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Loving the Outdoors: It's a Lifelong Pursuit for 3 African American REI Board Members

As a retail cooperative, REI is advised by a 10-member Board of Directors, elected annually by REI's members. In recognition of Black History Month, we've asked the Board's 3 African American Directors to discuss their relationship with the outdoors, their advice for getting outside more often, and their ambitions for future personal adventures.

First, some introductions:

Joanne HarrellJoanne Harrell of Seattle, a Board member since 2001, is a general manager at Microsoft in its Worldwide Sales, Marketing Services Group. She enjoys camping, fishing, hiking, running, skiing and walking.

Jesse KingJesse King of Evergreen, Colorado, elected to REI's Board in 2008, is Managing Director of Fulcrum Advisors, a privately held consulting firm. He is a past mountaineering program director for the Colorado Outward Bound school and a fan of hiking, climbing and ice skating.

Stephen LockhartStephen Lockhart of San Francisco, elected to the Board in 2011, is Regional Vice President and Chief Medical Officer for East Bay Region of Sutter Health in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. He is also staff anesthesiologist at California Pacific Medical Center. He is the current board chairman of NatureBridge, a San Francisco-based nonprofit group dedicated to connecting youth with the outdoors.

Q: Talk about your earliest outdoor memory, and if you can, pinpoint the moment when you knew outdoor recreation would become more than a casual pursuit in your life.

Jesse: For me it was tent camping with my family in Central Michigan when I was 6 or 7. It was car camping—we roasted hot dogs and marshmallows around the campfire—but it was really exciting. I think the reason it appealed to me is that it seemed so open and unrestricted.

Joanne: I remember our family going camping when I was a very young child. We lived in Germany, my dad was in the military, and we were very outdoors oriented. I've never not thought about the outdoors. It's part of my existence.

Jesse: I remember being 12 or 13 when the river flooded in the forest preserves around Chicago. The preserves surround the city; everyone there knows them. After they flooded the water froze, and we went skating on the ice, through the trees. And my mom just dropped us off and said, "I'll be back in a couple of hours." And at night! It was getting dark, but nobody got hurt. It was magical.

Stephen: My relationship to the outdoors came through my uncle, my Boy Scout troop leader. I was raised by my mom, but he was my father figure at home. Spending time with him was a top priority and it made a great impression on me. My reason for getting so engaged with the outdoors was because he was such a powerful influence.

Q: Why did the outdoors appeal to you?

Joanne: It's natural. That's one of those questions that is so basic: "Why do you like moving? Why do you like breathing?" It's the natural world.

Jesse: The real reason that I was drawn to the outdoors is that my mom read us The Hobbit as a kid. It led me to the mountains and I ended up being a mountain guide and a director for Outward Bound.

Stephen: We had segregated troops when I was a Scout, but being outdoors was free of the restrictions of race or anything else. It was a free and open environment. It was very, very powerful as a young kid.

Q: Does being African American shape your outdoor experience in any way that you think is unique?

Joanne: I've always been African American, so I only know my experience as it is. I don't know if it's different. Any person of any culture, any ethnicity, any part of the world cannot help but be connected to the outdoors because it's a part of the natural world. Do I sense it differently? Appreciate it differently? Probably not.

I think because many people of color live in cities that the opportunity to experience the pristine outdoors can be more limited. But to experience and appreciate it, we all have the same 5 senses.

Jesse: For me, in some ways my experience parallels a mainstream experience, and some ways it diverges.

Jesse King climbingIt parallels a mainstream American experience in this way: My dad took me fishing and hunting. When I was 9 or 10 we would go down to Arkansas from Chicago and go deer hunting with other African American men and boys, and I think that hunting and fishing experience was paralleled by a lot of my white and Latino and Native American friends.

Where it's unique is when I got into alpine skiing and mountaineering. Being an African American in those activities 30 years ago was unique. A lot of people seemed surprised that I was into rock climbing or skiing, especially in the guiding world.

Among guides there was a need to prove yourself, and it felt like I had to prove myself a little bit more in that world. It's gotten a whole lot better now. You don't see quite the surprise in people's faces.

Stephen: Feeling the human emotional connection—that to be fully human we need to have some experience in nature and the outdoors—I think is the same.

Stephen LockhartThe unique element of being an African American becomes evident when we are in national parks and other public lands. In those places there's a sense of experiencing what democracy really means. The principles of the Bill of Rights are seen in nature, in our public lands.  In other countries the lands are privately owned. Our most beautiful lands are publicly held.

Understanding what our history is as African Americans is maintained in those lands. Look at Yosemite and the Buffalo Soldiers, for example. We need to find it, look into it and understand it. Often our outdoor environment and preserved lands offer us an educational opportunity to learn who we are as people. At times our history has been concealed and we need to find it. In that sense, there's a difference.

Q: What's your advice to those who want to experience outdoor adventure but feel hesitant about taking the necessary steps?

Joanne: Start slowly. Depending upon where you live, starting is different. In a city, it might be walking the block or finding the park; finding a friend and taking a drive where you might hike. Actively look for opportunities. Just start.

Jesse: To me, the No. 1 thing is try to identify why you're hesitant. That will help you address the necessary steps. Is it that I don't know where I'm going? Or I don't know how to do the things outside, like cook, camp or make myself comfortable? Am I worried I will be cold? 

Those are skills that can be addressed. The classes taught at REI and other places can really equip you.

Stephen: Take small steps. Start with car camping in a local park. Rent a tent and put it up in your backyard. Or take a hike in a national park that's close to you; and make sure to have fun!

Q: What's your most memorable outdoor experience and why?

Stephen: Proposing to my wife on a snowfield at the top of Mount Whitney. I'm still married 16 years later, so that was a pretty good trip.

Joanne: Probably my most memorable was when my oldest son turned 13. He and I took a ski trip to Breckenridge. About 4 days, just time with him, skiing with him. He's in his 30s now, and I think about that opportunity to be with him at a pivotal point in his life. I remember the feeling of the snow, getting off the lift, the place where we stayed. That experience was pretty pivotal, and he still feels good about it.

Stephen: We once went to Chile for 6 months. We went hiking all through Patagonia and went off-road for 2 weeks with our daughter when she was 4- 1/2. Our daughter still talks about it. She would go 10 miles a day sometimes. She had grown up being carried in a pack around parks. She's an outdoor kid and she loves it.

Jesse King on skatesJesse (after a long pause): There are so many. It's hard to choose. Standing at 22,000 feet in the Himalayas is a moment I won't forget.

Another one, more recent, was hiking a couple of winters ago into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison and ice skating for miles on sheer glass. It's an amazing canyon with steep vertical walls, and it takes an hour to hike in. I knew it was one of the most special places in the universe.

Stephen: When my uncle was 82 his grandson, my son, both 12, and I did a cross-country camping trip for 3 weeks. We went through Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, across the Plains and through the Rockies.

I got to see my uncle with his old canvas tent and linen bedroll, teaching my son and his grandson. I watched him teach them how to start a fire and read the moss. It was a very, very memorable trip.

Jesse: One more: We're in the Gore Range in the Rocky Mountains, and it's early in the morning. My family was still asleep in the tent, but I have pulled my sleeping bag out and I'm in my little chair.

We were just at treeline. I have my hat on and my down coat, making tea and watching the elk play in the snowfield above our camp. The baby elk were walking up to the adult elk and then running away, just as the sun is rising. 

Those experiences draw me back. You can't ever repeat them. Those are moments that remind me that we live in a blessed place; what a wonderful planet we have. I feel incredibly privileged to be able to experience the outdoors.

Q: Name a goal or two on your lifetime outdoor to-do list?

Stephen: I've been so fortunate to go to crazy places, to do crazy things, that I don't know I still have a list anymore. I've tried to learn how to appreciate Golden Gate National Recreation Area as much as Denali, which is where I'll be in June.

Jesse: No. 1 is to take my daughter to Antarctica. We are trying to do all 7 continents. We've done 5. South America and Antarctica are left.

Joanne: Maybe the Grand Canyon. My next item is to plan a family trip on an REI Adventure sometime this summer.

Photos, top to bottom: Joanne Harrell; Jesse King; Stephen Lockhart; Jesse King climbing; Stephen Lockhart climbing; Jesse King on skates; Stephen Lockhart ascending during a climb.

Posted on at 1:49 PM

Tagged: Black History Month, REI board, diversity and inclusion

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