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Building Onramps to Nature’s Benefits

Posted by tiffanyc at Dec 06, 2022 03:56 PM |

Braided Seeds is helping communities of color rest and reconnect to nature. A wilderness first aid course, in partnership with WTA, has been one way to help people in their community feel safer outside.

By Ashleigh Shoecraft, Braided Seeds

Time in nature, when people can feel safe there, has been proven to reduce blood pressure, anxiety, stress, depression, and many other physical and mental health issues that disproportionately impact the Black community. Despite these benefits, much of the historical trauma experienced by Black Americans in the United States has occurred outdoors. Its legacy continues to live on as fear permeates the experiences of many. 

Photo of five hikers standing next to the water. Photo courtesy of Braided Seeds.
Braided Seeds is helping people find the joy of being outdoors and working to diversify the outdoors by removing barriers to access. Photo courtesy of Braided Seeds.

Washington state is home to one of the best park systems in the nation, yet not everyone has equal access. The Black Washingtonians Workgroup on Outdoor Recreation recently conducted a survey that found less than 1.5 percent of Washington State Parks visitors are Black. Their report further revealed that for Black Washingtonians, lack of safety is the number one barrier to accessing the outdoors. Perceptions of outdoor recreation and natural spaces are laced with reminders of its history as a site of unsafety and harm. 

Braided Seeds is a community-based nonprofit organization joining a national effort to diversify the outdoors by removing critical barriers to access. Our mission is to provide opportunities for rest, restoration and reconnection with the land for communities of color. We know that in order for all people to view Washington public lands as spaces of refuge, healing and peace, there must be intentional and targeted efforts to increase safety and address historical exclusion and trauma. 

Braided Seeds was birthed in honor of our Black ancestors’ commitment to survival against all odds. Before boarding ships as a part of the Transatlantic slave trade, they braided seeds in their hair as an act of subversive resistance, commitment to survival and as a testament to their determination to set down roots in any environment. 

As a Black-led and Black-centering organization, we hope we can also actively commit to our survival, subvert harmful systems and set down roots in the PNW. Our vision is for those we serve to be rooted in an accurate and dignifying history of Black outdoor excellence and environmentalism, to be able to soak up the healing benefits of nature for positive mental and physical health outcomes and to be safe. All of our programs are designed with this vision in mind. Our work is contributing to a larger community organizing effort to get Black people to reclaim an inherent connection with the land that centuries of exploitation, othering and dehumanization have tried to strip away.

Recently we partnered with Washington Trails Association to offer a BIPOC-centered wilderness first aid (WFA) class. WFA classes prepare participants with skills to respond to incidents that can occur in the wilderness. Especially for those BIPOC folks who were not raised exploring the backcountry, these classes can increase confidence, competence and peace of mind. 

Participants in a BIPOC-centered WFA course learning how to do CPR on dummies. Photo courtesy of Braided Seeds.
Braided Seeds and WTA partnered to offer a BIPOC-centered WFA course. Photo courtesy of Braided Seeds.

This was the case for one participant, Marie Angeles. Marie didn’t grow up hiking or doing typical Pacific Northwest outdoor recreation activities. She got into outdoor recreation in adulthood. Like many, Marie has experienced firsthand the fear of being one of the only people of color on the trail. For her, taking the BIPOC-centered WFA class was an intentional act of preparation so that in the case of an emergency, she is equipped to problem solve in a crisis. 

She doesn’t have to wonder if someone will help her or her partner. She knows she has the skills to respond and feels more comfortable inviting friends and family out to explore with her. 

“Workshops like these provide a really important chance for us to get better at feeling comfortable in the outdoors in ways we never got to experience growing up,” Marie said. 

While WFA classes focus on physical safety, the reality is that for many people of color, mental safety can be a larger barrier to overcome. BIPOC-centered classes create space to honor the truth that safety looks different for communities of color and is a critical barrier to true enjoyment and rest in natural areas. 

“When we have confidence that we can manage both (physical and mental safety) well and that we are capable of making sure that we can protect and help each other in the outdoors, then we can experience peace of mind,” Marie said.

Marie is looking forward to hiking to waterfalls in the Snoqualmie area this summer. 

Hiking group photo. Photo courtesy of Braided Seeds.
Photo courtesy of Braided Seeds.

Often outdoor preparedness programs can be inaccessible due to average costs upwards of $200. Our partnership with Washington Trails Association enabled us to leverage the resources of both organizations and offer this course for $40 to all participants. It acknowledged the importance of increasing onramps to safety, ownership, empowerment, joy and confidence for BIPOC.

Barriers to access created by centuries of trauma will take intentional and targeted efforts to remove. BIPOC-centered community education and preparedness is one step in the right direction of addressing barriers that are removable right now.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2022 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.