Everyone knows that nature has an amazing healing power. All you have to do is take a walk and look at a tree on a pretty day and you can feel the majesty of nature. But it is an ugly truth that even the outdoor world is not always safe and welcoming for all people, though nothing could be more natural than sharing nature.
Pamela Slaughter, founder of the PDX People of Color Outdoors Facebook group, encourages all people of color to enjoy nature and the natural world in a safe and healthy way. Through the group, people can find hiking excursions, mindfulness and poetry walks, outdoor potlucks, trail running and all sorts of outside activities they can engage in safely and without fear. Thousands of people now call themselves members, and the list of activities keeps expanding as more people connect with their own love of nature.
Inhabitat recently had the chance to speak with Pamela about her group and how important nature is to us all.
Inhabitat: When did you first discover a love of the outdoors and the natural world?
Pamela Slaughter, founder of PDX People of Color Outdoors Facebook group:
My mother made sure that my siblings and I spent lots of time enjoying nature. When she was four years old, she moved from Chicago to Vanport, Oregon — a city built to house BIPOC that were being recruited to work at the shipyards during WWII. Even at that tender age, she remembers being in awe of how beautiful Oregon was.
I was born and raised in Portland, Oregon and grew up in inner north and northeast Portland before gentrification. We didn’t have much money, but we were surrounded by an abundance of natural beauty within walking distance. Still, my mother always wanted us to see more of what the world offered. She would pile the six of us into the station wagon and we’d go off on adventures that were an hour or more away.
We’d wade in the streams, turn over rocks to find crawfish, skip rocks on a pond, catch frogs and look for fish. We would explore trails, watch bunnies and have picnics in fields at different public lands. We were always the only Black people there and though we weren’t necessarily welcomed by others we encountered, we were never harassed. It was always exciting to visit new natural areas. I felt as if we were a family of explorers. I grew up knowing that when I had my own family, we’d be explorers, too.
Inhabitat: What gave you the idea to launch PDX People of Color Outdoors?
Slaughter: I had just stepped down from being the first leader of Outdoor Afro Portland, which I had led for two years. At the time, I worked as an Adult Protective Services Investigator, which was a stressful job, and I needed a break from doing anything extra for a while. During the break, I thought about the many times that other people of color asked about joining Outdoor Afro. Asian, Latino and Indigenous people would ask to join because they were experiencing racism in nature. So, I decided to lead outings again in 2017 by starting the People of Color Outdoors (POCO) Meetup group and eventually, PDX People of Color Outdoors on Facebook to create a safe space for the BIPOC community to come together to experience and learn about nature together. We eventually even found a fiscal sponsor and became a nonprofit in 2019.
Inhabitat: Did people join the group immediately?
Slaughter: The group grew slowly but steadily until 2020, when I expanded our community by creating our Facebook group. After that, our growth was rapid and now it’s grown to have over 3,300 members.
I was surprised at first, but when I considered how active our Facebook members are, I realized that the community serves the BIPOC community in a number of important ways. First of all, Oregon’s population is about 82% white. That means that BIPOC can often find themselves feeling isolated and unconnected. Secondly, there are no true physical BIPOC communities in Portland since gentrification took place in the 1990s.
Our Facebook group is a community where BIPOC can gather. People can drop in and ask about where to find a good auto mechanic, delicious soul food or a roommate. They share photos of their adventures and recommend places to explore. They make new friends, ask for support for their businesses, share job openings and local community events. Our Facebook page is an actual community, and it is a community that matters.
Inhabitat: What are the next steps for the group?
Slaughter: People of Color Outdoors hosts a week-long nature education program for children called the People of Color Outdoors Guardians. The children learn about keystone species, local birds and other wildlife, climate change and more. The program helps children to strengthen their sense of empathy, respect and connection with the environment and all living things. At the end of the week, children have a better understanding and appreciation for nature, sharing a desire to protect and care for their environment.
The Guardians’ daily lessons and activities are shared in our Facebook group and as a result, the program has become increasingly popular. We are being asked by our members to bring the Guardians program to other areas of Portland and we would love to make that happen.
Inhabitat: Do you think that PDX People of Color Outdoors can expand to become international?
Slaughter: Right now, we’re focused on expanding into low-income areas of Portland. However, I firmly believe that anything is possible!
Inhabitat: Can you share some interesting stories that people in the group have shared with you about their own experiences getting outdoors and connecting with nature?
Slaughter: I have many stories! Our POCO Guardians education program awakens the natural love and protectiveness towards nature that is present in children. One of our Guardians, Israel, wrote a persuasive letter for a school assignment, sharing ways for cat owners to keep their cat happy while protecting native birds. I shared the letter with the Humane Society and the Portland Zoo, and since then Israel and his family have developed a relationship with both organizations. His older brother is an intern for the Humane Society and Israel and his brother have been invited to intern at the zoo when they’re older.
The Portland Zoo has also developed a partnership with POCO. They’ve hosted educational tours and pizza parties for us. Nearly 200 POCO members have visited the zoo to learn about animals and their habitats. The Portland Zoo sponsored the POCO Guardians in the summer of 2022 and continues to be a supportive partner.
There is the story of a mother and child – they were shy and the little one insisted on keeping her coat on, buttoned up and kept her hood up. Whenever anyone spoke to her, she would duck behind her mother. Still, she wanted to return to our outings, time after time. These days, she is very outgoing, runs ahead on the trail and volunteers to be the group hike leader.
There’s the family that moved to Oregon from the South. They felt very isolated, living in Hillsboro, Oregon, where the Black population is minuscule. Their five-year-old son called the group his “team.” I could tell you about the little girl that referred to our group as her “other family.” Or several people told me that if it wasn’t for the POCO community, they would have left Oregon due to the sense of isolation. There are members that drive over 50 miles each way to join our two-hour outings.
There are members that have fallen in love with hiking and have become hike leaders. There are members that wanted to learn how to paddle or improve their skills that are now a part of a well-trained kayak leadership cohort. There are members that have gone on to become volunteers with other nonprofits. I run into members regularly when I’m out enjoying nature because they have returned to a place that they discovered while on a POCO outing and now spend time there on their own.
I hear from them that they appreciate the way POCO’s outings have served to nudge them into incorporating time outdoors into their lifestyle. I have heard from people that are not members of POCO that they are spending time in nature because a POCO member introduced them to an outdoor space and now they visit on their own and introduce others to the space. That’s the goal! It gives me life to see that we’re fulfilling our mission as planned and in ways we hadn’t anticipated.
Images via PDX