Surrounded by Confederate paraphernalia and Trump signs, the couple had a feeling that they were in the wrong place. For them, these were all red flags.
They had been camping for years. During a recent trip to a campsite, both Michael Speights and Dr. Aasha Abdill could immediately recognize when a space may not be the right fit for them to enjoy the outdoors.
They packed up their family and headed out to find another campsite. One that would not just feel safe but would allow them to be comfortable simply being Black.
They have encountered uncomfortable spaces throughout the years and even had the police called on them and other Black campers while enjoying the outdoors.
Their experiences moved them to develop WayOut, an organization that works to connect “Black people to safe, inclusive, and affirming outdoor spaces and experiences.”
“Safety is key, right. One of the things we want WayOut to do is create an above-ground railroad,” said Abdill, who left her job as a researcher and evaluator to spend more time with her family. “Just in thinking about the Underground Railroad and the Green Book…These were organizations that focused on how to keep Black people safe in a country that won’t protect them.”
Taking a closer look at systemic issues, including the lack of diversity in outdoor activities, has come into the forefront with movements like Black Lives Matter. According to a July 2020 article from the National Health Foundation, the “ inaccessibility to outdoor and green spaces among BIPOC communities comes from institutionalized legislation that, in many cases, segregated people of color away from public lands, like national parks and forests, or deliberately banned them from accessing these spaces.”
Before the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Black people were not allowed to enter a number of outdoor spaces, including national and state parks.
“When you’re out in rural areas, or out by yourself or in the woods, you’re worried about bears and snakes, but you are also worried about people who might decide you don’t belong where you are,” Speights said.
Along with their two teenage children, the couple is traveling throughout the country in their sprinter van, charting safe spaces for Black people to enjoy the outdoors. They are now working on documenting their journey, in states Tennesee, Maryland, North Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas.
Initially, the couple wanted to purchase land for Black people to enjoy outdoor spaces or develop a program for troubled youth that could be implemented instead of them being sent to juvenile detention centers. Those things never came to fruition, and the more they traveled, the more they realized that Black people needed a guide to safely enjoy outdoor spaces.
“The main thing people tend to think about when mentioning outdoors is safety,” Speights said. “Why should our bar be that low…surviving outdoors as to whether we should do it or not. There is so much more connecting to nature can offer us. WayOut is dedicated to finding and connecting our people with these spaces that are created with our people in mind…that are truly beyond just welcoming but inclusive of our history and our culture and affirming who we are as a people.” Seventy percent of the people who utilize public spaces like national parks and forests are white.
Through a website and mobile application, WayOut will provide a network of Black property owners, including farms, homesteads, and campsites who have safe outdoor spaces that are inclusive of Black history and culture.
“We need to be able to go out and connect with nature and not have the baggage on us, the gaze, who’s watching.. . just questioning our existence when we are doing what we are supposed to be doing. Just living as human beings,” Speights said.
Speights and Abdill said they hope WayOut compliments other efforts to connect Black people with the outdoors.
“We wanted to document [our experience] and have people know these are the spaces you can go to [and] not only feel safe but to feel wanted and where you belong," Abdill said. "We’re excited by this. So, we’re doing it, and while we’re doing it, we want to give back to all the people who stay at home because they don’t feel safe traveling in this country. This is our land too. We have as much right to be here.”
For more information about WayOut visit http://www.wayoutdoors.org/ or follow @wayoutrailroad on Instagram.