“Access for All” is a blog series welcoming diverse perspectives that create an inclusive modern outdoors for everyone. Meet storyteller Maureen Nicol, who writes how her immigrant parents instilled lessons of courage and hope in the backdrop of the outdoors.
I am the product of two tenacious immigrant parents who came to the U.S.A. with deep intentions of creating a sustainable life. Trekking from Sierra Leone to America in their 20s, their sacrifices would lead them down unplanned roads. However, I, along with my two sisters, are a result of their courage. The fabric of my narrative is deeply woven from their drive for change. So much of their story has become mine and so much of their drive and courage are in me.
My parents were natural explorers as they left everything behind in their mother country to create something new. I have felt this same enthusiasm over the years on weekly park trips as a family, annual road trips to national parks, and being frequenters to amusement parks and local treasures. My dad has a persistence for seeing and doing and keeping busy—especially outside. As a child, I remember long walks on the trails and him enthusiastically teaching us to ride our bikes, all while naming different plants and flowers and birds. Year-round we gardened, played in the backyard and found a way to root ourselves in the neighborhood.
A fond memory I have is my whole family traveling to Sierra Leone three years ago. It was the first time my parents had been back to their country in 20 years. As a unit, we spent heaps of time outdoors as my parents shared with us the beaches they swam in and the hikes they went on to see the city view. Their story now became ours.
Black land stories live in memories of what was and what could be. These memories and images paint what could be the dialogue between Blackness and nature: Black families and immigrant families connecting to the great outdoors. These depictions and lived experiences are especially important in the U.S. because national parks, beaches and trails—Indigenous lands—continue to be contested and unwelcoming spaces for Black people and Black bodies.
The portrayal of who is allowed to exist freely and be in touch with nature is riddled with singular, Eurocentric narratives, that are romanticized by media and popular culture, and further perpetuated by brands and taken up by people in day to day life. Black visitors are vastly underrepresented in National Parks. This is often due to the experiences Black people have as visitors in such spaces—hypervisibility, feeling displaced, and feeling fear in an open space with majority white people.
Adi wears the Baby Ember Moc in Drizzle.
I especially know this to be true from often being the only Black family in spaces where the weekends and holidays would take my family— like the year we went to Niagara Falls or the weekend trips to the green spaces of the National Mall. Being outdoors and these memories first introduced me to how you can feel many experiences and feelings in one moment.
I often felt free but eerily haunted about being the only ones like us in such an open space. Like most of my Black peers, I realized I can feel emotions simultaneously that often contradict which is unique to Black lived experience(s). In nature as a child and now, I was always curious about my safety, the history of the trees and the land, my ancestor’s experiences in the space, all while feeling very small in the openness. I can only describe it as eerie but also freeing.
As I explored open spaces with my Black friends, (most of them, first generation like me), collectively, we wondered how and why the great outdoors continued to be spaces that were white washed and exclusionary. The only answer we could come up with was systematic racism.
With a global pandemic, political shifts, and the height of a new wave of civil rights movements many have been forced to find new routines and confront racial disparities in order to prioritize self-care and mental, emotional and physical well-being. Spaces that can feel/be exclusionary and unwelcoming for marginalized populations have become the landscape for restorative social justice, intersectional environmentalism, and radical self-care for all.
Since COVID-19, I have seen families of color in droves walking the trails, doing yoga on their lawns, and biking as a unit. In my neighborhood, there is a Black woman from Tanzania who walks three times a day with her son who is eight years old, and daughter who is five years old. We pass each other every day on the trail and she says “hi” to me in Swahili while her kids collect some form of nature—yesterday it was bird feathers to make a collage. Seeing an immigrant Black woman out and about with her children weaving the outdoors into their routine is a reminder that I am not alone.
Maureen wears the Ember Mid Boots in Olive Drab.
When I think about my parents, like many immigrants, I am just humbled by their determination to commit to a new dream, a new life, and a form of reimagining. Little did I know the outdoors for my family was a backdrop for teaching my sisters and I that this land is ours too. We deserve the space and we belong in the space.
Every step and hike my family takes is a courageous step to creating cracks in systems not designed for Black people, brown people, and immigrant families. And still, we persist. This is the America my parents chose—an America where land stories are acknowledged and celebrated, where everyone feels a sense of belonging in the beauty of shared spaces, and an America where experiencing the outdoors does not have to be an act of resistance for Black people.
My parents have been actively creating this America with us, and now we are still doing it together, as a family of explorers, on the trails seeking adventures and equitable access to nature.