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Tokenizing black people is not the solution

Kimberly Barrett, Program Coordinator at cityWILD, has better ways to improve diversity in the outdoors.

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Kimberly Barrett traces the roots of her career as a scientist and outdoor educator back to before she was born:

“My family is from Jamaica, and I grew up having a deep sense of love and appreciation for the outdoors. My ancestral connections, my connection to my family, and to food, fishing, wildlife, and being outdoors, fueled all the different facets of my career.”

The common theme of a path that spans everything from fish surveys at Yellowstone to teaching wilderness survival is her love for community-based natural resource projects.

Here, she talks holistic outdoor education, representation for people of color, and how the outdoor industry can help fix its diversity problem.


Tell us about cityWILD: Who do you serve? What are your goals?

KB: We provide free outdoor programming for culturally and ethnically diverse middle school- and high school-aged youth in northeast Denver. Our goals are to uplift and to empower the youth. We do multiday and single-day trips. We lead hiking, camping, and rock climbing expeditions year-round. We have a robust whitewater rafting program, too.

We also have an afterschool leadership development program that focuses on life skills and social and emotional learning and a workforce development program. We go through everything from building healthy relationships with supervisors to developing cohesive team dynamics. My goal is to encourage our students to develop their own connections to the outdoors.

Why does it make sense to combine life skills and outdoor experiences in the same program?

KB: Having just an outdoor program is really leaving out a lot of connections that need to be made. One of our frameworks is experiential education, the idea of learning by doing and having our full support. Also positive youth development—it’s important to come from a place of abundance with our youth [and recognize] that they’re whole people. The idea is that nature is our mentor and teacher, and a lot of what we go through in life, we can see those same systems playing out in nature.

Among a number of other roles, you’ve worked as a fisheries technician at Yellowstone. Did any lessons from that experience carry over to your current job?

KB: Yes! It might not seem like they connect—I’m not getting up at 4 a.m. to hop on a boat and drive around Yellowstone Lake all day—but there, I knew what it felt like to experience discrimination and microagressions [actions that unconsciously express prejudice]. I hold multiple marginalized identities, like being black and being a woman, and I know what it feels like to be treated differently depending on whether I was wearing my uniform or not. To do my work at cityWILD authentically, and to ask my students to come outdoors with me, I need to know what it feels like to experience it
the way they do.

I also use all of my background in ecology here. Environmental racism [in which marginalized communities suffer more from pollution/environmental harms] is a real thing, and folks of color are disproportionally affected by environmental issues. It’s important for our communities and my youth to be empowered with science.

One of the passions listed on your staff bio is representation for people of color in the outdoors. What does that mean to you?

KB: It’s visibility in every sense of the word. For me, it’s important to see folks who look like me doing things I like to do outdoors. When I’m with my family, we might be eating fish outdoors on the beach, enjoying music, laughing together. These are not things you usually see when you open up an outdoor magazine.

Career-wise, in basically all of the professional experiences that I’ve had, I’ve always been the only person of color. I want to make it easier for other folks of marginalized identities to say, “I saw Kim and she was outdoors. Maybe that means
I can do it, too.”

What should the outdoor industry be doing—and not doing—to increase diversity?

KB: In the effort to diversify ads, I’m seeing a lot of tokenizing: having that token black person or brown person wearing the gear. I don’t think that’s helpful. What are the ways that you can honestly represent the outdoors that are fair and just? That starts with realizing that people of color are complex. You have to understand where we’re coming from, and what our stories are. When we look at America’s environmental history, we tend to think of people like John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and Rachel Carson. We’re not thinking of all of the indigenous folks who cared for this land, or of the Buffalo soldiers, or Frederick Douglass
and Harriet Tubman.

In order to have representation that’s fair, you have to have us in
the room. That means not just having focus groups; that means creating genuine relationships and compensating people for
their labor. There are a lot of folks who consult (like me) and are available to be a part of the process. When you’re trying to create an ad that feels real, and you have folks who hold those identities in the room—and they’re the ones producing it—you’ll end up with content that’s equitable.

This article originally appeared in Day 1 of The Daily (winter 2018).