Making the Outdoors Safe for Everyone

Making the Outdoors Safe for Everyone

By Barton Robison and Lynny Brown


As we adjust to social distancing and shelter-in-place orders, one message keeps popping up in our newsfeeds, social media accounts, and email newsletters: take the time to get outside. Time spent outdoors and walking in nature has all kinds of mental and physical health benefits, from reducing the effects of stress and anxiety to decreasing your likelihood of diabetes, heart disease, or stroke. And as long as you maintain an appropriate distance from others, you’re not at risk of catching or transmitting COVID-19. The underlying message is that if you’re outdoors, you’re safe.

This message, though, is misleading. The outdoors is not safe for everyone.

Perhaps nothing drives this message home as clearly as the heartbreaking and terrifying story of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25 year-old black man who was pursued and murdered while out for a run on February 23, 2020. Just yesterday, ten weeks after the crime, the two men responsible for the killing were finally arrested. For more than two months, this murder went unpunished.

For me, Barton, as a white person, the chance to get outside for a morning walk with my dog or an afternoon run around the park has been an essential part of my daily ritual, a way to feel some semblance of normalcy and connectedness to nature while the rest of daily life has been upended during the pandemic. But for communities of color, going outside for a walk carries the very real threats of discrimination, violence, and possibly death. Ahmaud’s death, while horrible and terrifying, is not an isolated incident. Rather, it is the latest in a centuries-long line of oppression and unchecked violence against people of color. We need to call this out by its true name: racism. This was an individual action, made possible by cultural norms like white supremacy and institutions like the criminal justice system that do not protect or value all lives equally.

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal the injustices that black and African American communities face, from disproportionate rates of infection and deaths to inequitable and violent policing of social distancing measures in black neighborhoods. These inequities in health care, the criminal justice system, and outdoor spaces will carry on as long as we continue to ignore the underlying structures that give privilege to dominant white culture and hurt black, brown, and indigenous people. The simple truth is that going outside for a walk or run is a privilege that not everyone in our society is able to enjoy.


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Our work through the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative exists to empower communities and eliminate barriers so that everyone can connect with nature in ways that are meaningful to them. One of the ways we do this is by using our platforms, power, and privilege to call out these barriers for what they are. Racism is a very real, prevalent, and dangerous barrier to outdoor recreation for people of color.

May 8, 2020, would have been Ahmaud’s 26th birthday. We’ll be participating in #irunwithmaud by running or walking 2.23 miles to help bring awareness of Ahmaud’s death. We’re also donating to Wild Diversity, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps create a personal connection to the outdoors for BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) and LGBTQ+ people. We invite you to join us in honoring Ahmaud and in making the outdoors safer for people who have been violently excluded from these spaces.

Barton Robison knows firsthand the healing powers of nature and is passionate about removing access barriers so that all Oregonians can know the benefits of time in green space. He leads Willamette Partnership’s work on the Oregon Health & Outdoors Initiative, and his strengths include facilitation, strategy development, and communications.


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