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Stateside Podcast: Making the outdoors more inclusive

A man and little boy hold hands as they walk along the shore, with their backs to the camera. The man wears pants, a flannel shirt, a large hiking backpack, and a bucket hat. The boy wears a butter-yellow t-shirt and grey pants.
Courtesy of Brandan Freeman
Brandan Freeman and his son, almost two years old, walk along the beach.

A Facebook group called “Shades of the Outdoors: A BIPOC Outdoor Enthusiast Community” has garnered about 100 members in just over one month. The group lends people of color a space to share their love of the outdoors, free of judgment or threat.

Three hikers walk side-by-side along a paved trail with their back to the camera.
Courtesy of Brandan Freeman
A few members of the Facebook group gathered for a hike through the woods.

“The folks that I've talked to that have come out have been thankful for the community,” said Brandan Freeman, the group’s founder. “A lot of times, people don't go out by themselves. There's strength in number, but also a comfort knowing that we're out here too. And we've always been here.”

The name of the group was inspired by a fall trip that Freeman took to the Porcupine mountains. On the turquoise shores of Lake Superior, he watched the leaves turning from red, to orange, to yellow, to brown.

“And that's where shades of the outdoors were sort of born, of just the realization that the shades of the people who enjoy it aren't present [as prevalently] as they are in nature,” he said. “And I wanted to change that. “

Freeman is an avid outdoorsman himself. Earlier this summer, he hiked 45 miles through Isle Royale - a three-day trip. But he wasn’t always an outdoorsman. Growing up, his family went camping about once a year, and always at the same park. This year, Freeman was able to bring his own son camping at the same site.

Brandan Freeman, a Black man, poses for a photo with his family on the shore of a beach. Brandan wears khaki pants, a red-orange polo, a baseball cap, and sunglasses. His wife, standing to his right, smiles brightly. She wears black shorts, a mauve t-shirt, and a teal back pack. They carry their son, a toddler, in between them. His curly hair droops over his eyes.
Courtesy of Brandan Freeman
Brandan Freeman and his family on the beach at Sterling State Park.

“He’s almost two, so he didn't really, you know, understand everything that was going on,” Freeman said. “But he was trying to be super helpful, setting up the tent and everything, just like how I was, I assume, with my father. And that was a beautiful moment.”

Most of Freeman’s experiences in Michigan’s parks and forests have been as positive as this one. Like any hiker, he loves being in nature, slowing down, and appreciating “this one gigantic ecosystem that you don't really get to experience out here when you're hustling and bustling.” But as a Black man, Freeman has found that not everyone he encounters on his trips has been welcoming.

“Certain gas stations you don't want to stop at because certain people will look at you funny,” Freeman said. “They'll follow you around if you go to rest stops. I've been followed numerous times by cashiers working there. I've been accused of stealing. I've been just sort of harassed. And that's very uncomfortable out in nature.”

“Shades of the Outdoors” has provided Freeman and others a way to enjoy the outdoors socially, without that discomfort. But there are bigger changes he’d like to see to help make Michigan’s outdoors more welcoming to all folks. For one, he hopes more green spaces are built in and around large cities like Detroit. He also acknowledged the financial barrier posed by admission fees.

“If parks were universally free, I know that's kind of like a big sticking point or a big goal, but parks, natural spaces, they’re human rights as far as I'm concerned. So we should treat them as such,” Freeman said. “Make them open access to have open access for everyone and encourage everyone to go out and enjoy a little.”

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Public from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.