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April 22, 2022

The great outdoors are abundant in Minnesota, but does that mean everyone is able to take advantage of them?

by Cynthia Maya

Urban Bird Collective

Historically, outdoor recreation has predominantly been a white, wealthy, able-bodied and male dominated space. While there have been shifts to change that, there is still plenty of work to be done. Since research shows that nature can be extremely healing, marginalized communities deserve to feel safe and welcome in outdoor spaces as well.

As of 2019, the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the total population of Minnesota is about 5,639,632. Of that number, 20% of Minnesotans are BIPOC and make up only 5% of state park visitors, according to a 2019 Department of Natural Resources visitor study. Ten percent of Minnesotans report any disability, with ambulatory disabilities—difficulty walking, climbing stairs—being most common, according to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, which has also found wide disparities in disabilities by race and cultural groups. And disability rates are highest among people of color (and 19% of people with disabilities live below the poverty line).

Minnesotans with disabilities may face a wide range of barriers to enjoying outdoor spaces. Too often, environments are not structured to allow them full participation and enjoyable experiences.

“Every child has challenges, some you see and some you can’t see,” Michele St. Martin, PACER Center director of communications said. Some people have what can be considered an invisible disability, and while they might not be physically prevented from going outside, there can be a lot of issues around inclusion and, like any sort of prejudice, it takes getting to know someone on an individual level.

Jamie McBride, program consultant for the DNR Parks and Trails division, says that though there are trails that meet ADA laws, someone might not feel comfortable traversing a trail because of uneven ground. “We can build trails that meet the definition of accessible but that doesn’t help everybody,” he said. “What we’re trying to do is make sure people have as much information as possible so that they can make their own decisions, more information is better.” McBride acknowledges that it’s an ongoing process. The facilities at newer parks like Split Rock Lighthouse and White Water state parks are built with accessibility in mind, but construction and rehabilitation of older parks might end up with a new accessible feature with surrounding infrastructure that may need work.  

In the last month, the DNR launched the latest program in the fight for accessibility. Paid for by the Minnesota Parks & Trails General Fund, the program will see all-terrain wheelchairs in select Minnesota state parks by the summer. The Action Trackchair is a wheelchair designed to travel through rough terrain and provide extra mobility and independence to people with disabilities. The wheelchairs will be found in Camden, Crow Wing, Maplewood, and Myre-Big Island state parks, with a fifth location to be chosen soon. There’s a long list of qualifications that a park has to fill to get a trackchair according to McBride. Among the most important was the ability to provide a high quality experience. For example, the Maplewood State Park trail ends at a vista with 360 degree views. “It’s a beautiful feature of the trail,” McBride says.

In 2021, the Twin Cities Metropolitan Council Youth and Parks Report identified racism as an obstacle preventing young people from connecting to the outdoors, manifesting as “in-park racism and unwelcoming park culture.” Safety concerns, lack of opportunity to learn necessary skills, low or lack of awareness of parks and amenities, time and transportation and economic constraints, were also mentioned as obstacles which can affect marginalized communities disproportionately.

Asha Shoffner, the founder of the BIPOC Outdoors Twin Cities group, prefers not to focus on the barriers. “I’d rather just offer a program or an opportunity to folks and be like, let’s do this. Rather than talking about it, let’s just go do it.” Shoffner says the group was created out of necessity, “we’re doing all we can to create a space that we can be in the outdoors not only safely, but to just fully be because we haven’t felt welcome in other traditional outdoor spaces.” 

It was important for Shoffner to find ways that folks can be outdoors in a way that feels comfortable to them and engage in whatever they are able to and choose to. 

When Monica Bryand founded the Urban Bird Collective, she had the same thing in mind. She has been birding for over 20 years and when her BIPOC friends became interested, many told her they didn’t feel comfortable. She gathered a group of friends and what started as a simple gathering—with the hopes of increasing their birding skills quickly—became an intentional establishment of a safe space for queer BIPOC folks who are passionate about birding to find community. “I quickly knew that I wasn’t going to try to diversify the mainstream birding community, I was going to create my own community.” In the third year of Urban Bird Collective’s birdwatching gathering, it is the only bird festival in the country that is majority BIPOC. “Out of over 100 people there, about 80-85 are going to be BIPOC.”

When the Facebook group first started, 80% of members were BIPOC. Bryand explains that now out of around 400, the majority are not BIPOC. “And that’s okay, we need allies in this to create safe space,” she said. “But this is where you have to be intentional about how you do outreach.” The BIPOC Outdoors Twin Cities Facebook group is open to people who identify as BIPOC, live or work in the Twin Cities, and enjoy spending time outdoors.

Sometimes helping at an individual level is letting marginalized communities have their spaces. Instead of taking the perspective of exclusion, they are making a space that feels safe and welcome for them. Shoffner explains it as, “if there were a women’s hiking group and a guy wanted to join because he has a daughter or a wife, would you let the guy into the group? Probably not, because it’s a women’s group.” Shoffner acknowledges that gender and race are not the same, but it can be understood as how women in male-dominated sport had to make their own space.

Access to resources can halt outdoor recreation in marginalized communities, and institutions can facilitate and fill those gaps. “One of the things they could do more of is actually partnering with organizations like BIPOC Outdoors or the Urban Bird Collective and provide resources to us,” Bryand says. “In addition to that, they need to do their work internally. How do they hire folks that look like us? We trust you to do your work, and then help provide us with some resources.”

The Met Council’s Youth and Parks Report stated that youth had concerns about park inclusivity citing a lack of representative staffing, omission of their own cultural history, non-inclusive promotional materials, lack of multilingual materials, and “going to the park and no one like me is there.” “These features sent the message that parks are for white people. Growing up in Minnesota, I never had teachers that looked like me, I never had anybody that looked like me to look up to doing outdoor things,” Shoffner said. “I’ve been really intentional about that and it’s made a difference.”

BIPOC Outdoors has connections to St. Paul Parks and Recreation which helps supply equipment and resources for the 1.6K members in their group. Urban Bird Collective runs on a number of grants and has a partnership with the Minnesota Valley Wildlife Refuge, which is able to provide space and equipment for the group. “This is where I turn to mainstream organizations,” Bryand says. “Be it nature centers or whatever, I say, can you share your resources with us for free?”

Shoffner thinks it’s important to normalize not being an athlete with all the fancy equipment to consider yourself outdoorsy. “When it’s nice outside, I sit on my front porch and work. To me that counts as somebody who likes to spend time outdoors,” she says. “We don’t have to run ultra marathons—it’s taking your lunch break outside or going for a walk around the block, those things count too.”