In the blog account of her June day kayaking at North Park, Donna Baxter wondered "Why don't WE come out here?"
Baxter, who is CEO and Webmistress of www.thesoulpitt.com, Pittsburgh's premier black community Web site, noted that she and her companion were the only people of color out enjoying the beautiful afternoon on the lake sponsored by Venture Outdoors, a local nonprofit that facilitates outdoor recreation including events, outings and classes.
"I looked around and was like, 'Wow, more blacks need to be out here,'" Baxter said in an interview. "A lot of African Americans don't participate in outdoor activities. I didn't know if it was because they didn't know about it, or if Venture Outdoors didn't have many African Americans. I wrote about it because I wanted people to know, this is a nice spot, I had a great time out there." She also said that with diabetes hitting black communities especially hard, it would behoove more black folks to get out and get active.
The folks at Venture Outdoors caught her blog post. In a reply, Erik Lingren, executive director of Venture Outdoors, wrote: "Rest assured, Venture Outdoors is not just made up of white folks, there were other people of color there on Sunday and you can find them attending many of our 400+ organized trips each year, but if you asked me for a number -- I'd have to quickly say 'simply not enough'!"
Now, however, Venture Outdoors has a chance to change that. The group was just awarded a $5,000 grant from The Sprout Fund to attract a more racially diverse group of outdoor enthusiasts.
"We're starting to see some real headway in terms of getting people outside, but what hasn't happened yet is great numbers of people in diverse communities--that's what's missing still," says Sean Brady, assistant executive director of Venture Outdoors, who called Baxter an "inspiration" for the group's pursuit of the grant. "Across the U.S. you do not see a lot of black cyclists, black kayakers. For some reason, it remains primarily white people doing this."
According to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Leisure Research, 34 percent of whites hiked in the year studied, compared to just 11 percent of blacks. In addition, 35 percent of whites reported visiting a national park within the past two years, compared with just 14 percent of blacks, according to the National Park Service.
Baxter speculates that lagging black participation in outdoor events is mainly cultural: "I didn't grow up kayaking with my family," she says. Baxter was raised in a rural area, and did some hunting as a kid with her father--but, she says, that's not the experience of most urban blacks. "A lot of my friends here never went hunting, they never went out. It has to do with the city, the culture and how you're raised." While North Park may be a bit remote for some, the group does sponsor events within the city limits, such as kayaking on the North Side and an upcoming urban hike beginning on the South Side Slopes.
The grant will allow Venture Outdoors to run events in the summer of 2008 that reach into black communities, and to partner with black community groups. While the list of events and locations hasn't been finalized, Brady says Venture Outdoors hopes to hold events in Oakland's Schenley Park, Frick Park and Kirkpatrick Park in the Hill District.
Events will incorporate spoken-word performances and music, says Brady, and will take place in park locations where people already feel at home. Both Baxter and Brady point to the Kingsley Center in East Liberty as a possible key collaborator: People work out there as part of the center's Healthy Black Families initiative. The Hill House in the Hill District would also be a great jumping-off point, Brady says: It's close to Kirkpatrick Park and a short walk or bike ride to some of the best views in the city.
Venture Outdoors relies on volunteer for its outings, says Brady. That provides another opportunity to be inclusive: "If African-American communities had outdoor leaders, they won't feel like it's someone else coming in. It's more organic." Baxter agrees: "Have a leader from one of the black organizations" to encourage people affiliated with them to participate.
Groups like Venture Outdoors, says Baxter, could better reach minority populations by networking with existing black social organizations like the Urban League or its offshoot, Urban League Young Professionals of Pittsburgh... or even www.thesoulpitt.com. "It's like that olive branch," she says. "Come hang out with us outdoors."
To volunteer, contact Venture Outdoors at www.ventureoutdoors.org or 412.255.0564.