Toronto organization makes outdoor activities more accessible to BIPOC women

When Demiesha Dennis moved to Canada, she noticed an absence of BIPOC women in the outdoor world. Now, she's looking to change that.

Demiesha Dennis hopes Brown Girl Outdoor World will get more women of colour to explore the outdoors

Participants stop for a break while a hike on the West Humber Trail in Etobicoke hosted by Brown Girl Outdoor World in September. (Submitted by Demiesha Dennis)

When Demiesha Dennis was growing up in Jamaica, her happy place was the great outdoors. She spent most of her childhood outside, whether it was planting vegetables with her grandmother, digging up rocks from the ground, or even just exploring nature around her. And it's been a part of her ever since.

"The outdoors were there. It wasn't an option. I kind of just had that in me from the get-go," Dennis said. 

But when she moved to Canada, Dennis found there weren't many women in the BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, person of colour) community taking part in outdoor activities. Even on hikes, there were few women of colour.

She noticed their absence wasn't only in the physical sporting and outdoor world, but also in its marketing.

For Dennis, the "lack of representation" in how the outdoors is advertised and the few women of colour who participate in these activities is connected — and she wanted to show women in the BIPOC community just how accessible the outdoors really is. 

"If I could move to Canada and find my place in the outdoors, how can I help people who have lived here for their entire lives but never had a community to associate with, or have the feel and need to go outside?"

Organizer Demiesha Dennis ice fishes at one of her Brown Girl Outdoor World events. (Submitted by Demiesha Dennis)

In 2018, she started laying the foundation for Brown Girl Outdoor World, which she hoped would be a place for BIPOC women in which to be exposed to, and enjoy, a variety of outdoor activities. 

"Brown Girl Outdoor World was started basically to change the narrative around representation in the outdoors and the conversation that people in the BIPOC community, especially the Black community, don't get out as much and do outdoor activities," she said.

Through the organization, Dennis runs a range of outdoor events for women over the course of the year. The events range from flat-water surfing and hiking in the summer to snowshoeing, ice-fishing and skiing in the winter. Her goal is to enable many people in the BIPOC community, who don't have the financial means or opportunities, to participate in these activities.

And now with fewer people traveling outside of the country, Dennis says she hopes she can get more people to explore the local outdoors here in Toronto.

Organization focuses on adult women

She decided to focus her attention on getting adult women, typically between the ages of 24 to 40, to come to the events, as opposed to young people.

"There are so many organizations in Toronto that solely focus on youth, but there is a whole gap of people who were born and raised here in Canada but their parents were busy working three to four jobs to make sure they had food on the table," said Dennis.

"Outdoor recreation and going camping and all the other outdoor activities, it wasn't an option."

In other families, finances weren't so much of an obstacle as just having exposure, Dennis said.

"Some of the parents didn't have the knowledge about the sports or they didn't feel like they have a place in sport," she said. 

She's hoping to break that barrier, not just at events, but for the participants to take home with them and extend their knowledge to their families. 

Outdoors not part of growing up, participant says

For Jenine LaFayette, a participant, it's a familiar story.

LaFayette was looking to get more involved in the outdoors, especially with the pandemic. 

"I was born and raised here in Toronto, but as a child of Jamaican parents, we didn't really experience the outdoors as much growing up," she said.

Only as an adult did she get a taste of different outdoor experiences.

"It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I did all of these outdoor activities like camping, going skiing," she said. "Now I'm finding that sense of wanting to explore outdoors more now than when I was a child and a teenager growing up in the same city."

Participants take part in a standup paddle boarding event hosted by Brown Girl Outdoor World on Toronto Islands in September. (Submitted by Demiesha Dennis)

LaFayette's first event with Brown Girl Outdoor World was the standup paddle-boarding program that took place on a weekend in mid-September. 

"I really wasn't sure what Ontario had to offer as far as standup paddle-boarding so it was a good opportunity to go out with a beginner mindset and get to know more about the sport in a very self-aware and safe environment for learning."

She brought her daughter along, too. 

"It was a good way to expose her to the outdoors and that sport in particular," LaFayette said.

And though her daughter stayed behind on the land to take photos, she told her mother she wanted to try it someday too. "I consider that a win for both of us."

Marketing about outdoors part of problem, organizer says

Dennis believes part of the problem with getting women of colour to enjoy nature is the way the outdoors is marketed. When she moved to Canada, she said she felt the outdoors had an "elite feel to it."

"You don't need a $500 pair of shoes to go on a hike. You don't need to drive six hours to find a spot to hike," she said. "It doesn't require a brand experience for you to be a part of nature. It's just removing yourself from the ideas and the thoughts that have been given to you that it has to be expensive, it has to be branded."

'Brown Girl Outdoor World was started basically to change the narrative around representation in the outdoors and the conversation that people in the BIPOC community, especially the Black community, don't get out as much and do outdoor activities,' Demiesha Dennis says. (Submitted by Demiesha Dennis)

Establishing Brown Girl Outdoor World was also a way to enable conversations about nature. 

"She is pioneering that representation that isn't seen elsewhere," said Chanteal-Lee Winchester, who participated in a hiking event with Brown Girl Outdoor World in September.

Winchester said the hike gave her an opportunity to get outdoors, but also to connect with women who have had similar experiences. 

"A lot of the talk was how underrepresented we are in the outdoors," she said. "It could be a very lonely space when you think you're the only one."

Looking forward, Dennis said the hopes she has for her organization are the same hopes she has for the BIPOC community in general. That means seeing more representation of women of colour in marketing and media of the outdoors.

"We're out there. We're doing these activities," she said.

She hopes people of all races will be able to explore the outdoors equally. 

"Mother Nature itself doesn't care who you are. Just show up. Be respectful of the space. Be careful in the space and enjoy it. I just hope to see more people of colour getting involved in the outdoors without restriction."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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