“The nation’s wild places—from parks to national forests, preserves and wilderness areas—belong to all Americans. But, not all of us use these resources, equally. Minority populations are much less likely to seek recreation, adventure and solace in our wilderness spaces. Bridging the so-called adventure gap requires role models who can inspire the uninitiated to experience and enjoy wild places. This is important because we need the devotion of people of all races and ethnicities to steward its care.”
— James Mills, author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.
The silky surface of the water under their oars only added to a sensation of solitude as James and his niece, Zora, paddled their kayaks toward the Bat Cave, one evening last summer. This was one of the most popular outings of the year, one they had never experienced and one they would never forget. It was part of the new Outdoor Ambassador Program, an effort to diversify the enjoyment of Chattanooga’s considerable wild amenities—the rivers, mountains, scenic gorges and trails. During its first year, the program developed by ℹ️ Outdoor Chattanooga (OC) and the Office of Multi-Cultural Affairs (OMA), engaged only a dozen participants. Yet recently, 22 people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds showed up for the launch of the 2017 season—all ready to learn new skills and lead the way.
“We run a leadership skills workshop,” says Outdoor Chattanooga’s Terri Chapin, the program’s co-founder and director. “It’s a supported leadership opportunity and we’re working to get new populations to enjoy outdoor adventure in Chattanooga.” That often works best with the help of role models, mentors and guides, she says. “Kids often don’t have the tools or the opportunities to take advantage of outdoor activities. Sometimes in their imagination it’s more complicated than it needs to be.”
The Chattanooga OMA is co-collaborator in bridging the “adventure gap” according to Director James McKissic, who participates as a trained leader. He and Zora took every paddling outing offered last season. He thinks the number of activities will continue to increase. “Our goal is to connect more people of diverse backgrounds to the outdoors. And, I love the new partnership with the Sierra Club. It allows us to get a discounted membership and have insurance coverage. They are also helping us to strengthen the conservation aspects of the program.”
This year the Sierra Club will sponsor Outdoor Leadership Training 101, while OC offers additional events, like American Red Cross First Aid certification and planning and risk management classes. Each outdoor leader will attend an orientation, submit an application and complete the training session and background check. Mentors may be nominated through an organization or may apply directly through Outdoor Chattanooga. Community groups like ℹ️ Girls, Inc., ℹ️ La Paz and Boys to Men have nominated some of their leaders to take the training.
How it All Started
As head of the initial GPS Outdoor program and deeply involved in the outdoor industry for almost 20 years, Chapin, Chattanooga native and mother of three, had observed a lack of diversity on the trail. As she promoted OC programs and activities to various groups in her job, she began to compare local habits with national trends.
During a conversation at a North Chattanooga recreation center, she was pointing out the accessibility of ℹ️ Stringers Ridge for mountain biking. The 92-acre urban park was opened for day-hiking and mountain biking a couple of years ago. The child she was talking to said, “that trail isn’t for kids like me.” She was a bit startled by the comment, which eventually became the impetus for the deeply urban Howard School to create its own Outdoor Leadership Club.
Local prep schools ℹ️ Baylor, ℹ️ McCallie and ℹ️ GPS have had outdoor clubs in place for almost 20 years, even a few of the public schools have mature programs. Top to bottom, outdoor education has steadily gained momentum. ℹ️ Southern Adventist University began offering a Master’s in Outdoor Leadership degree, almost 10 years ago. Still, on a neighborhood level it wasn’t happening quickly, so Chapin began looking for inspiration.
“I was particularly inspired by Outdoor Afro Atlanta, and a group called Latino Outdoors. We looked at bringing chapters of these clubs to Chattanooga.” It later became apparent that with support from groups like OC and OMA, not to mention the Sierra Club, it would be practical to organize a program among themselves.
Outdoor Afro Atlanta was founded in 2012 and has over 1,300 members. It is part of the national Outdoor Afro organization and its social media tagline is “Where black people and nature meet.”
Latino Outdoors is a national organization committed to engaging Latinos/Latinas in the outdoors and connecting families and youth with nature. It places a specific emphasis on encouraging its community of storytellers to share experiences and creatively document their cultural connections to the conservation of the environment.
Locally, La Paz Chattanooga, a social services agency serving the Hispanic community, has become involved in the Outdoor Ambassador Program launch for 2017. Director of Community Engagement, Patrick Miles, says he hopes to develop some family-based outdoor activities this year and he is pleased about the training opportunity. He cites the health benefits of outdoor recreation as key reasons for participating in the program. “Chattanooga is a wonderful place to enjoy the outdoors,” says Miles. “And, having a bilingual guide is important in creating a comfort level for many of our clients.”
La Paz continues to encourage its volunteers to cultivate their outdoor educational opportunities through OC, so the network of people enjoying the outdoors from various ethnic backgrounds will continue to grow. As Chapin says, “All Americans should enjoy the outdoor environment and be committed to water and land stewardship.”
Outdoor Chattanooga is a division of the City of Chattanooga Department of Economic and Community Development. It is located at 200 River Street.