PHOENIX — “Growing up, I had to choose outdoors versus culture or family, said Raquel Gomez.
As an adult, Gomez now has both.
She exposes Black and brown girls, ages 8 to 12, to nature through her organization Atabey Outdoors.
Gomez started the organization in 2020 to open the eyes of young girls in Phoenix to activities such as hiking, camping, paddle boarding, mountain biking, cooking outdoors, and more across the state.
“We think that age group is the most critical. They soak up information like a sponge. They still want to be independent but also looking for mentors and guidance,” added Gomez.
Chromatic Climbers is another Valley organization around to help people of color tap into the outdoors.
“I can possibly think of five people who are people of color who I have had the opportunity to climb with and that was before this organization was started,” said Benjamin Dickens.
Dickens and Sara Leinenveber started their organization two years ago.
“We want to build a network of mentorships, as well as clinics, for people who are starting out to have that safer place indoors to go so they can bridge into the outdoors,” said Leinenveber.
Dickens' perspective is much like Quinton Daniels'.
“We’ve been here just a year and I have experienced probably about five-six lakes and three mountain ranges,” said Daniels.
Even Daniels says his neighbors are shocked to hear what he's experienced across Arizona.
“Really appreciating the mountains, the air, and quality of it. People don’t understand living in Atlanta, or Charlotte, you don’t breathe this air. This is a totally different kind of air,” added Daniels.
Dr. Kangjae Lee teaches Recreation, Park, and Tourism Sciences at North Carolina State University.
“It’s almost undeniable, statistically speaking, African Americans and Hispanics are by far least likely to enjoy outdoor recreational activities,” said Dr. Lee.
In fact, as of 2020, Arizona State Parks and Trails estimates 1.5% of visitors to the parks are Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders, 2.7% are Black, 3.6% are Native American or Alaskan Native, 3.8% are Asian and 13.4% are Hispanic or Latino.
“It makes me wonder why. But, when you say that, it makes me realize we don’t encounter many people of color in the great outdoors,” said Shelley Mullee.
Professor Lee says has his beliefs.
“In terms of knowledge, experience, skills, and perhaps appreciation about outdoor recreation, it has passed down to the current generation,” added Dr. Lee.
Mullee and her husband were shocked learning whites make up 87.4% of park visitors in Arizona. Those numbers total more than 100% due to some people selecting more than one race to represent them.
“It is really disappointing to hear those numbers because they are missing out on a lot of fun,’ said Mullee’s husband.
Another reason people of color in our community might not take advantage of state parks, according to a park’s spokeswoman, is where they are located. The closest park to Phoenix is about 45 minutes outside the city.
“So, it is harder for people to get out there and explore. You have to commit to an hour-plus drive from wherever you are. You have to pack and prepare in advance if you want something you can necessarily do that is easily spur of the moment,” said Arizona State Parks & Trails Spokeswoman Michelle Thompson.
The thought of how people of color don’t interact with the outdoors now seems more of a fact than an opinion.
“I was really excited that someone is thinking about these things,” added Leinenveber.
It comes with unexpected benefits for some.
“When I am climbing, it is pretty much the only time my head is quiet, and I am completely calm,” added Dickens.
The spokeswoman for Arizona State Parks and Trails says her agency has partnerships with various groups to gather information, analyze and re-assess how things are done when it comes to attracting a diverse group of park visitors.