lights and no sounds and camping out. There’s something  really intense and powerful that happens when you remove yourself from the everyday like that.

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: That’s life. That’s what that was. That was life. We do this every day. Everybody in the world. We either leave our homes and now we’re in our home. But every day we thrive. We put our problems, we put our issues, we put all those things on our back every single day.

We put them in our heart. We do everything we need to do with our families. And we set out to have an amazing day, or we set out to have an amazing time. At least I hope people set out to have a positive, amazing day. And to see her put her coffee cup in her pack, and put her water bottle in, and make sure her tent was set and her sleeping bag was set. What I was explaining to her, this is life. And these are the things that we do. I said to her many times when we were going in and backpacking up the mountain. Listen, you’re going to go through something to get to something. She wanted to camp. She wanted to feel that warmth from the blaze.

She wanted to be on top of the mountain. You’re going to have to do that. You’re going to have to go through something. And she did it. And as we were traveling down the mountain is what I love the most.  When I saw her have that moment of I did it and I made it and here I am, I love that.

Kristin Hostetter: So you stole my thunder here because I was going to ask you about that favorite phrase of yours. People have told me that’s one of your favorite phrases. You have to go through something to get through something. And I love that because it can apply to anything, right?

Like it can apply to a grueling, climb up a mountain or getting stuck in a traffic jam or it can apply to a personal crisis. What are you going through right now? And what are you getting through right now? 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.:  immediately what I’ve gone through in the last couple of weeks, I actually went through a battle with COVID. COVID was was tough for me .

I am a 45 year old, Black male, very healthy. I’ve backpacked hundreds of miles in the last year. Healthy as an ox. I don’t have any underlying health issues. And COVID attacked me as if I did have underlying health issues or issues that the medical professionals have said that would cause me to be in the situation I was in. And I found myself fighting for my life. I find myself actually thinking that I wasn’t going to live one of the days. And so I can remember honestly, fighting for my life. I tell folks all the time, cause I’m such a positive individual. All my friends know me as the guy who’s excited about life and excited about everything.

I had to go through something. I had to go through something to get to something, right? And to be frank with you, Kristin, I don’t want to, as a survivor of COVID, I don’t want to sound like I don’t want to make other folks who’s family members who didn’t survive COVID feel bad.

But I got to tell you something. I fought for my life, and I fought for my life for nine days. And what was so beautiful about fighting for your life is when you make it over, you can live this life and enjoy it. It was just like us fighting to get more Black folks in the outdoors. This is not easy.

This is hard work, right? This is very hard work. 

Kristin Hostetter: I’m so sorry that you went through that. I did not know that until you just said it and thank God you’re safe and sound and healthy and made it through.  

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: Listen, I’m a happy man, right? I’m a  “Good Times” kid.

I grew up in the bricks, I grew up in the hood, man. I grew up in a place where most folks are like, you’re not gonna make it out of there. But now I live a Huxtable lifestyle, so I understand both sides of the equation. And if you don’t know what Good Times is, the show, you should go to YouTube and look at it.

Cause it’s a pretty dope show about an amazing family, right? They’re living in an area that is, they’re trying to make it, right? You think about the Huxtables, those are the folks who made it right in regards to, from a financial perspective, from an education perspective and  just showing the difference in Black families.

Neither one of them are better than the other. They just were going through what they were going through. And so in regards to the outdoors, Kristin, we as a company we thrive every day to work with our clients, to work with Black folks, work with anybody so they can see that the outdoors is a place where we all need to be, so we can enjoy nature.

Kristin Hostetter: I used to love that show when I was a kid. I totally remember you remember that show. I loved it.

So Earl, I’ve heard this about you from several sources now that hiking with you requires a major adjustment in terms of expectations of miles covered because you literally stop and talk to every single person that you meet along the trail. Is that accurate?

Earl B. Hunter Jr.:  I try to. The reason why I do that is because I saw so many people looking at me, looking at me, like particularly white folks looking at me like, Oh man, we see somebody different out here. And I wanted to answer their questions and their curiosity before they went off and continued  their hiking.

I wanted to hear from the person’s mouth. Why am I out here? So I would tell them, and I would tell them all about our company. I would tell him what we were doing.  I would tell them how excited I am to be out here. And I would also give them a nugget that I don’t think they really even thought they would hear.

 And the other thing is that I was really learning. Really understanding. So why did you have that backpack? Why don’t you have that type backpack? From a business perspective, I was wondering, why are you wearing those shoes, right? Why are you wearing those boots? Are those boots comfortable? So, I’m I was actually getting data in a lot of places. But I really, as you can see, I love talking, I love talking. I love seeing people have fun , and I know for most of the white folks that we saw out on the trail, I know I may have been the only Black person that they had ever seen on the trail. And I wanted them to know that more are coming. And I needed them to know that when we come, I want you to make us feel just as warm and fuzzy as I felt having that conversation with you. Simple as that. And so that’s my style.

Kristin Hostetter: I love it. Okay. Next question. You sent me this iron-on campfire patch in the mail last week, which is really central and important to Black Folks Camp Too. Can you tell me what this is and what this represents and what it means to you. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: Kristin,  in your hand, you have one of the most powerful pieces of how we’re going to increase diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. The most powerful piece that I believe is amazing. That is the unity blaze, right? The unity blaze is the campfire from our logo, which is Black Folks Camp Too. When you take that logo, when you take that campfire out, it becomes the unity blaze, which means treat everyone, everywhere equally.

It doesn’t matter your race, your gender, or your age. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, where you’re going, or where you are. We believe that the more folks that treat everyone everywhere, equally, particularly in the outdoors, we’re going to find that the very same people, the very folks that have not enjoyed the outdoors, right, the very people that do not don’t know anything about nature? Those folks are going to see this amazing blaze, which is the unity blaze patch and the unity blaze sticker. And they’re going to want to have those conversations. They’re going to want to engage with one another. They’re going to want to,  when they’re on the trail, when they’re backpacking, when they’re at campgrounds, feeling like, Hey, just because  we look different, that don’t mean we can’t have conversation. And by the way, I’ve had some amazing conversations with folks when I’ve been camping in the outdoors, but there are some folks that have not even explored this. And one of the reasons why they haven’t is because they feel like there’s some fear in there.

We want to make sure that folks are fearless and we want them to don and to wear this. And we want them to be able to tell folks, this tells folks, I treat everyone, everywhere equally. And if there’s somebody out there that says “I don’t need a sign to tell everybody that I treat everyone equally. I do that anyway.” Then you won’t have a problem wearing the patch then! Simple as that. We have RV dealers that fly the flag. We have RV dealers out there flying the flag of the unity blaze. And so it is amazing. 

Kristin Hostetter: So where are people going to see the unity blaze? 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: Yeah, you’re going to see the unity blaze everywhere.

So we have folks, in the outdoors, who have folks purchased a unity blaze, putting on their water bottles. We have companies out there like Granite Gear who partnered with us to don the unity blaze on their backpacks. We have companies out there that are going to have our unity blaze in some cool places that I really can’t talk about right now, because we’re going to be launching this thing. The unity blaze is going to be everywhere.  Cause by the way, listen, check this out.

Why wouldn’t you want to treat everyone, everywhere equally. And for the people that feel like I don’t want to treat everyone, everywhere equally. We don’t really want to be dealing with you! It’s simple as that. You’re going to become the anomaly in the play, where we’re wanting to make sure that people feel safe, they feel excited, and they feel like they can go into the outdoors and have an amazing time and be able to have conversations with the people that are already out there.

Kristin Hostetter: Gotcha. Earl, so we’re recording thi,s by the way, in the second week of Black History Month, which is important. So a lot of our audience is brands out there, stakeholders in outdoor brands, are trying to be more inclusive and promote diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors. And so I want to be really clear about the opportunity that you’re presenting with this unity blaze. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Granite Gear has partnered with you to put this blaze on several of their products to raise awareness about all of the things that we’re speaking about. But also do you get a kickback? Do you get a part of the profit? 

Because that’s a really important part of  your business, right?  

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: Yes,,and let me say this first, because this is very important.

Black Folks Camp Too, Earl B Hunter Jr., and our staff and our team. We’re not the pioneers of getting Black folks or encouraging inclusion in the outdoors. There are a lot of folks before us that have done an amazing job, right? There are a lot of people out there still doing an amazing job. And then not just for Black folks, but for Spanish folks, for Asian folks, for Indian folks, for all folks out in the outdoors.

But we also believe that in order to push the needle and to drive it, we have to have more folks understanding and learning faster. So the unity blaze proceeds, what we’re using those dollars for is to create our digital education initiative. We want more people. We have to create some amazing content for folks to see what it means to be in the outdoors, what it means to wear that gear, what it means to have the right type of gear when you’re trying to backpack 20 miles in the elements of the world. So those dollars are being used to make sure that we are able to create the content, create the copy, and actually not just on the creative, but to push it out there to social media to all spaces, to make sure that people get it. 

Kristin Hostetter: Yeah, sure. In case people don’t know, it does cost money to create content and it does cost money to push that content out. I can definitely attest to that. So again, just to be super clear to our audience here, If you believe in these things that Earl is talking about and I think we know that for so many companies in the outdoor industry, diversity is top of mind. If you believe in this, then reach out to Earl and talk to him about partnering with him, to get the unity blaze on your products. That’s a really tangible way to give back, to lean into your diversity efforts.

And if you’re a retail shop, reach out to Earl and get a sticker to put on your door and start encouraging these conversations with your customers who walk in. These are real, tangible things that the industry can be doing to support you and support what you’re talking about. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.:  I tell people all the time, listen, I’ve been a keynote speaker at a lot of DEI meetings. I’ve been on every podcast you can think of. And there again, there are a lot of people out there. Again, there are a lot of Black folks right now, I’m talking about working hard in the trenches and have worked hard in the trenches. To really drive the message of DEI diversity equity and inclusion.

But I gotta tell, a lot of the folks have walked away not knowing what to do. And they’re just asking the question: what should I do? And they really have a lot of folks told them what they should do. And then some folks have told them what they should do. And it seemed like it’s too hard for them to do. This, it’s pretty easy to do. This is easy to do. We wanted to make it easy for everyone, not just businesses. And we wanted to make it easy for everyone, not just white folks or Black folks or Latino folks or green folks, yellow folks, orange folks, everybody can do this. And we believe that we’re going to change the world.

Kristin Hostetter: So Earl, there’s also an opportunity for state tourism offices to reach out  to you and work with you on engaging more Black people in outdoor travel, too. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: That’s one of our biggest models that we have as a company. I want to give a huge shout out to my home state, which is South Carolina. I was born and raised in South Carolina, and we all know, particularly in the South, particularly South Carolina, we had a hard time making sure that Black folks felt comfortable in the state because of the history and things of that nature.

But I got to tell you, South Carolina state parks really stepped up and they wanted to really shine that light, to say, look. We know we haven’t done a good job in the past. We’ve tried and we really want to get more Black folks and people of color out to our state parks. And we’ve tried to do that.

And now we want it to reach out to someone. They reached out to us as a company, and we’re doing that. We’re going to have some data here, hopefully in the next six months to really show what we’ve been doing. But when South Carolina came on, board, North Carolina came on board. Now we have Virginia and places of that nature that have reached out to us and say, look: We want to invite more Black folks and more people of color to our state parks as well, to our counties, to our city’s tourism, all of that.

And we think it’s amazing because a lot of times, a lot of companies and a lot of states, they don’t want to say the wrong things. But I’m telling them, look, we got to do something, right? And we have the right wording for you. This is not pandering. This is inviting and we’re going to get it done.

And I think it’s amazing that we’re working with those groups. 

Kristin Hostetter: Great. And so many states too, these days, have these outdoor business alliances and they’re galvanizing around the outdoors. So hopefully that creates lots more opportunities. Sounds like you got a good foot on the ground down in the Southeast, but obviously it’s a big country. So hopefully some of these other states will start reaching out to you as well. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: And they will and they’re probably working with some other groups out there. I hope they are working with some other groups.  helping them do this. And again, you know that we’re in this together. This is unity. We’re in this together, right? 

Kristin Hostetter: So, Earl you’re obviously a big voice, you’ve said it:  you’re loud and proud and you’re beating the drum and pushing your message out.  But you’re also really humble. And so I wanted to ask you, whose shoulders do you stand on here? Who’s gotten you to  where you are now. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: You know, I tell folks all the time, growing up as a good times kid, man, I’ve had a lot of people to help me. That’s why I honestly, I don’t like the term “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”

We all need help. No matter who you are, whether a no-naire or a billionaire, everybody needs help, and particularly in this work that we’re doing in regards to encouraging more people of color, more diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. I just want to say that there are a lot of folks before me, right, Kristin? There are a lot of people, a lot of women, a lot of men, a lot of folks who identify with whatever agenda they may, whatever age they are, they have done some amazing work. Folks have been writing books about getting Black folks in the outdoors of people of color in the outdoors. Folks have started pledges, folks have started organizations all around the country, right?

People have been talking about climate change, environmental efforts. They have been focusing on rangers in the outdoors. Listen, these folks have hard work to do. They have hard things on their shoulders. We don’t know what they’ve been dealing with in the background, as they try to get more Black folks and more people of color, more Latinos and more Asians,  more anyone that doesn’t look like the folks that are out in the outdoors right now to enjoy the outdoors.

And I just want to say thank you to those folks, right? I want to say, thank you. And my job is to help drive that message. We have a beautiful message, but we don’t have the only message. And I want to make sure that those folks know from the bottom of my heart, honestly, I thank them because they have encouraged me daily to to continue to drive the business. It’s as simple as that. 

Kristin Hostetter: Amazing. Yep. Earl, I know speaking for myself that the outdoors is so critical to me in my wellbeing and my time. I need time outdoors in order to be the best version of myself.  What does actually being outdoors on a hiking trip on a backpacking trip on a camping trip, mean to you? What does it do for you? 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: Kristin, that was an amazing question. I’m glad you asked me that because the outdoors means everything to me now. I tell folks, I found my freedom in the outdoors and I believe as I went through my battle with COVID, the outdoors saved my life.

As a 45 year old Black male I know a lot of my friends, a lot of my Black friends who are suffering with heart disease, that are suffering with diabetes. And we, as a culture, we suffer from those things, people of color and Black folks suffer from a lot of health issues. And I believe the reason why some of those health issues are so prevalent is because we haven’t really explored the outdoors.

We need that vitamin D, right? We need to be walking and talking. We don’t have to always hike a big hike or go on a big mountain just to get outdoors and feel that fresh air. And that’s why so many folks have been preserving and conserving nature.  A lot of folks don’t even know why conservancies exist and land trust exists in a lot of different spaces, but to preserve and conserve this land so we can enjoy it all.

But I feel free when I’m in the outdoors. I feel all the barriers of fear. I have those fears. I’ve been backpacking for some time. My first backpacking by myself, actually hiking by myself, happened four weeks ago. I did nine miles on my own. And I went through those trails and I walked through those trails and I felt like I was lost at one point. But I used the teachings that I learned from the folks who took me out on my first backpacking trip a year and a half ago.

Follow the blaze, make sure you’re on the trail.  Make sure of your surroundings, man, look where you’re going, but enjoy yourself. And for me, my job and my thought process in this company is not for Earl, it’s not necessarily for the folks that are my age. It’s for my children, so that our children will actually get in the outdoors and be in the outdoors and have that freedom with your children if you have children. With your siblings, with the people, your grandchildren, people, anybody, and so we can enjoy the outdoors together and have freedom together. That’s the way I look at it.

Kristin Hostetter: Well said. Here’s my last question. Or actually it’s not necessarily a question, but it’s a request.

Earl B. Hunter Jr.:  Okay. 

Kristin Hostetter: I understand that you are prone to breaking into song on the trail and in life, and that you have a pretty amazing voice too. So a little bird told me that “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers is one of your favorite songs.

And so I was hoping that you wouldn’t mind, I hate to put you on the spot, but not really. I was hoping  that we could finish up here by you singing a verse of that for us. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: I will. And you know what, that’s one of my favorite songs because I love Bill Withers, he’s an amazing songwriter, but here’s the thing. Every morning though, Kristin, when I wake up, I go to the mirror and I look at myself and I said, look, Earl, you got to get it today, babe. You got to go feed your family. You gotta go out here and make it happen. And  I got to think of myself as feeling good and handsome and all that kind of good stuff. Cause if I don’t feel good, nobody else feels good. So I always sing that song.

When I wake up in the morning. And sunlight hits my eyes. There’s something without warning. Ooh, bears heavy on my mind. Ooh. When I look at you, and everything’s all right with me. Yeah. Just one look at you. And I know it’s going to be, You know what it’s gonna be, Kristin?.

Lovely lovely day. Lovely day. Lovely day. Listen, it’s going to be a lovely day. It’s going to be an amazing day and we’re going to change the world. That’s what we’re gonna do. 

Kristin Hostetter: That was so good. Thank you so much for singing that for us. It’s a great way to wrap up this show. Earl, first of all, so glad you’re healthy.

You have made me feel great today. I’m sure you’re going to make everyone you meet today feel great. That’s just who you are. It’s been such a pleasure talking with you. 

Earl B. Hunter Jr.: Thank you. Thank you. Listen, Black Folks Camp Too. Go to our website, find us on social media, IG, Facebook.

I promise you, our posts are probably some of the most delightful posts that you’re ever gonna want to read because we love the outdoors, but we love life too. And we mix all of it together. 

Kristin Hostetter: And thank you everybody for listening to this episode of the Straight Talk podcast by Outside Business Journal.

The outdoor industry is full of fascinating people doing bold things, whether it’s in sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion, specialty retail, activism, marketing, or brand building, and here at Straight Talk we dive straight in this episode was produced by me. Kristin Hostetter. Our executive producer is Jeff Moore.

Our executive audio engineer is John Barcklay. Our associate producer is Aashish Shrestha.  Our production assistant is Louisa Albanese. Please subscribe today to the Straight Talk podcast. Write us a review, and of course stay up on the latest outdoor industry news at Outside Business Journal dot com.