When Debbie Njai went on her first hike last fall with two friends and her dog, Brownie, something in her clicked. Walking through the woods of Missouri’s Castlewood State Park, Njai felt at ease. Being out in nature was thrilling, but at the same time, she felt more relaxed and balanced than she had in ages.
Yet, something was off. Njai noticed that nobody else on the trail looked like her—and the more she thought about it, she couldn’t think of any other Black people she knew who hiked.
“I immediately knew that this was something lacking in the Black community,” Njai said. “I feel that we all share a connection to nature. We as a society have just gotten so far away from it, Black folx in particular.”
Shortly after, Njai founded Black People Who Hike to build a community of Black hikers and encourage Black people to get out in nature. This week, Njai’s efforts have gone global with the launch of Black Hikers Week.
Inspired by Black Birders Week, the collaboration between Njai’s organization, Zenovia Stephens of @blackadventurecrew, and Nailah Blades of Color Outside is harnessing the power of social media to stimulate conversations about diversity in the outdoors.
Each day this week features a new initiative to spotlight Black hikers, organizations, and influencers on Instagram in the hopes of empowering more Black people to hit the trails. In the meantime, the organizers hope to generate discussions about Black families' place in nature, and the health and community benefits it can bring.
“We have seen people from all across the world showing up, participating and supporting this movement," said Njai. "We don’t think any of us were truly prepared for just how far our reach would go. Seeing all of the Black joy has been very powerful."
Stephens, who also discovered hiking as an adult, knows that it’s never too late to begin exploring nature. But she hopes, through her platform and this event, to encourage Black families to introduce their children to the outdoors early in life. As a mother of three, she's striving to provide her kids with outdoor opportunities that were foreign to her as a young person.
By increasing visibility of Black hikers on social media, Njai also hopes to create a safe space for newcomers to venture onto the trails for the first time.
“I believe the outdoors are a way for the Black community to heal from hundreds of years of traumatic experiences and oppression,” Njai said. “Black people as a race have the highest amount of health issues and we are the most underrepresented out here. Getting us outdoors is the equivalent of saving lives.” (The data back her up: According to the Outdoor Industry Association's 2019 Outdoor Participation Report, just 5.5% of Black Americans reported that they hiked, versus 20% of white Americans.)
To Blades, the outdoor space is a microcosm of society at large—one where Black people face racism, violence, intimidation, and microagressions on a daily basis. “I believe that by really taking up space in the outdoor world, we provide a powerful example of what all life can look like,” she said.
The events of Black Hikers Week will continue online this week, including a livestreamed virtual town hall meeting on Friday, where leaders from Black outdoor organizations will discuss the barriers to outdoor spaces that Black people face and how the hiking community can take steps to remove them. On Saturday, participants across the world are invited to join a virtual hike. Check out @blackpeoplewhohike on Instagram for the full event list.