Brittany: How would you describe your experience with the outdoors?
Denice: Hey Brittany, I’ve been exploring and playing in the outdoors since I was a single digit. I grew up visiting parks and the ocean, camping and boating, fishing and water skiing, riding bicycles and dirt bikes, traveling by train to Vancouver, B.C. About the only thing I didn’t get into as a kid, even though I was invited, was snow skiing.
My PNW outdoor experience isn’t one that’s shared among most Brown folks I meet. The outdoors has always been a part of my life; I don’t remember feeling separate from it or afraid of it. When I was very young my family moved from an urban Seattle neighborhood to new (predominately White) suburb with a rural vibe. My dad got into camping, scuba diving, boating, waterskiing, motorcycles – all super unusual hobbies for a Black man in the early 70s. Environment + Access = Opportunity.
Brittany: You shared with me earlier that your connection with the outdoors began more than 50 years ago. So, I can imagine you’ve witnessed a lot of changes and changed a lot yourself. How has your relationship with the outdoors changed over time?
Denice: First, I feel like a playful kid so when I hear numbers in reference to my age it feels VERY strange. I don’t resonate with the numbers. I’m doing the same stuff and more than I was doing as a kid.
I’d say my relationship with the outdoors has matured. If you asked me as a kid how I felt about the outdoors I’d have gone on about fun. FUN is still my primary emotion, but because of my experiences over time I’ve been able to cultivate value for and appreciation of the outdoors, wilderness, and marine spaces at a level that only comes from being there. The adjunct piece to that is the legacy piece – the understanding that these spaces must be well cared for so they’ll be around for posterity. The stewardship, conservation, preservation piece. It’s critical.
Brittany: In what ways have you been able to cultivate community on your journey?
I definitely recharge and identify as an introvert but do have some extrovert tendencies. I’m a connector personality so I meet people and navigate spaces pretty easily and am comfortable doing things on my own. In the summer of 2018, I took a solo road trip to Northern California. In nearly 2000 road miles, I didn’t bump into another person of color out adventuring. When I camped, hiked, beach combed, flew kites, or stopped to eat at various spots on the return trip, I didn’t see another person of color (solo or otherwise). Could have been a short draw on timing, but it seemed unlikely. That trip was the catalyst for what came to be The Bronze Chapter four years later.
Brittany: Wow, the U.S. west coast to east coast is like 2400 – 3500 miles so you were basically on the road the equivalent of 2/3 of the U.S. and didn’t see one single person of color in the outdoor spaces you visited? That’s incredible.
Denice: I thought so, too! At a campground in the Redwoods I lit a fire, cracked a beer, and sat there wondering why I’m still not seeing "Me" out here. Is it a skill thing? An accessibility thing? A lack of desire thing? What’s the THING(S)?
Brittany: Yes, talk to me a little bit about your journey to start the Bronze Chapter. First tell everyone what The Bronze Chapter is and then tell your journey to get there.
Denice: The “journey” began in the Summer of 2018 after that road trip. I took to some Facebook groups, wrote about that trip experience and asked a number of “why” and “where” questions (why am I still not seein’ ya’ll and where are you?). The responses got me thinking. It all seemed so simple – what community said they needed / wanted / indicated were barriers to participation were things that I could provide just from my own life experience. Long story short, I rented a campground, put out an invitation to learn to camp, and for seasoned campers looking for BIPOC community to come along. Then did it again and again and again and that’s how it started – 100% self-funded just me wanting to help people who look like me get out and get some skills and experiences. I wanted to create a springboard to nature and wilderness, to lakes and oceans, to curiosity and excitement, to exploration and adventure.
Brittany: It seems like you accomplished all of that when you formally created The Bronze Chapter.
Yes, so in the Winter of 2021 The Bronze Chapter received its approval as a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We exist to strengthen and grow our outdoor community by offering opportunities and education for people of color who have been excluded from many outdoor activities largely due to historical racism. We increase access, decrease barriers, and encourage participation in the cultural, health, inspirational, and spiritual benefits of the outdoors while providing fun and enriching experiences where all people of color can build community while learning and improving skills and knowledge that equip us for safe, joyous, confident, and life-enhancing connections with nature and various outdoor pursuits.
Through activities, skill-building classes, and campouts we discover and connect with the natural environment. We learn why it’s important to be the best stewards of our land and marine environments that we can and how this strengthens our connection to the wisdoms of nature. Marian Wright Edelman said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” This is why representation matters! The Bronze Chapter is a place where we can rewrite our outdoor narratives through exposure, discovery, and adventure.
Brittany: Have you had any surprises along the way?
Denice: So many surprises! I was surprised at the responses to my road trip questions asking why I wasn’t seeing folks and where they were. The reasons given fell into three categories and weren’t rocket science. It was sad to learn what so many of my peers considered barriers – things that aren’t barriers to me – things that’ve never felt like barriers to me. Also surprising was how many folks said they opted out of outdoor education / learning outdoor skills because they occurred in predominately White environments and that was an uncomfortable learning situation. Having to deal with “the minority situation” at work and every day in life, that dynamic in fun and leisure time … not appealing. Through The Bronze Chapter I’m learning so much about so many things – this experience is adding so much to my life in ways I never imagined – that’s a profound surprise!
Brittany: I think your story is so refreshing because you were able to experience for really your whole life, what so many Brown people are just now starting to experience, which is the feeling of being completely unencumbered in the outdoors. It’s freedom to just be out there and not feel like you need to have a bodyguard or a huge posse of people to feel safe.
Denice: Yeah, my outdoor narrative is pretty different. It’s a testament to the power of proximity. It’s why addressing barriers and providing access that leads to opportunities is so important. The opportunities I had were a direct result of my environment – there was privilege and license in that. Doing “outdoorsy things” was what my dad did, what my neighbors did, what I did. I’ve always felt comfortable recreating with and around all people – White, Black, queer, young, old … all people. And yes I do camp, travel, and recreate solo. Folks ask do you camp by yourself? Hike and run trails by yourself? And you’re comfortable? Absolutely. Situational awareness is important. Knowledge of where you’re going (especially in wilderness and marine spaces) is important. On occasion, for no apparent reason I, too, can get spooked. But I have enough experience, enough pattern, to consciously assess and put those impulses in check pretty quickly. Time = Experience = Confidence. It wasn’t until 2018 when I began teaching people to camp that I learned how much fear of outdoor spaces many my peers lived with and why.
Brittany: Well, with 50 years of experience doing things outdoors can you share any tips for newcomers?
- Find an outlet: There’s all sorts of activity groups on Facebook and Meetup where folks can start learning about opportunities and connect with like-minded people. Connect with The Bronze Chapter and come learn with us!
- Start Small: Going from zero to backcountry in one swoop is usually a very bad idea. There’s nothing wrong with taking a road trip to check out some wine tasting or visit a waterfall. Bring your car to a populated state or county park with all the amenities, sleep in your car or pitch a tent for the night. Drive to a pretty primitive campsite or space, maybe a long a river or lake, spend all day there feeling the space, read a book then go home. The Bronze Chapter usually chooses locations for our campouts on or near water because we want to help more people of color get in and on the water. Visit some parks during the day, bring a SUP or floaty or kayak and start experiencing the outdoors in a controlled, safe way like that. Summary, resist the pressure or urge to go fast and go big. Challenge yourself and build your confidence in ways that work for you. Connecting with people who are better than you at things you’re interested in will help you progress.
- Ask your friends, family, neighbors, coworkers: Tap your existing network. You may be surprised of all the things your sphere is tapped into that you just weren’t aware of. Find out who’s doing what and ask to tag along.
- Get comfortable doing independent research and being prepared: You never know how responsible or competent someone else is even if they’re out doing some incredible-looking stuff. Think about … if you get separated from your person/group, do you have a plan? Do you have the proper equipment and supplies to get you through a night (or multiple nights)? If you or someone gets injured, do you know what to do? How many ways do you have to communicate in case of a mishap? Learn outdoor skills.
Brittany: Thank you so much for your time. I know so many people are going to be inspired by your story.
To learn more about Denice and her work with The Bronze Chapter click here https://thebronzechapter.org