Group Aims to Reconnect Black People in Milwaukee with the Great Outdoors

Jun 21, 2016

Summer has arrived. And for people in Milwaukee who every winter ask themselves why they stay, summer is often reason enough. Beautiful weather, lots of hiking and swimming and camping. Basically, the opportunity to reconnect with nature. There’s a new group in town hoping to forge stronger relationships between black people and the great outdoors.

So there’s this long held stereotype that black people, especially in the north, don’t “do” the outdoors. There’s no interest in hiking, water sports are out and camping, forget about it.

Cheryl Mitchell says her goal is to dispel these stereotypes. She’s the Milwaukee area leader for a group called Outdoor Afro. It’s a national organization that connects black people with nature, a connection Mitchell says runs deep.

“Depending on where you think we come from, whether the great continent and motherland, we were outside. We did you cooking outside, we lived outside, we fished, we swam, there’s even black surfers in Senegal. Come on. We are connected but we think we’re not,” she says.

Mitchell says these days, a lot of black people live in urban areas and aren’t exposed to nature, but the goal is to plant a seed.

Heading out on to the Hank Aaron State Trail.
Credit LaToya Dennis

By around 9 am on recent Saturday, 15 or so people had arrived at the meeting point in front of the Menominee Valley Urban Ecology Center. After a quick introduction, the group set off on a three mile hike along the Hank Aaron trail. A representative from the Wisconsin DNR joined to give the history on both Native Americans and African Americans in the area.

"[Exploring the outdoors] always seemed like somebody else did it and that somebody else never looked like me."

  Jamin Mayhen says he doesn’t spend much time outdoors, but vowed this year he would step outside his box.

“Typically, I’m calling up friends to hang out at some local bar or something. And when I say outside my box, I’m gonna ride my bike more. Go on longer trips instead of just down the block,” Mayhen says.

The 42 year old says he also has an inherited kayak that he plans to use this summer. Mayhen says he was born and raised in Milwaukee but has never taken advantage of all that the city has to offer—trails and rivers and that huge body of water know as Lake Michigan.

“It never seemed like an option for someone like me, inner city youth who grew up in Milwaukee kind of thing. It just never seemed open to me. It always seemed like somebody else did it and that somebody else never looked like me,” he says.

Mayhen says that while the barriers may be self-imposed, they’re real.

“I mean we’re creatures of habit, and part of that habit is doing what we are used to or feel safe doing. So if you think you’re gonna be always asked ‘oh, I never see black people do this’ or come across folks who are somewhat well intentioned but always see you as the other, it still doesn’t make you want to do it, right? When you see these ads for this outdoor stuff, you never see people of color. Never. It’s crazy to me,” Mayhen says.

LISTEN: Code Switch Podcast, Episode 2: Being 'Outdoorsy' When You're Black Or Brown

But concerns over being the only person of color hasn’t stopped everyone. Alfonso Gardner says his first introduction to the great outdoors was through a YMCA summer camp as a kid. He also says his dad used to take him fishing. Gardner says if kids were more connected with nature, especially in urban areas, crime might not be as bad.

“I think once they see something different and be out in the wild they (their) mind might start looking at things different,” Gardner says.  

Gardner says the key is to get kids interested young.

While Gardner believes kids might benefit from nature, Milwaukee leader Cheryl Mitchell says it’s also important to recognize that depending on your age and where you were raised, the outdoors hasn’t always been a safe place.

“For some people from rural south, they are concerned about being safe outside. There were kidnappings, lynchings, all those sorts of horrible experiences so they’re kind of afraid of going out by themselves,” Mitchell.

Mitchell says Outdoor Afro is designed to get even people who are fearful outside too. She says it goes back to the philosophy of there being safety in numbers.

The next event hasn’t been announced, but Mitchell says her goal is to get people out of the city and into a world that’s more peaceful and exhilarating and welcoming than they could ever imagine.