Transcripts for Outdoor Challenge

Original artwork inspired by the Six Practices of Building a More Inclusive Community
Artwork by Lucy Sherston


Hi! This is Ame Sanders from State of Inclusion.

Summer is heating up in South Carolina, as I know it is across much of the country. You might even hear a little thunder from a summer thunderstorm in the background as I’m recording this.

Despite the heat, getting outdoors to enjoy nature, travel, and experience our beautiful public parks and spaces are a key part of summer for me and hopefully for many of you as well. In that spirit, I’d like to invite you to join me for a walk on the wild side over the coming weeks.

Over the next 10 weeks, I’ll be hosting The Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge. It’s a way to encourage us all to get outside more, have some fun, experience our public spaces, and do a little Self Work together.

The starting point for our challenge is the following observation:

The Outdoors has a diversity problem and it is time we noticed… and did something about it.

Each week, I’ll share a new challenge along with a little about my own experience of attempting that challenge. There’ll be an invitation for you to share about your experiences as well.

In a recent episode, Inclusion Starts Here, we talked about how building a more inclusive and equitable community starts with each of us doing our own Self Work. You may remember that we talked about the steps we could follow along that journey as we:

  • Wake Up
  • Open Up
  • Listen Up
  • Speak Up, and
  • Step Up

I’ve used that structure to design the Outdoor Challenge. So, you can see where this is headed.

You can do this on your own, even better with a buddy, and even better still with some of the kids or teens in your life.

This may feel a little different for us, but it isn’t a completely new subject. If you’ve been listening for a while, you might remember Episode 28, where I had a great conversation with Rebecca Bolich-Wade and learned so much about eco-justice and environmental justice. Also, listening to the recent episode with Tania Marien, Dan Kriesberg, and Camille Simone Edwards about Diversity Education In Nature could help put you in the mood for the challenge, as it did me.

For those of you who are podcast listeners, but haven’t signed up for our newsletter, I hope you’ll follow the Challenge and also sign up for the newsletter. Over ten weeks, I’ll share a new challenge each week, to the newsletter mailing list. Each time I post a new challenge or update, anyone who is signed up will receive the update via email. You can head over there now via the link provided to join me for our first week’s challenge.

There’s also another benefit to signing up for the newsletter. We’ve referenced and read a lot of wonderful books on this journey with State of Inclusion and now The Inclusive Community newsletter. We’ve also often provided links specific books in our State of Inclusion Bookstore on To say thanks to you guys who have joined us on this journey, my team and I are putting together a book giveaway from our bookstore. Anyone who is signed up for the newsletter will be entered for a chance to win and receive their choice of one of the books on our bookstore list. We hope to share more details about that in August.

The outdoors and our beautiful public spaces have so much to teach us about ourselves and about diversity. It is so important for them to be welcoming and accessible spaces for all. I’d like to wrap up with this quote from Alice Walker

“In nature, nothing is perfect, and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” - Alice Walker

Thank you for being on this journey with us as we work to build a more inclusive world, one community at a time.

WEEK 1 - Who Do You See?

Hi. This is Ame at State of Inclusion.

This is the first week's challenge for our inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge. And so, I want to share a little bit about the experience I had with the Week-One Challenge. You may remember that the Week-One Challenge asked us to go to one of our favorite outdoor public spaces, to spend a little bit of time there, to observe, and reflect.

Now in an earlier episode, we talked about how building a more inclusive and equitable community starts with each of us doing our own Self Work. And these challenges are all about Self Work on our own journey toward inclusion and equity. And just like everybody, I have my own work to do. So, I'm following these challenges along with each of you.

You may remember that we talked about the steps we could follow along in self work. And that included:

  • waking up,
  • opening up,
  • listening up,
  • speaking up, and
  • stepping up.

And today's challenge is all about waking up a little bit more to the world around us.

So, I'm going to start a long time ago. Growing up, I was a Camp Fire Girl. We didn't have Girl Scouts where I was. We had Camp Fire Girls. And one week at the beginning of each summer, our Camp Fire council from the small town I grew up in, Clinton, South Carolina, rented the entire YMCA Camp Greenville.

From the second grade into high school, I had the privilege of attending camp at Camp Greenville. And let me just say that Camp Greenville, at least in my memory, is nearly perfect in every way. It had lakes, trails, a big slide in the lake, salamanders, canoes, rustic cabins, bunk beds, bath houses, a stone lodge, a gymnasium, a beautiful old high-beamed open dining hall, and most importantly of all, my good friends.

At the end of each adventure-filled day, after dinner in the big dining hall, we all walked together, maybe 80 or 100 of us walked together to a beautiful spot we called Pretty Place where we held the evening Vespers. Pretty Place, officially known as the Fred W. Symmes Chapel is an open-air chapel that looks out over the mountains. Across the beam at the front of the chapel is carved a verse, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills...” It was a magical place, even for a small child.

Camp Greenville is the place I learned that the outdoors was meant for me and that I belonged there. I learned that from the girls around me, from our counselors, and from the many women who helped organize and run the camp. One of the special women I remember was named Clara Belle. In my fuzzy childhood memory, I remember her looking a little like a heavier and more outdoorsy version of Ellie Mae Clampett from The Beverly Hillbillies. Clara Belle was responsible for taking all of us little girls out into the “wilderness.” At first, as little second and third, and I think maybe fourth graders, we went to what we called Base Camp, really not very far from our cabins. Where we built a fire and cooked down. We stayed until dark, told ghost stories, sat around the fire, ate smores, but we didn't spend the night.

Eventually, we graduated to a big hike with an overnight campout. So, my first real hike was a sliding scramble down past Rainbow Falls on our way to an overnight campout at Jones Gap.

So, with this introduction, you might have already guessed that the two spots I chose to visit for this week's challenge were Pretty Place and what is now Jones Gap State Park.

Jones Gap State Park is located in the extreme northern part of Greenville County. It's really one of the most popular parks in South Carolina. And it's part of what's known as the Mountain Bridge Wilderness Area. It's a beautiful and rugged 13,000-acre area of pristine southern mountain forest that has been preserved. It has more than 60 miles of hiking trails of all varying levels of difficulty, has a beautiful little Rocky River or bold stream. The archeological finds say that men started hunting in what is now Greenville County as far back as 10,000 BC. The Native American tribes and territories were established from 1000 to 1600 AD. But, the Cherokees are the Native Americans who lived in the northern Greenville region beginning in the 16th and 17th centuries, and all the land now called Greenville County was part of their hunting grounds.

So, Jones Gap itself is named after Solomon Jones. He was a self-taught mountain road builder. Who took, over eight years, 1840 to 1848, he constructed a toll road that joined North Carolina and South Carolina together. Stories say he chose the path of the road by following a pig. I don't know about that. But maybe that's true.

So, you can guess that Jones Gap is a little remote. So, the first barrier you have to overcome for Jones Gap is access. To get to Jones Gap, you have to drive or carpool. There really are no other options. And there's pretty limited parking, given how popular it is. There are only 37 spaces. You also need to plan ahead. So I checked the opening times to see how early we could go and found out that you actually on the weekend have to have a reservation. You also need to have some financial resources to take the family cost $6 For an adult and $3.75 for South Carolina's seniors aged 65 and older, and $3.50 for children aged 6 to 15, kids under five are free. So, many might not know this, but you can check out State Park passes through the library to make the entrance free, which is great. But on the weekends, you still have to shell out $5 reservation fee for parking. And if you want to camp, you’re going to have to spend between $21 and $33 a night one of the 19 reserved spaces.

So, I mentioned that Jones Gap is in a more remote part of northern Greenville County, what some call the Dark Corner of the state. Depending on the route you choose to get to Jones Gap, you may travel up Highway 25 to get there. If you do, you will likely pass by a place called Dixie Republic. They advertise themselves as the South's largest Confederate Store. They've been in business since 2003, and they're pretty successful, so they've expanded their facilities. They have earned their own dog on the Southern Poverty Law Center hate map for their affiliation with the League of the South, a racist, anti-semitic Neo-Confederate white nationalist group, and also for selling racist merchandise.

You know my partner Mike who went with me that day. He and I didn't travel by Dixie Republic the day we went, but we frequently pass by the outpost as many do who head to the mountains from Greenville. Our first stop on our journey that day was to visit Pretty Place. Mike had never been.

When I was a child, you had to have permission to access Pretty Place. Now thankfully, the place is open and freely accessible and welcoming to all unless it's closed or reserved for an event. It's a popular place for weddings. My sister was actually married there. However, everyone might not feel as welcome at Pretty Place as I do. It's not an easy place to navigate if you have mobility issues. It starts at the gravel parking area. And then there are steps that go down to the front, and there's no ramp. There are few flat smooth surfaces. There are also no handicapped-accessible restrooms open to the public. And it might not feel welcoming to you at all, depending on your religious or spiritual beliefs.

After leaving Pretty Place, Mike and I drove to Jones Gap, we did not slide down the hill to Rainbow Falls, we drove to Jones Gap. We spent a little time looking around and reflecting as the challenge suggested. Just observing, and honestly looking for, and observing things I had not really noticed before.

So, handicapped parking - check. Handicapped bathrooms – check. Paved paths at the entrance suitable for those with mobility issues – check. That met some of the basics, but it was clear that you could only enjoy just a tiny fraction of the park if you had mobility issues, maybe just one or two of the thousands of acres and none of the waterfalls.

Dogs are allowed as long as they're on a leash. So, if you want to bring your four-legged friend that's okay. And a lot of people feel safer hiking with a dog. So that was good news.

Next, we made a stop at the ranger station and gift shop. Unfortunately, the person on duty really didn't have any resources about the history of Jones Gap, and didn't even personally know what Native American tribes had called this area home. The information she shared was pretty sketchy, and I was disappointed the park didn't have that information readily available for visitors. It felt somewhat disrespectful to me. Solomon Jones, the park's namesake, was clearly not the first person to discover Jones Gap.

Mike and I continued back outside to take a short hike up to Jones Gap Falls. As I looked around on a warm summer, Friday afternoon, I didn't see a lot of diversity. There were a couple of people of Asian heritage but no other people of color. On the trail, we met two women who may have been a couple or not. We saw older adults like us, as well as young adults and children. But nearly everybody we saw was white. I don't remember seeing people of color there much in my past visits, and I've never seen a woman wearing a Hijab there, for example. I've seen plenty of walking sticks, but no canes, and I’ve never seen anyone there in a wheelchair or with a walker.

So, this challenge led me to do a little research at home to understand more about Jones Gap and about the South Carolina Parks System. And it led me to the biggest surprise I had in doing this challenge. The biggest surprise I discovered was a really well-done resource about our South Carolina Park system. And it's called: Remembering and Acknowledging the History of Segregation in South Carolina Parks.

It was there that I learned that until 1966, South Carolina operated all of the state parks under a strictly segregated policy and enforced that policy with the police in some cases and by closing parks in others. I was encouraged, very encouraged to find an article that outlined the commitments of the current state parks director, Paul McCormick, and his organization's efforts to increase the diversity of the park staff and to appeal to more diverse visitors and a little about the partnership that they've put in place with an organization called Black Folks Camp Too. The South Carolina State Parks system clearly is trying to do better in terms of diversity, which is good news for me to hear.

In reflecting on how I came to love Jones Gap and Pretty Place, I was reminded of the importance of our early outdoor experiences, of starting small and working up to bigger things, and the benefit of strong mentors.

I’ve also come to realize that a part of the responsibility for making these outdoor spaces more welcoming, accessible, and safe rests with me. Whether that is through my own behavior, my role as a mentor and guide for others, or encouraging public stewards and organizations, like our Parks System, to better serve all of our neighbors.

I hope you enjoyed this challenge as much as I did. I’d love to hear about your experiences, so please feel free to share them in the comments for this post.

Join me next week for another Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.

Thanks for participating.

WEEK 2 - People and Stories

Hi, this is Ame Sanders with State of Inclusion.

I’m back with another week of the Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.

Similar to our last week’s challenge, the idea this week is to continue to Wake Up and better see what is all around us. And this time, we’re going to do it by taking a look at the media and messages we see, both in physical print and online, specifically Outdoor-oriented media.

I'm at the Transylvania County Library about to do my research for week number two. We’re going to call it People and Stories.

I've picked up a few magazines that I'm going to go through and they are:


Mountain Living in Western North Carolina. It’s not exactly an outdoor magazine, but the subtitle Great Summer Getaways grabbed me, plus it is free, and it’s distributed heavily in the Western North Carolina area and it’s picked up by a lot of vacationers there. So, I thought it would be good to take a look at that.

And the third magazine that I’m looking at is National Parks: Summer 2023.

So, once I’ve finished with these, I’m going to spend some time with some online resources. Obviously, not that many people read physical magazines these days. Maybe the library is not the best place to start with this, but that’s where I am.

As a reminder, we’re looking specifically for the articles, images, and stereotypes that are shown in outdoor-related media, advertising, and publications.

So, I'm gonna get to work here.

First, I’m looking at The Bicycling magazine. The issue that was on display in the library that I picked up was from 2020, Since we're in 2023, it's a little old.

I've gone through the magazine to try and see what kind of information it presents and how it presents stories about riders, images, and advertisements. So the thing I noticed right away is that there are not very many people of color shown in this magazine. I counted a total of 2. Even those are pretty small pictures, at that. Maybe there’s a person of color’s leg in another ad, but I can’t really be sure. You kind of get the idea here. So this issue is pretty exclusively white and overwhelmingly male-oriented and male-dominated in terms of imagery.

So, that led me to take a few minutes to google about diversity in cycling, which I didn’t know anything about, and found a few articles, including one I’ll include in the show notes.

Which basically says that in 2021, USA Cycling reported that their members were 86% white, 83%male and 50% middle-aged. Okay, knowing these troubling facts, I guess the images in this magazine are pretty true to those numbers, perhaps skewing a little younger, and as you’ll soon hear, with a few more women included.

So, on another note, I have to admit that I was surprised to find the LGBTQ community was very well-represented in this issue of the magazine.

There's an article in here about Eileen Guinea, and her wife, Jenny Hall, who used cycling to help Jenny face the adversity of cancer, riding an adaptive bike to help make the sport more accessible during her illness. Also, Eileen was prominently featured in another section of the magazine about cycling insights from experts. I took all of that as a positive sign.

Then there's what I found to be a very interesting article about Molly Cameron, who is a transgender athlete, and racer. This article gave me some new perspectives on the evolving rules that transgender athletes have had to face as they want to compete at the national and international levels. In Molly's case, she wanted to compete as a woman, but she was kept from doing that in a number of cases. She competed in mixed-gender races, and also, in some cases, had to compete with men. It was a practical and tragic look in the article at just how varied the guidelines are, how restrictive, and how they changed over time. I really liked this article, because it showcased Molly’s unwavering commitment to competing in the sport that she loves while also telling us about the myriad of challenges she has faced to do so. How even things like the loss of her insurance, which meant she had to stop hormone treatment, changed the rules yet again for her. I found the article to be engaging, honest, sympathetic, and void of sensationalism. Just an honest look at how difficult it is to compete as a transgender athlete. Well done!

I don’t have enough experience with this magazine to know if these were token articles or demonstrated a true commitment to diversity. Still, at least these two were encouraging.

The next magazine that I took a look at was the National Parks Magazine: Summer of 2023.

The thing that captured my attention right off was the cover.

It's a picture of a group of Black children, probably from I don't know what year but maybe sometime in the 1930s or 40s, and inside, there's a very in-depth article about remembering Julius Rosenwald and the efforts to create a National Park in Chicago to recognize his legacy. The title is: 5000 Schools and How Julius Rosenwald’s Revolutionary Project Changed America.

It is about his legacy and I didn’t know anything about it. Between 1912 and 1932, 5000 Black schools were built across 15 Southern states. This undertaking was a partnership between the Black scholar Booker T. Washington, head of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, and businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, the President and eventual chairman of Sears and Roebuck, who himself had never finished high school. We learn that about 1/3 of Black children in the South were educated in these schools during the time they were active.

Knowing a little about the history of the parks system, it was surprising to discover this as the cover article for their publication, and it introduced me to a historical story I had never heard. One that showcased both Jewish and Black history in a powerful light. I hope that their work is successful and that they are able to create a new National Park to honor Julius Rosenwald and Booker T Washington. We need more stories like these in our country and in our parks system.

There were several other stories in this magazine focused on a more diverse perspective. One was an article called: Second Take, which is about how the organization History Colorado which is a state agency and charitable organization that often works with the national park site, has taken down a flawed exhibit about the Sand Creek massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho that angered the Tribes. This article talks about the organization’s current efforts to partner with the tribes to rebuild an exhibit that gets the story right this time.

So I would say overall, the tone for the National Parks was one of blended history of both recognizing Native American stories, and how we failed to tell those properly, and how we're moving towards telling those in a more meaningful and historically accurate way. And then also providing some historical context for the Black community. I wasn’t crazy about the editorial choice of using insets to tell the Native American side of the story, but at least they included that perspective. Overall, I thought it was a really interesting mix of articles. And honestly, it was not at all what I expected. The tone was a bit overtly apologetic, which is fair, perhaps realistic, but perhaps not representative of all the work happening in the park system.

The next magazine that I picked up was: Mountain Living in Western North Carolina. The subtitle is Great Summer Getaways, from pet-friendly places to our favorite swimming holes, and an escape to Highlands to get out and explore the best spots of the season.

So this magazine is for summer 2023. And I would say, I give it a really low score in terms of diversity and inclusion. As I look through the magazine, it's largely a very white, high-end magazine, with lovely highly produced pictures of nice homes and high-end hotels with a very elitist tone. .It felt a little like an ad for mountain gentrification.

You don't even see images of people of color as customers in the restaurants shown or the outdoor activities, or even being interviewed for the articles. You do see, however, a number of very well-known black performers, musicians, and dancers, in some of the ads for some of the cultural events.

Hmmm. So, clearly not the best balance of imagery.

Maybe I missed something in my cursory review of this magazine, but it felt like a pretty abysmal showing for inclusion and equity in Western North Carolina.

So the next magazine that I turned to was The Sierra, the online magazine of the Sierra Club.

So one of the articles that they had in this magazine was about a program that helps children of migrant farmworkers connect to the outdoors. This article goes on to talk about the fact that children of migrant farmworkers are particularly vulnerable, they are a vulnerable population, and that 45 to 50% of them don't finish high school. And so having a program that targets them specifically, I thought was really interesting, and the article was well done.

The thing that was encouraging to me about this magazine was that there were other articles as well. I won’t go into all of them.

One that particularly intrigued me was: The Five Must-Read Books on Environmental Justice for Juneteenth. What an interesting way to celebrate Juneteenth, and so consistent with Sierra’s persona and their brand, and so I’ll include those books in the show notes in case you want to read them.

I decided it was time to continue my research online so I hit a popular backpacking site, Backpacking Light which boasts having over 20,000 active members. Even though I’m not a backpacker, I took a quick tour through some of their posts. The imagery on the website was a little overwhelmingly white, as maybe a lot of backpackers are. But, I did come across an interesting article from a young Black woman, Shilletha Curtis (I’ll put a link in the show notes), about an unsettling experience while thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail.

Then, one thing led me to another, as they often do, and I ended up at the “In Solidarity Project,” which is an initiative across the outdoor industry – media companies, gear companies, non-profits, and their stated mission is to

build a better, stronger, more diverse outdoor industry.

It was encouraging to see so many partners, including Backpacking Light and the next group I’ll talk about, Outside. Part of what they do is sign a CEO pledge. Now that isn’t an indication of the level of real progress, but it is a step, and I’m hopeful that many of the companies that are listed on their website have something more behind their commitment. So, we’ll keep this list of companies for another one of our upcoming challenges.

I saved the best and arguably the biggest for last. I quickly used up my 4 free articles looking at It was there that I found exactly what I was looking for.

A magazine that had thoughtful diversity and representation in its editorial content and ads. Which appeared to be executed as an outgrowth of a clear corporate commitment to equity and inclusion In short, I think they nailed it.

They may still have a long way to go on their equity and inclusion journey, as many of us do. However, they appear committed and clear-minded about the work ahead of them. They are living out their commitment every day in their online media properties, but also working internally to live into the goals they’ve set. I’m not on the inside, and I know they just experienced a big layoff, but they seem to be moving in the right direction. I’ll post a link to their 2022 Corporate Impact Report. They are a behemoth in the outdoor and active lifestyle media world, and they want to get even bigger. It’s worth having a look at what they’re doing, as they will impact many of the media properties that you might follow or enjoy.

It was here that I found the article I posted last week by Latria Graham as well as a second article by her and a follow-up interview. I’ll share links to these 2 new articles in the show notes.

I’m just saying that Outside had a number of inclusive stories, and they didn’t feel staged or handpicked. They felt authentic. They were stories about real people who are just enjoying and experiencing the outdoors in their own personal and unique way, and I love that.

So, I’ll end on that note.

I would say this experience of researching left me a bit more hopeful than I expected. Honestly, I was pretty cynical when I started and ended up recognizing that the outdoor media industry is trying to move towards equity and inclusion and better overall representation. Sometimes it felt a little forced, but it is progress, and sometimes it felt just right.

I hope you’re enjoying these challenges as much as I am. I’d love to hear about your experiences, so please feel free to share them in the comments on this post.

If you want to get a jump on next week’s episode, you might enjoy watching a short video where Kristen Walker, co-host of the Our Parks Too Series, visits Congaree National Park with her friends Danielle and Tavon.

I came across this initiative of the Sierra Club while researching Congaree National Park. Sadly, the Sierra Club doesn’t make it very discoverable from their website, something I hope they remedy before too long. This is part of the Sierra Club’s Outdoors for All Initiative. See the link in the show notes.

In way of introduction, I’ll just say that the blurb on this initiative says that

Kristen Walker and Diamon Clark have paired together with the Sierra Club on a mission to showcase Black joy and inclusivity in the National Parks.

So, they are planning to visit 63 National Parks, and one of the parks they happened to visit was Congaree National Park, which happens to be where I’m going next week.

So, Join me next week for another Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.

Thanks so much for participating.

WEEK 3 - See the Past Differently, See the Place Differently

Dendrophile – A noun, that means:

A person who loves trees and forests. Someone who feels changed and renewed by spending time in a forest.

While completing this week’s challenge, I had the opportunity to meet someone I would consider a true dendrophile. Someone who loves trees and forests. Somebody who has loved a specific forest, what is now Congaree National Park, for over fifty years. His name is John Cely.

He knows the trees by their names. Their scientific names, of course, but also the names people have given them. Like the Richland County pine – which is believed to be about the same age as the county it is named for. He can tell you which big trees were toppled by Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and can still be seen on the forest floor. He can name the trees felled by Hurricane Matthew. He knows the current champion trees and speaks fondly of old champions as one would of a friend that has passed on.

John has loved that specific forest and has been there alongside Congaree since the early work to preserve the now 27,000-acre forest, rivers, lakes, and wetlands that comprise Congaree National Park.

  • He was there in 2003 when Congaree became part of the National Park System.
  • He was there in 1981 when UNESCO designated Congaree as an International Biosphere Reserve.
  • He was there in 1976 when President Ford designated The Congaree Swamp to be a National Monument.
  • And, he was there when it still needed protecting and was just a private hunt club.

So, this is probably where I should admit that I don’t like the hot. Summer is not my favorite season. Mosquitoes love me, but I don’t love them back.

Did I mention Congaree National Park is nearly completely on a floodplain, in essence, it’s a swamp.

So, what could get me to head to Congaree National Park in the middle of the hottest July the world has yet seen? Dear listeners, I’ll tell you what could make me go there, and also make me happy I went. It would be a 5-mile hike guided by John Cely to visit the Big Trees of Congaree National Park and this Outdoor Challenge with you.

This week’s challenge asks us to choose a public place. To learn a little bit about the place and its history. The idea is that if you see the past differently, you’ll see the place differently.

I chose to go o Congaree, and I’m going to share with you a little of what I learned and a little of what my visit made me see differently.

I’d like to start with this quote by Alan Watts:

But I’ll tell you what hermits realize. If you go off into a far, far forest and get very quiet, you’ll come to understand that you’re connected with everything.

First, a little about the history of Congaree, what I’ve learned, and its big trees and forest that have seen so much.

  • Archaeological evidence suggests humans have inhabited this area for at least 10,000 years.
  • The Congaree, early Native Americans, established themselves in the area about 1000 AD. As a reference, the oldest tree standing in Congaree is The General Greene Tree. It's the largest Bald Cypress in the park and is estimated to be 1000 years old.
  • In 1541 Hernando De Soto passed through the area
  • Between 1715 and 1717, the Yemassee wars were fought by local Native American Tribes trying to retain their territory. The Yemasee War was one of the most disruptive and transformational conflicts of colonial America. About 70 percent of South Carolina's settlers were killed, also making the war one of the bloodiest wars in American history. The last Native American fighters withdrew from the conflict in 1717, bringing a kind of fragile peace.
  • After the war, the numbers of the Congaree and other Native Americans in the area dwindled dramatically due to the wars and also due to diseases brought by the Europeans.
  • In 1785, Richland County was established. You’ll remember that is approximately the age of the Richland County Pine I spoke about earlier.
  • From 1760 to the 1830s saw the height was called the Maroon Communities. And this was a new term for me. These were Escaped slaves or free Blacks that established independent small Black communities in the swamp, generally living deep in the swamp in secret and hiding.
  • Prior to the Civil War, there weren’t any trespassing laws in S.C. Any land that was unfenced could be freely traversed, After the war, laws were enacted between 1865 and 1881 to control the Black community (formerly enslaved people) to restrict their free movement and keep them working, and to keep them from living off of the land. Those living near Congaree Swamp experienced a loss of the commons, or open land in the area. While all of them had previously been able to hunt, fish, and harvest from these bountiful lands and relied on that for their subsistence. The new laws essentially made that illegal.
  • In 1895 – Francis Beidler obtained land throughout South Carolina, including the Congaree area and started logging. The work was backbreaking and dangerous and mostly carried out by Black men. Around 1915, it was pretty much deemed infeasible to take out any more lumber, and felled logs were left to rot in the forest and at the bottom of waterways, where they still are today.
  • During the Jim Crow era in the south, Congaree became the scene of instances of racial violence.
  • John Cely told me that no one was displaced to create the park. Most of the land is flood plain, so few people lived in and around the area, and I’m glad that’s true. However, we know that many losses had happened before the park was established. The Native Americans were driven from their land in the Yemassee war. In Maroon communities, people were hunted and returned to plantations. Even for those still living around the area of the park, they experienced a second loss of commons as areas where they historically fished and hunted could no longer be accessed.
  • Today Congaree’s lands are protected, and its challenges largely stem from climate change, pollution, invasive species, newly introduced and migrating insects that are attacking certain species of trees, all of these things which adversely impacting the health of the forest.

Over hundreds, even thousands of years, Congaree has seen some of the worst man can do to each other and endured some of the worst things we could do to or bring to the forest. It has also seen the love and protection from people like John Cely. Through all that, the forest remains resilient, and it persists.

I’d like to share another quote, this one is by Hal Borland

If you would know strength and patience, welcome the company of trees.

Visiting this place, meeting the champions with John, and then getting to understand a little of Congaree’s history gave me a better sense of perspective and time for my community and for my work.

On our short hike, John introduced us to maybe a dozen incredibly beautiful, enormous old trees. State champion trees and National champion trees. On our afternoon walk, we glimpsed a tiny fraction of the richness of the forest. Mostly what we could easily see from the boardwalk and trails or with a short off-trail excursion.

But when we’d step off the trail, The rich and dark green wood would envelop us. It hinted at what lay beyond, champions that John may not have even met. Trees that John called the JV team that one day might become the next generation of champions, but would already dwarf trees you might see in your everyday life.

It was incredible to have the opportunity to see and acquaint myself with the trees in their own unique beauty and to hear a bit of their individual story. But, it was seeing the individual stories as part of the larger story of the forest, and this area’s past and present, and its future, that also spoke to me.

I love this quote from John’s blog about Congaree:

In my old age, my attention has been drawn more and more from Congaree’s champion trees to the incredibly diverse and complex forest itself. The big trees have served as a type of portal to draw me deeper into the forests’ mysteries and secrets. People who focus only on the park’s large trees are losing sight of the big picture and literally can’t see the forest because of the trees.

You know, we are also part of a forest, our community. Even our champions are just part of our community. Just as it is the complexity and diversity of all the trees make the forest special, it is the complexity and diversity of all of us that make our community special.

Join me next week as we return to the forest to Wander and Wonder.

Thanks so much for participating in the Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.

WEEK 4 - Wander and Wonder

I love this week’s challenge. I’m going to admit that I believe I’m naturally inclined and very well-suited to wander and wonder.

Perhaps we all are.

I chose these two quotes from Dacher Keltner’s book, Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life, to help introduce and frame this week’s challenge.

Awe is the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends your current understanding of the world. – Dacher Keltner
Wonder, the mental state of openness, questioning, curiosity, and embracing mystery, arises out of experiences of awe. - Dacher Keltner

If deciding to achieve a state of awe or wonder sounds a little challenging to you, go with me on this. It is not. We can all manage this challenge.

All we have to do are 4 simple steps:

1. Get outside,

2. Set our intention to build a more inclusive and equitable community and world,

3. Open our hearts and be ready to receive messages that come our way,

4. Wander and let the natural world speak to us.

You can wander and wonder on a forest path you know by heart, by walking a local labyrinth, in a parking lot, or by walking around your backyard. You can wander and wonder during the day, at sunrise, sunset, underneath the stars, or with a full moon to illuminate you. You can wander and wonder alone or with a guide. You can wonder at something tiny, human-sized, or vast. It is all possible.

Our Marketing Coordinator, Kayla, shared photos and wonder experiences of looking at the vast night sky and at a building and reflection in a parking lot. I’ve shared images from my time walking a local labyrinth and from my Sacred Saunter through the forest with Mattie, a Certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, as well as images looking up at the tall trees from Congaree National Park, the setting of our last week’s challenge.

I’d love for you to share what inspired wonder for you and any reflections.

i thank You God for most this amazing day:

for the leaping greenly spirits of trees

and a blue true dream of sky;

and for everything which is natural

which is infinite

which is yes!

That is how Dr. Decker (Mattie) opened our Sacred Saunter. By sharing this verse from ee cummings’ poem.

I had come on a Sunday afternoon to the Transfiguration Preserve in Bat Cave, North Carolina for a Sacred Saunter.

Transfiguration Preserve is 500 plus acres preserved forever by Conserving Carolina. It is a beautiful and wild place of peaceful solitude. I had signed up to participate in one of Conserving Carolina’s monthly Forest Bathing walks.

What is a Sacred Saunter, you might ask.

It is a slow, deliberate, mindful walk in the woods.

A Sacred Saunter and Forest bathing are not about getting exercise. It’s not about hiking to get somewhere. It’s about being present in the forest, taking it in. It’s about creating relationships between humans and the more-than-human world.

My guide for my walk was Dr. Mattie Decker, a certified Nature and Forest Therapy Guide. She is also a Zen practitioner, an Episcopal oblate, and a retired professor.

As mentioned, we started our walk with a poem and a few moments to center ourselves and set our intention for the walk. As we started our saunter, I experienced a moment of synchronicity.

I mentioned to Mattie that I had spent the day before amongst the champion trees of Congaree National Park. Mattie shared that where we stood was at the headwaters of the Congaree. The river at Transfiguration Preserve, the Rocky Broad, began there on that hill behind us. It flows into the Broad, which is one of the three watersheds that come together to create the Congaree Swamp, where I had just been the day before.

As we continued slowly down an old roadway to a grassy wooded area near the river, Mattie peppered our discussion naturally with prompts to encourage mindfulness and to help me calm and center myself. For a moment, we paused beside the river, and she suggested that I could face the water as the river flowed toward us and open my heart to what I needed to bring into my life. She also suggested I could, in the same way, face the river downstream and let go of whatever I needed to release from my life as the water flowed away.

In that moment of stillness, the river also reminded me of how I am through this work, a small part of a mighty river of change that is flowing throughout our country and our world. As we all come together, like the river, we are moving our communities and our world inexorably toward equity and inclusion.

Mattie led me to a place near a small waterfall where she left me to meditate beside the river and, in my case, to remove my shoes and both literally and figuratively put my feet into the welcoming and soothing waters of the river.

As we walked back to the house, traveling the same path we’d traveled before, I was surprised to find that I noticed things I’d not noticed on the way down to the river. It was almost as if they had been placed there after we first passed. However, I knew it was not the path that had changed. It was I who was now more open, more attentive, and better able to see.

Along our walk, Mattie had picked wild wine berries to share with me and gathered a few small natural elements, a collection of what she called gifts from the forest.

We ended our walk back near the foundation of an old school. The familiar scent of boxwoods filled the air. Mattie asked me read out loud the poem by Mary Oliver, When I am among the trees…

As I prepared to leave, Mattie mentioned a labyrinth that they were building further up on the mountain.

Which is what led me to wander to my next wonder.

About a week later, I found myself at the First Baptist Church of Greenville. I did not expect to wander to a local church as part of this challenge. But here I was.

Synchronously, I had been speaking recently with a friend about a performance of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus that had been hosted several years ago by her church, the First Baptist Church of Greenville. I had also recently discovered our own Greenville Gay Men’s Chorus, which performed recently at the First Baptist Church. That was all somewhere in the back of my mind. So, when I used the handy labyrinth locator and discovered that there was a labyrinth at the First Baptist Church and it was one of the few in our area, I knew I had to go there.

The First Baptist Church of Greenville, South Carolina, is something of a beacon, a welcoming and inclusive place in one of the most conservative cities in one of the most conservative states of the country. I am always amazed at their thoughtfulness, generosity, and welcoming spirit. The day I walked the labyrinth in their prayer garden was no different. Their young pastoral care assistant instantly welcomed me, showed me the garden and the labyrinth, offered the space as long as I needed, and then quietly left me to my own peaceful reflection.

I sat for a moment on the stone steps beneath the dark shade of magnolias. I heard the children playing nearby. A dove cooed softly. The church bell tolled behind me.

As I centered my intention, I knew I came in gratitude to this church for all it does and brings to our city. For its members and for its leadership, who play a role in inclusion and equity in Greenville and beyond.

As I slowly walked their labyrinth, I repeated to myself a mantra of sorts:

may my community be as welcoming as this church, may my community be as open as this church, may my community be as inclusive as this church

As I continued the words of my mantra, I noticed that my words slowly shifted until I found myself saying:

may I be as open as this church, may I be as inclusive as this church, and on and on with my own intentions as I circled toward the center of the labyrinth.

As I turned to wind my way out of the labyrinth, my thoughts and mantra shifted yet again to where I found myself saying,

may I help my community to become more open, may I help my community to become more inclusive, may I help my community to become more welcoming to all,

and so on until I stood back at the beginning of the labyrinth.

So what do I take away from my wander and wonder challenge?

In one case, this challenge I benefited from an expert guide in a very special and somewhat remote place. In the other case, I had only to stop at a nearby location and pause for quiet reflection. This challenge can be fit to whatever you need in whatever way you can manage.

During my challenge, I experienced several moments of synchronicity where time seemed to fold back on itself. Too many to mention them all here, but it reminded me again of the deep connections we all share and the invisible threads that bind us together.

I was also reminded that all around us are special people of good intent who are working to build a more inclusive and equitable world. Using mindfulness to help open yourself to see them, to connect with them, and to step into this river of change together can be both welcoming and soothing.

Week 5 - Empathy is Key

Ame Sanders 0:11

Hi, this is Ame Sanders from State of Inclusion.

Well, we have made it to Week 5 in the Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge. Woo Hoo! That means we are halfway through.

This week’s challenge asks us to: See the outdoors through someone else's eyes.

It asks us to reach out to someone we know who might experience the outdoors differently from how we do, or face barriers to access the outdoors. It asks us to listen to their story and learn about their experience.

I knew that I wanted to also make this conversation part of my podcast, so I wanted to talk with a local change agent,somebody who's actively working to participate in and build a more inclusive outdoors.

And right away, I knew I wanted to talk with Chris Sparrow.

Chris, and I first met as teammates in a community leadership program a few years back. Chris is an adaptive athlete, and he is also the coordinator of a program called Greenville CAN. Greenville CAN is an initiative in the place Chris and I both call home, Greenville, South Carolina, Greenville CAN works to make Greenville County a better place for people with disabilities. The CAN acronym stands for collaborative action network, but the name says it all.

You guys know that I host a podcast, and I talk with people all the time. And, I’ve known Chris for a while and know how open and easy he is to talk with. Still, I have to admit, that this challenge made me slightly uncomfortable. I was afraid I might ask a question Chris didn’t want to answer, or ask him something too personal, or maybe ask my questions in a way that seemed insensitive.

I had to remind myself that being uncomfortable was always going to be part of this Challenge. It hadn’t been designed to make any of us, myself included, feel more comfortable, but rather designed to stretch us just a little.

This week’s challenge is designed to require us, and me, to practice and build our empathy muscles, to build our skills at becoming more empathic listeners. It asks us to listen deeply to someone else’s story and to move beyond sympathy to empathy.

So how did my discussion with Chris go?

First, Chris was enthusiastic and generous in telling his story and letting us all in on how he feels as an adaptive athlete. In talking with him, I could really feel his excitement and enthusiasm for the outdoors and getting back to the sports he loves. Chris made it easy for me to both ask questions and to listen. I now understood a little better some of the challenges that he and others with disabilities face when heading outdoors. And, in many ways, Chris has also forever changed my view of what's possible for people with disabilities. Who knew adaptive mountain biking was even a thing? Or Adaptive Golf? Or adaptive pickleball?

I'm grateful Chris was so open and willing to share his story. Not to mention the great pictures he shared! I’m also thankful for the work he and his organization do every day to make our hometown a more inclusive and equitable place.

Following is a short excerpt of my discussion with Chris. If you want to hear more of his personal story as well as learn about his work with Greenville CAN, head over to the podcast.

Ame Sanders 4:10

You were into sports before you were injured, and now you've found your way back to sports and to the outdoors and to competing in sports as well, which sounds like it's really exciting for you and a lot of fun. I guess I wanted to ask you, maybe, if you would just talk a little bit about how important you feel like that is for you, and what it gave you or gave you back to be able to do this.

Chris Sparrow 4:35

First, normalcy. A lot of times, your life is thrown so out of whack when you have a disability, that just finding things that were normal before getting back to those is incredibly important and just your own mental health. Speaking on just that mental health aspect of it too, whenever I leave or I'm going home from a bike ride, or going out and playing pickleball or going out and playing golf, there's just this good feeling I have. Like, this was great. I got out and did it. So amazing. It kind of feels goofy, but I feel cool, like actually going out there and doing something. It doesn't matter how exhausted I am or dirty or whatever the case may be, it's just that you definitely get like a high from being able to actually go out there and do it. It's an incredible feeling.

So, just being able to have that mental health side and helps out with your confidence. Because, you know, it's easy to start to lose confidence in yourself and lose self-esteem when you have a disability. So, this is something that definitely builds it back up. Even if I'm out there having a terrible day on the golf course, just the ability to go out there and be there is incredibly helpful.

And just the ability to get outside too. That's another thing is a lot of people with disabilities are trapped indoors, or they have limited time to get outside. So, to be able to get onto a golf course or to be able to go out to a state forest or a national park or just a baseball field, right? These are things that really help the mental aspect and the quality of life of people with disabilities.

Ame Sanders 6:40

As always, thanks for listening.

Week 6 - Discover the Inclusive Outdoors in Your Community

Ame Sanders 0:11

Hi, this is Ame Sanders from State of Inclusion. Welcome to Week 6 of the Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.

This week’s challenge asks us to explore and discover: What is happening to build a more inclusive outdoors in our own community and who’s doing it.

It asks us to look around our local community. Where do we see positive signs, even small ones, that the outdoors in our community is becoming more accessible, more equitable, and more inclusive? Who are the people in our community who are committed to this work?

And, as we learn about and consider the work they are doing, is there a way we can get to know them a little better, recognize and thank them for their work, and maybe even help them or support them in some way?

The good news in my community is that there are many positive signs. I’m encouraged by the many organizations and individuals around my community, my state, and my region who are committed to a more accessible and inclusive outdoors. We still have a long way to go, but there are positive signs of progress.

If you’ve been following the challenge, you’ve already heard stories about some of what I’ve found.

My latest podcast interview and our last week’s challenge introduced you to adaptive athlete and disability activist Chris Sparrow.

You may also remember my Sacred Saunter with Mattie was on lands conserved by Conserving Carolina and the sacred saunter was offered in partnership with them. As I’ve engaged with and learned more about Conserving Carolina’s work, it makes me want to learn even more about how they are committed to a more inclusive and equitable approach for their organization and work.

In our week one challenge, I included a link to an article I discovered about the director of our South Carolina Parks System, Paul McCormack, and his commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. I also included a link to a really beautifully done park resource that shares about the past history of racism in the South Carolina Parks system. It's called Remembering and Acknowledging the History of Segregation in South Carolina State Parks. If you’ve been listening to the podcast for a while, you know that I believe honest truth-telling about our history is a necessary and critical foundational element for making progress on equity and inclusion.

After listening to my interview with Chris Sparrow, one of my listeners shared information about how her state, Minnesota, is improving accessibility at their state parks through an expansion of all-terrain track chairs. So cool! Encouraged by what I’d read about Paul McCormack, I decided to reach out to him, share the Minnesota article, and see if I could learn more about what was happening at our South Carolina parks. I wasn’t sure I’d get a response, but I was pleasantly surprised when Paul quickly responded and offered to talk, asking for input and ideas. The result of our discussion is this week’s podcast episode and one of my answers to this week’s challenge.

Paul helped me better understand about diversity, equity, and inclusion in our state parks, but I was interested in learning a little about our local parks too.

One thing that is crystal clear, you can’t enjoy a park if you can’t get there.

That led me to a question about how many of my city’s parks are accessible by mass transit. As it turns out, 44 out of 58 of our Parks and/or Community Centers in the city limits are within ¼ mile of an existing transit stop. Again, as was the case when I reached out to Paul, I was impressed by the prompt and thoughtful response from the parks and recreation team at the City of Greenville. First, I had no idea we had so many parks inside the city limits. And, I was encouraged that so many of them are reasonably accessible by transit. There were a couple of our beautiful and important outdoor spaces that were not accessible by transit, and it made me a little sad to think that many in our community might not have the opportunity to experience those public spaces due to a lack of transportation. Still, both the response and the results were more positive than I had expected.

All of my experiences were not equally positive. I have to admit that the county team did not respond at all to a similar query. Knowing the reality of our local transit system, I do not expect the accessibility would be nearly as good as in the city.

So, this has been a little about what I learned through completing this week’s challenge. I hope you’ll take this opportunity to learn more about your own local outdoor spaces and share a little of what you learned.

As always, thanks for listening.

Week 7 - Our Part of the Mess

Ame Sanders

Hi, this Ame again from the State of Inclusion. We’re now at Week 7 of the Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.

If you’ve been following along, you know that we have already covered a lot of ground in this challenge.

This week’s challenge is called Our Part of the Mess.

You know, if we care enough to change or improve a system, we are almost certainly part of that system. A key necessary and early step for any systems change work is to locate ourselves within the system. In the book, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, they call it Naming Our Part of the Mess.

This week’s challenge is intended to give us a small taste of what it means to locate ourselves within the system and examine the choices that we make. It asks us to:

  • Take a look at our favorite outdoor gear. Who makes it? Where do we buy it?
  • What are the outdside organizations we support, endorse, or donate to?
  • What do we know about them and their commitment to equity and inclusion?

The gear we buy and the organizations we support by far are not the only way we are part of the outdoor system. There are many ways we are part of and impact the system.

In the photo you can see some of the gear that is very typical for me to use on a hike. It includes my favorite hiking pants from LLBean, one of the Columbia Performance fishing gear shirts, especially in the summer, my Camelbak hydration pack, my Altra trail running shoes, and my trusty Leki hiking pole. I bought a couple of those items from REI, where I’m a member, and which is one of my preferred stores for outside gear.

When I took a look at those companies and those brands, what did I learn in my research and my reflection?

I was reminded again of my privilege. That stack of gear and where I got it are pretty privileged. Even with some of these items on sale right now, it represents over $400 worth of gear that I regularly use each time I go hiking. Even for what a lot of people would consider relatively modest hikes.

If your gear doesn’t look like this and you don’t shop where I shop, that is okay. Whatever your gear is, however you acquire it, you can still do this step. It is about where you find yourself in the system. Where I find myself is squarely in a very privileged spot. I’m able to acquire and use the gear that is purpose suited and fit for me. Gear that has all of the advantages and comfort that I can find.

I have to admit, until this challenge, I’d really not spent much time thinking about or studying these companies and their brands. I had a vague notion that they are mostly respected companies with some sense of purpose. However, I have to admit I hadn’t really looked before. So, now I have to admit I also find myself a privileged, uninformed, and inattentive shopper.

Hmmm. That’s not exactly what I had hoped to be able to say to you guys, but it is where I find myself in this outdoor system, at the moment. So, let’s see who I’ve been mindlessly supporting all this time.

LEKI – I’ve been using this specific pole for a really long time. They are a German-owned company, and I wasn’t able to find any statement from them about diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. It doesn’t mean they don’t have it. It just wasn’t easy for me to spot. Nor, did I see much on their website that demonstrated a commitment to diversity and inclusion. I didn’t even see any older, overweight, white hikers like me pictured. Okay, the first company, sort of struck out for this challenge.

After that, it got a lot more interesting and it actually made me hopeful for the Outdoor Industry as a whole.

Right off the top, let’s talk about the very best that I found. REI. They are a co-op and member-owned organization. I’ve been a member for years, so I’ve known for some time that they have a purposeful approach to their business and their brand. Still, even I was really surprised at all they are doing for diversity and equity. As we heard last week from Paul McCormack, with the state park system, it can also make good business sense as demographics are shifting, so there are probably many reasons they are doing this.

What are they doing? First, it was easy to find information about their corporate commitment to diversity on their website, and they go a step further by publishing how they are doing against their objectives, including things like the diversity results in staff and management. There is definitely room for improvement in their results, but accountability and transparency go hand in hand, and they are so important. Their CEO has signed a public pledge with a non-profit called CAMBER that is working to make the whole outdoor industry more inclusive. They are even thought leaders in this space, funding research and position papers. They support diversity-oriented nonprofits and causes. Their store staffs volunteer as a team and give back locally. Employees from our local REI store just volunteered at one of our parks to help remove invasives from a natural area. They also have created partnerships focused on making the outdoors more accessible and inclusive. They are thoughtful about their branding, with wonderfully inclusive images on their site and their social feeds. They are the best of the companies that I looked at. They have staked themselves out publicly, made thoughtful commitments, they are transparent, and I would say they seem to be industry leaders on diversity and equity. I’m glad I’m a member and I’m glad I shop with there.

What about my other companies?

Camelbak was probably the biggest surprise for me. They seem to be the next most purposeful in their commitment to diversity and equity. They have action teams around community, workforce and brand. They have partnerships with groups like Melanin Base Camp and Unlikely Hikers. They are definitely not visibly doing all that REI is doing. I was still encouraged by what Camelbak is doing.

I would say that the last three companies on my list: Columbia, LL Bean and Altra are all visibly supporting diversity and equity and taking some sort of action. They have some partnerships with diversity focused nonprofits. Columbia and Altra both support industry coalitions that are working to make their industry more inclusive. However, it feels like they could be doing a little bit more.

Overall, I have to say after looking at this, it felt like a shift is happening in the outside industry. There are non-profits working to make the outdoor industry more inclusive, that are engaging large and small companies across the industry, supporting public pledges, delivering training, and reporting on progress, creating an environment of accountability. There are industry leaders, like REI, showing the way. There are others who could take notes and step up more, but something is happening out there. I might not buy again from Leki, poles are not a frequent purchase. I can also feel great about shopping with REI, maybe not as great about shopping with the others.

Back to my privilege for a minute. One of the articles that I came across reminded me that I could use my privilege to help others have access to the gear they need and be better equipped to get outside safely and comfortably.

  • By giving back or supporting lending and check-out programs.
  • Or, at minimum by not gear shaming or making people feel uncomfortable about what they wear or use outside.

This week’s challenge asked me to locate myself in the system. It didn’t make me feel comfortable because I didn’t necessarily like where I found myself. In doing so, I had to acknowledge my privilege again and consider becoming a little more thoughtful about the gear choices I make as well as it caused me to reflect on some personal actions I could take to better step up.

As always, thanks for listening.

Week 8 - It Starts With Play

Ame Sanders 0:10

Hi, this is Ame again from the State of Inclusion. We’re now at Week 8 of the Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.

In my past interviews with Paul McCormack, Director of South Carolina Parks System, and with Chris Sparrow, adaptive athlete and disability activist, we talked about the outdoors and children. Those discussions made me think a little bit more about where the love of the outdoors begins.

And, for the very young amongst us, we know it begins with outdoor play.

That inspired this week’s challenge. The challenge is to reflect on where our own love of the outdoors started and then to learn more about the play options that exist in the community very near us. That includes challenge elements like:

  • Stopping by and checking out the playground of the elementary school closest to you.
  • Finding your closest adaptive public playground and visit, if you can.
  • If you have time, you can even check out play spaces in different parts of your community to see how they stack up against one another.
  • If you don’t have a public play space near you, what kind of natural elements could kids where you are still enjoy?

As soon as I designed this challenge, I knew I wanted to talk with my friend Amanda McDougald Scott. Amanda has two degrees in psychology and a Ph.D. in International Family and Community Studies. Wow. She also founded a non-profit, Healthy Augusta, while she was at university. She’s worked with the Institute for Child Success and also with the Nicholtown Child and Family Collaborative in one of our historically Black communities, where she helped implement their Headstart program for childcare and built, of all things, a playground for the kids there. Amanda is an expert, but she is also a mom of a young boy, Polk. I asked Amanda about the importance of play and of outdoor play, and here’s her response.

Amanda McDougald-Scott 2:18

I maintain a real commitment to natural playgrounds. And people have different definitions of what they think that means. I would say, the less equipment, the better. I think natural playgrounds should provide ways for children to explore their natural environment without needing additional equipment to make that happen. So the things that we emphasized when we built that playground there's like a little hill that you can roll down, we did put a slide because that was something that was important to Headstart. We also had a sandbox, and we had a little water pump so that they could have like mud pies and things like that. And then, we also had a couple of chalkboards and things so children could be drawing outside. So there were lots of opportunities for kids to interact in that playground in a way that not all playgrounds were doing or even are doing now.

And as a testament to how important and how stark of a contrast there is between developmentally appropriate play, and learning, and then going into a school where you have to sit at your desk and be quiet and not talk in line and not talk to your friends and stuff like that all day is quite difficult. It is, you know, say that is difficult to watch. So one thing that I really want to encourage that might be a little bit beyond the scope of your outdoor play and community exploration is that that is underscoring the need for more developmentally appropriate instruction for children in public education settings.

Unstructured play is one of the most important components of healthy and proper childhood development. And when I say unstructured, I mean like, I see a lot of lot of children who really are not having enough time to do you know what it is that children are so good at, which is taking time to play and be imaginative.

Even my own wife, I feel this immense pressure from society, the community, other parents to have my son enrolled in just constant activity, you know, after school and I hear parents say, “Oh, my child just has so much energy.” Well, children are supposed to have energy and the best thing that that we can do for our children is not just fill up all of their time with screens and shuttling them from one activity to another. It's also really allowing them time to be and figure out who they are. Using their own creativity and using their own mind. Like, if you allow a child just to play with the toys that they have in the house, or even just send them outside the play, you will find that children will come up with things to do. And it's adults that often I'll hold them back. Because I've noticed quite frequently with my son, who has far more toys than any child needs, and he is more than happy to play with a stick and a rock in the backyard Like all of the toys inside, can be totally neglected, if he just gets to imagine something, playing through some scenario, or even a movie that he's seen, like all children do, you know, just playing that out with a stick and a rock and climbing a tree. He couldn't be happier. Just letting them grow and explore. Not only is it good for childhood development, and proper cognitive development, it's also really good, like social skill forming and stuff, like if they're playing with neighborhood children. Like one of the things that I love to see is whenever I take my son to the lake, and there's some children next to us, like all of a sudden, now they're building a, you know, they're building a sandcastle together. And that, to me is really great. They're learning how to talk to each other and cooperate and do an imaginative shared task. Something else that I feel like people overlook when they think about outdoor play, is that children being exposed to the different components in the natural environment is actually also really critical for their immune systems. So, there's several components that are critical for proper development when we talk about play and outdoor play.

Ame Sanders 7:17

You know, if you listen to my recent interview with Chris Sparrow, he also talked a little about play and playgrounds for children with disabilities, and he shared a little about what they need in order to enjoy a play space. Let’s listen to what he had to say.

Chris Sparrow 7:33

If there's anybody from any municipalities who designs playgrounds who's listening in--it makes such a big difference to have pieces of adaptive equipment there that youth with disabilities can use. So, whether that's being able to ramp up to elevated play features or have steps that they can make it to that or having the ground covering be something a youth in a wheelchair could easily roll over and navigate.

We come from the days of just fill it all up with mulch, all the ground. That can be very difficult for youth who are using wheelchairs to navigate through themselves. That's a lot of it too. We want to encourage independence. I mean, yes, I'm sure a parent could come through and push that youth to whatever play features they needed through mulch. But that means a lot more for the youth to be able to do it themselves and to play with other kids themselves without having to rely on somebody else to be able to push them around.

Then also being able to engage with a lot of play features that are ground-level is a big deal. Having a lot of different styles of play features to encourage different types of learning. So, you have maybe musical styles, right? Instead of just having a slide or monkey bars, to climb on, have some musical features. Have some tactile-type elements that a youth with a visual disability can go and engage with and start to play with. All those things make a difference. We can do so much with these playgrounds, and they can be so interactive and have so many different cool features. We've been limited in the past, but people and a lot of playground designers too are starting to realize things these things. Then also having very much the same thing as far as like the ground covering, is making sure there's enough shade. Climate change is real, and it is affecting us on a day-to-day basis. So, having enough shade out there for youth who may need it is important. Having an accessible restroom right there. When I say accessible, yes, having an accessible stall is nice. But also having spaces for youth who may need like changing tables or may need another individual in the restroom to help them go to the bathroom. Again, it helps them to be able to stay out there and play longer.

So instead of being like, "Okay, well, we went out there, and we played, but he's got to go to the bathroom. So, we need to go home to be able to take care of all that." Well now they can stay there and play longer and engage longer and be part of that. Again, that helps with their quality of life.

Ame Sanders 10:40

So what did I learn from my experience this week?

There is an elementary school along the route that I frequently walk with a friend. She and I stopped by there to explore a little and take photos. In some ways, this school is really lucky. Our local garden club has established a pollinator and butterfly garden in the courtyard at the school, and the garden club works with the students each spring to grow flowers from seeds and transplant them into the garden. They maintain brightly colored hayrack flower displays at the entrance to the school to welcome students. My walking buddy is one of the garden volunteers. So she gave me a tour.

Then we took time to look at their playground. They have a graciously large fenced area for a playground and are building basketball courts for this coming school year. She and I have often seen kids out playing while we walked. The playground area has a lot of grass, but not a lot of natural areas as Amanda had described There also weren’t any of the adaptive elements Chris mentioned. I’m not really sure how a child in a wheelchair or with physical differences would be able to enjoy their playtime there. On one hand it is a lovely space, but it probably doesn’t work for all the children.

That led me to search out my closest adaptive playground, which for me was about 15 minutes away. It was large city playground with several adaptive elements much as Chris had described. One neat feature was that there were two different kinds of ziplines. One for the older and more physically adventurous kids and a tamer version for younger kids, that also had a chair for those who need extra support but still want to experience the zipline. The play area surfaces were some kind of lovely springy, but solid surface which I think would take a wheelchair pretty well. The restrooms as Christ had reminded us were nearby and there was a larger and separate family restroom in an adjacent building for parents with their children. There were outdoor oversized musical instruments for a different kind of play experience. The playground had been recently renovated and I would say it scored pretty well.

After completing this week’s challenge, I have to admit I notice play spaces more. I check for adaptive elements, for natural elements. I think more about who can enjoy these spaces and how they have to get there.

Even though we visited playgrounds as part of this challenge, you and the kids in your life don’t have to have a structured playground to enjoy the outdoors. It can be as simple as visiting a nearby creek, watching a row of ants march across the sidewalk, examining a leaf up close, sitting still as a butterfly lights on a nearby flower, or your hand. Rolling down a grassy hill. Or, maybe looking under rocks to see what is hiding there. Planting a few seeds in a paper cup or in your yard or in a community garden.

While accessible and equitable play spaces matter a lot, Amanda reminded us that unstructured play is also vitally important. It isn’t about who has the newest or most beautiful toys or even the best play space. The key thing is to find some way to regularly spend time outdoors with the kids in your life, in whatever setting you have nearby, and then just let the kids be kids and help them to embrace the wonder of the outdoors. Hopefully, you will help them kindle their life-long love of the outdoors.

As always, thanks for listening.

Week 9 - Speaking Up

Ame Sanders 0:10

Hi. This is Ame again from the State of Inclusion.

Welcome to Week 9 of the Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge!

You probably remember at the beginning of this Challenge, we promised to follow the model of self-work that we covered in episode 44. And we promised that along the way, we would be challenged to:

  • Wake up,
  • Listen up,
  • Open up,
  • Speak up, and
  • Step up.

So, now that we’re at week 9, I think it is about time we found our voice and used it.

This week’s challenge asks us to select one aspect of diversity in the outdoors that matters to us and practice using our voice to speak up about it. Once we get the hang of it, Then, find another, and another...

As I’ve mentioned in the past, I am a white person of some privilege. If you’ve been listening to my experiences over the last several weeks of this challenge, you know I’ve had to deal with this a few times as we’ve gone along. And, this week was no different. Reading the Melanin Base Camp Guide to Outdoor Allyship served as a good check and reminder for me. It always helps to center myself with a well-crafted and pointed reminder of my privilege and what it really means to be an ally before digging in.

So how did it go this week?

I have to admit this is a challenge I’ve been building up to for a while. It isn’t one that I’ve come to just this week.

For example, as I worked on last week’s challenge, It Starts with Play, I mentioned that my neighborhood walking buddy gave me a tour of the school garden where she volunteers. Discussion of this whole challenge and the issues around the lack of diversity outdoors have certainly peppered our walks over the last few weeks on more than one occasion. It really is always helpful to talk things over with a good friend. She’s also shared outdoor experiences that she’s had and enriched my thinking with her perspective, as she always does.

Also, a few weeks ago, I included the Sierra Club’s advocacy opportunity, which I’ve supported. I’m including that again in case you missed it. They help make advocacy a little simpler.

Neither of those steps was very difficult for me. So, what else happened along the way?

After the week 5 challenge – Empathy is key, and my related podcast interview with Chris Sparrow, I had a reader reach out to share about accessible all-terrain chairs in use in State Parks in Minnesota. Knowing this challenge was coming up, I took a chance to reach out and share that article with the Director of our South Carolina State Parks System, Paul McCormack. I had no idea Paul would respond but was pleasantly surprised when he did.

That led to the opportunity to have Paul on the podcast and a wonderful conversation about all he and his team are doing in South Carolina to make our parks more diverse and inclusive. Paul also shared a bit about his personal motivation, and I discovered that his commitment to diversity and inclusion is personal in a way you might not expect if you didn’t take the time to listen to his story.

The interviews with Chris and Paul also represented a small way that I was able to use my platform and my professional capital to solicit, listen to, and lift up their stories and their work. Along the way, I learned so much from each one of them.

I’ve also recently joined a community group, Building Bridges Upstate. So far, I’ve joined them a few times for dinner and what they call courageous conversations with a beautifully diverse group of community members. We haven’t talked about the outdoors, but there will likely be an opportunity for that as I settle into the group and get more familiar with their routine and how they choose their topics.

It is a pleasure to be a member of this group. It makes me think of Margaret Wheatley’s quote:

This is how the world always changes. Even great and famous change initiatives begin this way, with the actions of just a few people, where “some friends and I started talking”…

Margaret also reminds us that:

Conversation is the natural way we humans think together.

The final thought I’ll leave you with is that this challenge has been a way for me to find and use my own voice. Most often, when you hear my voice, it is on the podcast, interviewing a guest about their story, or in the newsletter sharing about a book or someone else’s research that I’ve discovered. This challenge has required me to speak up each week about my own experiences, reflections, and learning. I did that in the hope it might encourage you to attempt each of these challenges and that it might make them feel a little more accessible as we learn together.

The picture on this week’s post holds a great quote. It says:

You can’t find your voice if you don’t use it.

So here’s to speaking up more for the things that matter.

And, as always, thanks for listening.

Week 10 - Stepping Up

This is Ame at State of Inclusion

Well, ya’ll, we’ve made it. Week 10 of the Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge is here.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve discovered that 10 weeks is a strange length of time. It is just short enough that you think hmmm, 10 weeks, no problem. I can do that. However, somewhere about week 4 or 5, your attention starts to drift, and you see something else you’d like to start. But you keep going. After all, you committed to this. So, I just want to thank you for sticking with this, even if you’ve just been reading along with us.

There is another thing about 10 weeks. It is a tiny moment in this long journey toward equity and inclusion. It is a single breath, a sigh, in the face of lifetimes, and generations of struggle. And, diversity in the outdoors is only one slice, one sliver of the breadth of work that is necessary for our communities. We know this.

Still, the small things we practiced together in these ten weeks can serve us well on our longer and broader journey to build a more inclusive community.

So, let’s take a moment to reflect and internalize what we’ve learned and experienced. I’ll share a few of my reflections. I’m sure you have your own.

I found the frame of waking up, listening up, opening up, speaking up, and stepping up to be a natural progression that worked for me. The first few weeks were like the warm-ups I do at the gym, the stretches I do before I really push myself. It made me see things differently, move through the world a little differently. I’m pretty sure that frame is going to be useful again on this journey of building a more inclusive community.

I have to say I was surprised and encouraged to realize that so many major outdoor brands and information hubs are working to be more visible, accessible, more supportive, and more inclusive in all they do. So much more progress is needed, but the change is visible and noticeable. The industry is changing. Leaders in the industry are also helping to fund even more progress in communities. Now, I look at the choices of my clothing and gear just a little differently. I have small choices to make regularly. I can do my part and make those choices more deliberately.

Along the way, there was so much serendipity and joy that I had not expected.

I didn’t expect the trees at Congaree National Park to speak to me so loudly that they drowned out the summer heat and whine of mosquitoes. If I hadn’t committed to this work, I would never have gone to the Congaree swamp in July, and I would not have had that beautiful day with the champion trees and John Sealey.

Then, who knew there was a labyrinth at our local Baptist Church? I certainly didn’t. But, along the way, I was enveloped for a moment by the same inclusive and welcoming spirit I’d experienced at their church before. It was a short side trip, something tacked on that I’d made space for in my day that ended up creating more space in my heart.

I also had the chance to revisit the place where I first went camping and think back to the generous and strong women role models who helped make me feel comfortable and confident in the outdoors. These women weren’t everyday parts of my life. I can’t even remember what their last names were. But, they stepped up at special moments. Children need everyday role models, but even interaction with incidental role models and occasional opportunities can make a big difference in connecting children to a life-long love of the outdoors.

And, I’m still surprised every day and grateful for the generosity and openness of strangers around this work of inclusion and equity, and the people I met along this challenge were no different. Whether it was for a question, a discussion, or to join us on the podcast, I continue to be reminded every day that there are so many kindred spirits out there working to build a more inclusive community and world. It is both joyful and hopeful to be in their company and to be energized by their commitment, their work, and their spirit.

As an introvert, I always know that finding and using my voice can feel a little scary, especially when it is on a more personal, 1-1 level with those I don’t know well. Yet, I was reminded again and again that true magic happens in the personal connections we make and in the personal conversations we have as we work together to build a more inclusive outdoors. This is face to face work that we do in community with others.

Along the way, I also captured many nuggets of wisdom that gave me pause and will stick with me on my personal journey. For example, in my podcast interview this week with Rose Lane of Conserving Carolina she told me:

I think everybody who's worked in this field has probably thought about it and understands that good intentions don't necessarily lead to good results, right? People can do things in a way that is counterproductive and harmful.

Wow. Good intentions don’t necessarily lead to good results. I have to say that gave me pause. Working in the conservation arena, Rose had fully internalized this statement, but it is so perfectly relevant for our work in equity and inclusion.

Rose went on to tell me how her organization, Conserving Carolina, is investing the necessary time to make sure they can do their work of social justice and equity in a well-informed, sensitive, and knowledgeable way. That’s wisdom for us all.

It is important to wake up, listen up, and open up. Grounding ourselves in understanding and building empathy is necessary and foundational, as Rose described. But it is not enough. Forest bathing and meditation to build and focus positive intent are important and helpful, and I believe can contribute to changes at an interpersonal level. Still, more is needed.

More, like finding our voice and using it.

More, like stepping up. - Taking some action no matter how small toward building a more inclusive outdoors.

So, in this last week of our challenge, as we move forward to step up, ask yourself:

What is at least one step you can take toward building a more inclusive outdoor community?

Maybe it is:

  • Befriending a local city park, like you can see in the video of the friends of Anacostia Park,
  • Volunteering for an adaptive sporting event, as Chris Sparrow suggested in that podcast
  • Inviting a friend of color to join you outdoors, as Earl Hunter of Black Folks Camp Too suggested
  • Maybe it is getting outdoors yourself. Finding and joining an outdoor group or community that finally gives you room to be yourself and with whom you truly feel comfortable enough to spend more time outdoors.
  • Perhaps you can donate new or gently used gear to a gear library near you, or maybe start a gear lending library if one doesn’t exist, or maybe it is making a plan to check out some gear for that camping trip you hadn’t considered before because you weren’t sure the outdoors was for you. It is!
  • We can all practice creating more welcoming and supportive outdoor spaces, while being careful not to call attention to differences or making any assumptions.
  • Or maybe for you, it is about finding an outdoor organization with a strong commitment to inclusion and equity – then supporting them however you can, with whatever skills you have. Volunteer for a trail day, pitch in to remove invasive plants from a par, or even pull briars and weeds in a native flower garden, as I did last month with Conserving Carolina.

Donating money is always important if you have the means, but I’d challenge you to do more than send money. We can’t phone it in or buy our way out of a lack of diversity in the outdoors or in our communities. It is only by truly being in community together that we build inclusion.

Whatever actions you choose, I’d love for you to share about them in our comments. Perhaps by sharing about your actions, you will help inspire someone else. Pass it on.

As always, thank you for listening and for being part of this 10-week Inclusive Community Outdoor Challenge.

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