Black to the Land Coalition connects Detroit’s B...

Black to the Land Coalition connects Detroit’s BIPOC communities with the outdoors

“We’re creating opportunities for Black and brown people to engage in natural spaces beyond the playscapes and basketball courts. We’re taking on the outdoor world, period.”

Ali family triplets at Rouge Park. Photo by Nick Hagen.

Detroiter Djenaba Ali was looking for inexpensive activities for her and her children to enjoy together. Recently divorced with five children, she balked when a friend invited her camping, thinking it was too expensive.

“They told me, ‘We got you a tent. Just pay $25. Just come up with a sleeping bag. If you don’t have that we got that too,” Ali told Planet Detroit. “It was really inexpensive and convenient.”

Expense and inconvenience have prevented many urban BIPOC residents from enjoying camping and other outdoor activities that could be beneficial to their health, according to author Richard Louv. His book “The Nature Principle” explores how various ethnic or cultural groups relate to nature. 

“The need for nature is universal, but equal access to nature is not,” Louv told Planet Detroit. “Or, even if it is available, what if people do not feel welcome? These questions deserve far more inquiry and action.”

When Ali and her children — ages 18, 15, and 5-year-old triplets — joined other Black and Brown families camping for the first time, they wanted to help other BIPOC members feel welcome.

Djenabe Ali’s family: Jocelyn Niemi, Mehraj Muhammad, Razan Muhammad, and ElAmin Muhammad. Photo by Nick Hagen.

After gathering informally for a few months, Ali and other urban outdoor enthusiasts organized themselves as Black to the Land Coalition in 2020. They are “a coalition of Black, Indigenous and People of Color nature enthusiasts, intent on helping fellow BIPOC actively engage in meaningful outdoor adventures.”

The group is a Michigan nonprofit and recently filed for 501(c)3 nonprofit status. Members, many of whom lead environmental groups, seek to have greater impact through their shared goals. Perhaps chief among them is exposing the BIPOC community to the healing power of nature.

During the COVID-19 era, the BIPOC population experienced more cases and deaths from COVID than white Americans and was three times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID. Healing is important. Risk factors like less access to health insurance and disproportionate exposure to environmental toxins and other stressors made Black and brown folks more vulnerable to the disease. Black to the Land sees nature as a great leveler for health, Ali said. It sees its work as essential.

Chris Jackson, a BTTL co-founder and camping and conservation coordinator for the Sierra Club-led program Detroit Outdoors said BTTL’s model has been ideal during COVID.

Photo by Nick Hagen

“We’re community-focused, family-focused and it’s been pod-focused. Kayaking and archery activities have always been COVID-friendly,” he said. But beyond COVID safety, BTTL is committed to making the outdoors safe in other ways for the BIPOC community, Jackson added.

“We have a lot of fear and trauma associated with being in the woods,” said Jackson, noting the history of Blacks being lynched and other terrorist acts against them, including the 1998 dragging death of James Byrd Jr. by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas. “We have to face that fear so we can move on.”

That includes having experienced outdoor enthusiasts teach reticent participants safety measures like being in groups and self-defense. 

“You have to be prepared for what you may encounter,” said Jackson, who told Planet Detroit that he always carries his gun when camping. Once people feel physically prepared, he said, they are empowered to experience the healing power of nature.

“I am for our collective healing in a really practical way, and I think nature is one of the things that heals people,” BTTL co-chairman and founding member Tepfirah Rushdan told Planet Detroit. “The sun and the microbiome in the soil have so much impact on our minds, our brains. Nature is one of those things that will provide that healing from historical trauma.”

A 2018 study in Environmental Research noted the growing number of studies that confirm Rushdan’s perspective, citing studies that correlate being in nature with lower heart rates, blood pressure, diabetes rates and improvement with a host of other health-related issues.

To broaden the landscape of accessible, affordable and safe ways for BIPOC communities to experience nature, BTTL works with other organizations, including the Huron-Clinton Metroparks. To support its efforts, the Metroparks awarded BTTL a $35,000 grant, $11,000 of which is allocated for camping gear, which is the biggest limitation because of its great expense, Jackson said. 

Photo by Nick Hagen

BTTL has purchased tents, tarps, a wood-burning stove, cooking stoves, cooking utensils and other gear for its gear library, so campers can borrow items. The Metroparks have also tapped BTTL for programming to attract more BIPOC community members.

“Black to the Land has been the absolute best partner,” said Artina Carter, the Metroparks’ chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer. “They will help us make the parks what they all need to be.”

Carter acknowledged that the Metroparks “exist in super-white spaces, but we have parks all over. We want people to know wherever you are and whoever you are, you are welcome.”

Toward that end, BTTL hosted some of their “Be Out” events in the Metroparks, like cross-country skiing, just for the BIPOC community. 

“We know we need to have people who look like them in the parks,” Carter said. BTTL has also used the parks to conduct survival training. 

Passing on expertise to the next generation is another part of what BLLT does. Rushdan said BTTL gets children involved in the environmental movement through nature appreciation and developing outdoor skills like growing food and building fires so they can live off the land. 

Djenabe Ali. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“I want my babies to at least be familiar with those types of things,” said Rushdan, whose children are 17, 15, 13 and 5. “We’ve seen in the last year, and with Hurricane Katrina, things that test the vulnerability of our systems. We want to make sure our community is sustainable.”

Ali, also a BTTL founding member who served alongside Rushton as co-chairman, said another aspect of BTTL’s work is partnering with the City of Detroit on ways to engage the BIPOC community in nature.

“We’ve been behind-the-scenes trying to make sure there is diversity in outdoor spaces, but now people are going to see us in more public spaces,” Ali said. “We’re creating opportunities for Black and brown people to engage in natural spaces beyond the playscapes and basketball courts. We’re taking on the outdoor world, period.”

This story was funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network.

Rhonda J. Smith, a lifelong Detroiter who resides in the Russell Woods-Sullivan area, where she has served on the neighborhood association board, written for its newsletter, organized activities in its parks and provided residents with tax foreclosure prevention information. With a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in communication, she has been a writer and editor for more than 25 years. Her work has appeared in outlets including The Detroit News, Newsday, Chicago Tribune and Wayne County Community College District publications. She was a 2019 Detour Detroit Emerging Voices Fellow.