When the National Park Service celebrated its centennial anniversary in August last year, it launched the Find Your Park movement, encouraging Americans to share their national park experiences. The grassroots- and community-oriented initiative reflected growing concerns about racial and economic disparities among parkgoers, as well as broader issues about access to green spaces nationwide. Spurred by Glenn Nelson’s column in the New York Times, “Why Are Our Parks So White?”, pundits and researchers offered a range of answers: lack of access to parks, social norms, economic barriers. As the former Co-Coordinator of Yale Outdoors, it is clear to me that these disparities also exist on our campus. Recognizing the issue was just the first step; tackling it has been harder.
Yale Outdoors is one of the largest outdoors club at Yale, with more than 2000 mailing list subscribers and a core of about 30 leaders who organize hikes and trips every week. However, we struggle to convert our subscribers into trip participants to attract a diverse community. Trips to state and national parks further from campus incur large transportation costs, running up to several hundred dollars for bigger groups. As a student organization, we rely on Undergraduate Organization Committee funding, capped at $800 a year for administrative grants regardless of the size of the organization. Hence, we split the cost of trips among participants, creating a financial barrier. While we work around the problem by utilizing public transport and organizing more walking-distance trips, it does not change the fact that many outdoors destinations in Connecticut and the Northeast – including nearly all campsites – require a car. This is not a new problem: In 2008, Eli Bildner ’10, Spencer Gray ’09 and Bo White FES ’09 launched a collective campaign to lobby for greater administrative and financial support. With its recent attempts to publicize its sustainability and wellness efforts, one would expect the administration to see value in promoting outdoor activities. Yet institutional support remains sporadic and limited.
Of course, material support only provides half the solution. Access to physical spaces is not the same as access to social spaces. I have been told that “hiking is a white people thing” and that “going outdoors is bougie”. In truth, there is little resistance to the outdoors as a physical experience: Few people would turn down the chance to enjoy fresh air, a beautiful sunset or flaming fall colors. Instead, people reject the outdoors as an upper-class activity: pricey hiking boots, fancy cabins and unspoken exclusivity. Even having the time to drive out to a national park for a camping trip is a luxury for many. And “going outside” should not necessarily entail going to a national park. There is a strong historical argument for this: Some national parks were created by violently displacing Native people and the rural poor. We need to separate the outdoors as it is lived and experienced by the majority of people from the glossy image presented by the media.
To be sure, some progress has been made in making the outdoors more inclusive. Through partnerships with other groups at Yale, Yale Outdoors pooled resources and split costs, making trips free for participants. In 2016, we used Dwight Hall’s cars to organize service trips with the Appalachian Mountain Club. We also organized an intercultural hike with the cultural centers and borrowed gear from FOOT to cut costs. Many of our participants were joining us for the first time, indicating the usefulness of our strategy. Although much more can be done, I believe our story provides a modest road map for how we can make traditionally exclusive social spaces more accessible at Yale.
Nevertheless, a student group can only do so much. Yale remains far behind other colleges like Dartmouth, Pomona and Brown, who all offer administration-backed outdoor education and leadership programs. The advantages are significant: Learning outdoor skills improves student well-being and builds character. Students get to escape the perennial “Yale bubble” and ground themselves in a reality outside of grades and extracurricular achievements. Sadly, outdoors education is not on the Yale administration’s radar. The outdoors may be right on our doorsteps, but not everyone has the key.