Color in the Outdoors – increasing diversity in outdoor spaces

Christopher Kilgour is the founder of Color in the Outdoors.

Who are you/what is your role?

I was born and raised in Madison in a family that was very education- and outdoor-oriented. My parents were both educators and very active in exploring and preserving the natural world, including Madison’s Cherokee Marsh. We spent most of our summers road-tripping and outdoors.

Why did you start this organization, Color in the Outdoors?

Growing up, I wasn’t as hyper aware of the disparities between BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals and white people when it came to outdoor access as I am now. As I got older, I started noticing that I was the only person who looked like me in the outdoor spaces that I was in. It was a surprise when another BIPOC person appeared in those spaces. I have been involved in advocacy for diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ) since childhood. I was always outside and trying to get my friends outside, and kept hearing that “x people don’t do these things.” On some levels, it may be self-imposed, but many times it’s communicated — implicitly or explicitly — that “you’re not welcome here.”

There are now conversations being had that have rarely been had before. Unfortunately, this is often because of tragedy. I have gotten so many emails, texts, and phone calls recently asking if I want to talk about DEIJ and the outdoors, but I’ve been talking about this for a long time. There are now more people — though not anywhere near enough — but at least more people interested in having that conversation, or at least trying.

Christopher Kilgour

Why is environmental and climate justice in outdoor access important? 

It’s important because it’s a human right. It’s important because, if we are not more intentional stewards of the planet on which we stand, it will continue to degrade into some apocalyptic movie scene and become uninhabitable.

We need to foster the next generation of people to have their hearts set on wanting to take care of our planet. We know that the demographics of the United States are rapidly shifting to a larger population of Black and brown folks. If we’re talking numbers, you need stewardship by the people who are here, which will quickly be Black and brown people. You need their buy-in.

How do we make people of all demographics welcome in the outdoors?

So many of the activities that we have in this state have been influenced by the controlling or deciding population, which is largely white and male. There is an attitude that, “this is our heritage,” but, for so many of us in this state that narrative is very different. There are people who were here long before us — and those Indigenous populations are still alive and thriving today — and the real heritage sites are mounds and other cultural sites across the state.

Many people have a much deeper historical connection to place and space, but the dominant narrative excludes them. In the history of Wisconsin, the narrative of what “matters” is what has happened since statehood. We need to acknowledge the indigenous populations that have occupied this state since before first contact. We need to acknowledge whose land we stand on.

How do we move this forward? Be very explicit. You can’t just say “you’re welcome to be here” with messaging. You need to genuinely engage with populations who are “at the table.” We don’t want just a seat at the table, we want a seat, plate, fork, knife, spoon, cup, and meal — or we’ll build our own table.

Access comes in many forms. We need to allow people to engage in outdoor spaces on their own terms. For example, if you hear someone playing music while they are hiking, they are engaging with the outdoors on their own terms and in a way that makes them comfortable. Implying that they have to enjoy the outdoors on your terms — social constructs generally set by white people — is wrong and detrimental.

What can resource managers do to reach out?

The first steps are intentionally reaching out to individuals and groups and saying “we’d like to have this conversation.” Not just reaching out to the person you know, but reaching out to the person you know and saying “who would be an important person to have at this table.” Get the conversation out of the safe and comfortable zone, to where work can be done. It can’t be a matter of convenience.

After engaging them effectively, then ask, “how does our changing climate affect you?” Many times, they already know. Trails getting washed out by storm erosion means those in wheelchairs don’t have access. Larger and more frequent algal blooms mean people can’t subsistence fish and are either displaced or move into areas they aren’t comfortable in, where access is often less convenient and puts greater pressure on diminishing resources. This can lead to social conflicts.

How do you make people comfortable during a meeting?

You don’t. You can’t. You engage them early and often. You recognize and acknowledge that you are both coming at this from different perspectives culturally and that both perspectives can be right. For example, non-tribal communities fish for sport. Tribes call sport fishing “playing with your food.” It’s not a sport to them. Tribes fish for food. Be aware that different styles of communication can be at play too.

It is easy to feel uncomfortable if you are speaking to people with different cultural habits and they aren’t responding the way you may expect them to. It doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t listening or appreciating what you are saying. Approach the group with, “we want to make sure we understand everyone’s perspective going into this meeting.” Go around the table and have people introduce themselves and how they approach this topic, so everyone has an understanding of the different perspectives.

How do you suggest decision-makers engage with groups like yours?

My favorite quote is, “You can pick my brain as soon as you pick your payment method.” I recommend stipends to compensate people to have these conversations because that’s part of equitable involvement.

The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the authors and do not represent official policy or position of the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts.

For More Information

Christopher Kilgour, Founder
Color in the Outdoors