Adapted from an October 2017 talk in NYC
For Courtney Williams and Katina Grays, the outdoors were always a passion, ever since they were little girls. Now, years after they first got into the field, it still is, but they’re not doing it alone. It’s not simply about hopping on a bicycle or strapping on a pair of hiking boots, but allowing and encouraging more people to do the same, particularly people of color.
Courtney was raised in Gary, a ‘brown city’ in Indiana, with people of color making up most of the population. Although investment in infrastructure has been lacking in the city, one thing it hasn’t been lacking is nature. “It is on the very bottom of Lake Michigan, beautiful, beautiful lakefront, (…) a park system that is fabulous, like there’s one park every three square miles,” she said. Her grandmother was also a huge fan of nature, and she was Courtney’s biggest influence in getting into the outdoors.
Bicycles were also accessible to her when she was young, said Courtney:
“Everybody rode a bicycle, we were kids,”
Although her love for biking died down a bit when she went to boarding school, it was reignited when she moved to Brooklyn. “I’m seeing all of these hipsters, these chic people on their bikes, and I’m like ‘oh my god, I’m about that vibe!’” she noted. Once she got into biking again, she started seeking out ‘bike girls’ like her, and soon after, her bicycle advocacy consulting firm- Brown Bike Girl – was born.
Katina moved to New York from Nashville, Tennessee, where she spent so much time outside to the point where she could go to a nearby trail sporadically right after work. “I was a person who started to like the outdoors, but didn’t even realize it as a passion, it was just something that I did as a part of my life,” she said. Once she moved to New York, and the outdoors became less accessible, though, she began missing it.
Enter Outdoor Afro. Katina thought it would be a perfect way to open her new chapter in life in the Big Apple. She had been following them on social media for years because she felt a special connection to them, a tribal feeling, as she describes it., As she settled into life in the Big Apple, she decided she need to “figure out how people in New York City get outside, just like (she) had to figure out how people in New York City grocery shop.” Now that she is settled in, she enjoys helping others do the same;
“the best thing that I do in my free time is getting communities of people to have new experiences in the outdoors.”
One of the reasons Outdoor Afro was created in the first place was to be a part of “the larger conversation that happens in outdoor spaces,” and to engage people through different methods. For one, said Katina, it is important to make outdoor activities economically accessible to people who struggle financially, especially people of color. “We don’t charge anything because I want everyone who can come who needs to be in community with black people to come,” she said. Another important aspect of Outdoor Afro is creating healing spaces – “we give time for people to share how they’re feeling, positively, negatively, angry, tears, whatever needs to be there,” she said. In other words, Outdoor Afro aims to grant people opportunities to share what they’re feeling honestly and openly about black people in America, and to connect with their history and ancestors.
Brown Bike Girl is not too dissimilar in that respect. The main aim, according to Courtney, is to expand the capacity of people who want to help communities of color get on bicycles. “A bicycle is a perfect machine,” she said, “all the things that come from it are positive. It increases your health, it clears your mind, it puts you back in contact with nature, it can be alternative transportation that saves you money, you can save the environment.” As people of color are most negatively affected economically – including not being able to afford various modes of transportation – Courtney sees bicycles as a way to connect with them most effectively. A lot of people could use bikes in more than one way – not just as a way to save money, but for mental health and mental release as well.
“I just want to share the joy that I have about what [a bicycle] can do for everyone, particularly with black and brown communities”
“I just want to share the joy that I have about what [a bicycle] can do for everyone, particularly with black and brown communities,” she said.
But of course, spreading good will is not without its challenges. Courtney said that one of the biggest challenges is that because biking is not a ‘traditional black people activity,’ people are sometimes reluctant to try it, fearing that they might transcend their community. In other words, Courtney says that engaging in activities like biking may seem too stand-offish in the eyes of some people because of the lack of tradition, and could make the people who do partake in said activities seem ‘better’ than others who don’t, which is the opposite of what Courtney wants. “There’s such an importance in showing that you’re part of the community, that you’re not selling the community out,” she said.
So how else will these individuals continue to push for social change through hiking and biking? Courtney says to start in the boardroom, that is, to develop workshops for diversity for boards and organizations who have the intention to start communities of color. “I will do any project that helps a community of color do better that involves a bicycle,” she said firmly. Katina, meanwhile, does not have any plans to quit her day job, mostly because she loves her day job, but also because she wants the organization’s agenda to stay as it is – to allow people of color to come together, hike together, and share their experiences.