Refuge Outdoor Festival: Building an Inclusive Outdoor Community

Growing up in Louisiana, once dubbed “the sportsman’s paradise,” you’d think I’d have at least some bit of familiarity with outdoor life.

That hasn’t been the case.

It’s not entirely my fault, though: The outdoors was represented to me as a place catering only to the needs of hunters and fishermen. Despite growing up in a state with an abundance of natural beauty—there was always a fishing hole, hunting ground or camping area close by—I never felt compelled to go out and enjoy it, beyond riding my bike or playing tag with my friends.

It also didn’t help that most of the outdoor-themed movies I’d seen (looking at you, Every Slasher Movie in the Universe) made outdoor life seem like a less-than-hospitable experience.

After attending the Refuge Outdoor Festival last fall, I’ve since reconsidered my stance on outdoor life.

Refuge Outdoor Festival is a three-day camping experience geared toward people of color focused on building community through outdoor recreation, conversations, music and art.

Participant at Refuge Outdoor Festival

Photo Courtesy: Refuge Outdoor Festival

Chevon Powell created the event for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) communities after a 2015 solo backpacking trip in Vermont led to a terrifying encounter with a local law enforcement official who found her reasons for being in the area “unbelievable.”

It was this harrowing experience that inspired Powell—an event planner for REI at the time of the incident—to launch her company, Golden Bricks Events, and the Refuge Outdoor Festival was born.

Now in its third year, the festival is helping rewrite the narrative of who the outdoors is for.

Through its programming, Refuge is addressing the common misconception that only non-POCs participate in outdoor recreation. In reality, a 2019 Outdoor Industry Association report revealed that over the past decade, the rate of non-white Hispanics who engage in some form of outdoor recreation about once a month (considered moderate participation) nearly doubled, from 5.3 percent in 2008 to 10.3 percent in 2018.

Over the same 10-year period, African American moderate participation levels increased from 6.8 percent to 8 percent, while Asian moderate participation levels rose from 4 percent to 5.8 percent, according to the report.

The numbers reveal a narrative that runs counter to the conventional wisdom surrounding BIPOC participation in outdoor activities. That said, the data alone doesn’t tell the whole story of an industry where misconceptions abound about what counts as outdoor activity and who gets to enjoy it.

To give you an idea, although many believe “outdoors” and “hunting” are synonymous terms, you don’t have to shoot or kill anything to call yourself a nature lover. If you watch birds, gather berries or make medicines from plants, then you are just as much of an outdoorsperson as the one who fishes or tracks big game.

In the same vein, the belief that all outdoor activities require a hefty financial investment also contributes to misconceptions, as many dismiss the low-cost, simple pleasure of a visit to your favorite park as a legitimate outdoor activity. It is certainly true that some outdoor recreational pursuits require specialized equipment that can reach into the hundreds if not thousands of dollars, which can be cost-prohibitive for BIPOC communities, but a visit to your neighborhood park is virtually free—no tools necessary.

Still, other societal barriers can interfere with BIPOC participation in and enjoyment of outdoor life.

Racial stereotypes play no small role in influencing what many picture when they think of an outdoor enthusiast. As a result, many BIPOC nature lovers have been pushed to the margins for not looking the part. Additionally, many of them deal with being othered, as they often find themselves in birdwatching groups, hiking clubs and other activities in which they are the only one or one of very few, lacing their favorite activity with a sense of self-consciousness.

Another oft-overlooked concern are the psychological barriers BIPOC communities face when signing up for nature-based activities. A 2018 study noted many African Americans felt the racialized violence that took place during the country’s Jim Crow Era were enough to make them reconsider any attempts at finding joy in outdoor life—a perception that haunts the outdoor recreation industry to this day.

It is in addressing—and removing—the cultural, economic and emotional barriers interfering with BIPOC participation in outdoor life that Refuge Outdoor Festival was born.

The festival, which took place Sept. 18-20, 2020, was held entirely online due to COVID-19. Even with the adjustment to a virtual camp-in—no doubt a testament to the adaptability of the organizers—at no point did I feel that I wasn’t getting a genuine outdoor experience and real feel for what Refuge Outdoor Festival offered its attendees.

In fact, there was so much to choose from that assembling my schedule for the weekend was a bigger challenge than I had anticipated. Over the course of the weekend, Refuge offered a diversity of workshops—Birding 101, Micro-Inclusions in the Great Outdoors, and How to Build Plant-Conscious Relations, to name a few—that were already at capacity and had an overflowing waitlist by the weekend’s start.

That said, I signed up for as many workshops as I could; as someone with limited experience with outdoor life, I wanted as immersive an experience as I could get.

I was not disappointed.

In the “Collective Racial Healing Series,” attendees learned about Somatic Wellness Anti-Racist Practice (SWAP), a practice combining trauma-informed mindfulness and anti-racist philosophies to interrupt the status quo of workplace wellness.

In “How Disability Justice Will Build Caring Communities,” attendees learned the importance of building nurturing, caring communities that shift away from workaholism, impatience and dehumanization of the human body and mind, moving toward a more caring, loving space that creates welcoming and accessible environments for everyone, regardless of (dis)ability.

With “Micro-Inclusions in the Outdoors,” participants had an opportunity to share and be vulnerable with other BIPOC communities through the use of journal prompts and music to help create a “healing toolkit” of healthy coping methods centering healing, food and herbs as medicine and nature therapy.

While I was unable to attend every workshop, here are a few of my takeaways from the ones I attended:

“There is no art, without community.” Through the Community Gathering portion of the virtual camp-in, I got to know the music of Gretchen Yanover. Gretchen is a talented BIPOC cellist who used her incredible skill to create a welcoming space for us to relax and reflect. With the outdoors as her only accompaniment, Gretchen helped transport each of us to our own individual inner safe space, where we experienced firsthand the connection between art, nature and healing.

Herbs are powerful. Alternatives for treating certain non-life-threatening ailments can be found in the great outdoors. For example, witch hazel leaf can be used for hemorrhoids, while goldenseal can be used for yeast infections. We also learned the difference between adaptogens (herbs to help regulate mood), astringent herbs (herbs that can dry, draw or shrink tissue) and vulnerary herbs (herbs that can heal or treat wounds).

Artistic inspiration can be found in anything, including water. Latinx surfer, climber and nature lover Olivia VanDamme led us in a collective poetry writing exercise, using water as the theme.

Here’s what I wrote: “Water is powerful, nurturing, yet destructive/the sound of the waves coming in, the sound of rainfall, the sound of a fountain/I feel renewed, refreshed, born again/Blue, teal, green/The waters of Scorpio are deep, sometimes dangerous, but always transformative, and deeply healing.”

Not my best work (I strayed too far from the brief, I think), though I have to say that as a community-building exercise, collective poetry writing is pretty hard to beat.

For an event forced into the digital space, Refuge Outdoor Festival more than delivered on its promise.

This year, if we have the all-clear by then, I think I’ll give it a shot.


Editor’s note: REI has partnered with Refuge Outdoor Festival since 2018. Through this partnership, Refuge receives financial sponsorship, in-kind benefits and support for events the organizations host, among other efforts.