Sierra Club outings leader Bill Vanderberg has been leading youth wilderness programs for over 20 years. His program Building Bridges to the Outdoors (BBTO) provides immersive nature experiences for local high schoolers in Los Angeles. I sat down with Bill to talk about why BBTO is so important. Here’s what he explained to me.
As cases of the novel coronavirus in the United States continue to trend upwards, forcing us to socially-distance in our homes. Many look to the great outdoors as a means to a much-needed escape, allowing us to get some fresh-air without violating state and local stay-at-home orders.
Here in sunny Southern California, we have an embarrassment of riches when it comes to getting outdoors. We have our choice of urban parks, beach trails, grasslands and chaparral, deserts, and some of the most picturesque mountain peaks in the state -- not to mention a temperate year-round climate.
It may seem like we Southern Californians have it all when it comes to exploring and enjoying our public lands, but what if you’re Black? Can systematic racism and white supremacy really keep people of color from enjoying something as simple as going outside for a jog, birding, or taking a hike? The unfortunate answer is yes.
Take Christian Cooper, for example, a 57-year-old, Harvard educated science editor, who -- while out birding in New York’s Central Park -- recorded a white woman calling 911 on him after simply requesting she leash her dog. “There’s an African American man threatening my life,” she is heard saying in the video. Thankfully, the situation de-escalated and didn’t culminate in any arrests.
Or the tragic story of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man who was shot and killed near Brunswick in Glynn County, Georgia, while jogging. He had been pursued and confronted by three white residents, who claimed Abrery matched the description of a robbery suspect. Reports allege the gunman, Travis McMichael, used a racial epithet after three blasts from his shotgun left Arbery dead in the street.
These are two sad, but all too common stories of how the great outdoors can be anything but for people of color. Worries of discrimination, racial profiling, and tense encounters keep so many away. What’s more, limited outreach to communities of color and a general unfamiliarity of the outdoors tend to reinforce the stereotype that getting outdoors is a “white” activity.
And it’s true, people of color are less likely to visit parks for fear of racist treatment by mostly white park rangers, gate agents, and other park staffers. Research even points to inequitable access to urban green space in communities of color that relates to health disparities or inequalities.
So, how do we, Southern California’s largest, most enduring, and influential grassroots environmental organization work to make the outdoors a more equitable space? Assessing and eliminating the inherent biases that exclude people of color from outdoor public spaces is a big piece of it -- and it’s work long-time outings leader, Bill Vanderberg, has been doing for a while right here in Los Angeles.
Bill started volunteering as a scout leader 30 years ago and started working with the Sierra Club in 1999 when he joined the Trail Crew of the Santa Monica Mountains Task Force, doing trail maintenance on Saturday mornings (work he still actively leads, to this day.)
Bill has worked tirelessly to engage youth in outdoor environmental experiences from which they gain a sense of ownership and responsibility to their natural environment. He mentored the Crenshaw High School Eco Club, sponsored by the Sierra Club;s “Building Bridges to the Outdoors” national campaign, a program that enabled underserved students from several high schools to participate in wilderness experiences in Yosemite and ecological projects like trail maintenance and habitat restoration.
Bill looked at his program as a way of exposing his students to the riches of the outdoors and public lands - he wanted them to experience and learn how to care for what rightfully also belonged to them. “Typically, only children of the more wealthy could afford these experiences. For 80 percent of the kids, the Crenshaw Eco Club provided their first real experience outdoors.”
It’s this kind of immersive exposure to the outdoors that really makes connections with kids, including kids of color. “Occasional day hikes are great, but not enough. Immersion programs are what get kids to go all in,” he said. “Those are the experiences that can change and inspire kids to continue learning, and return to the Club as activists.”
Fulfilling as the program is, there have been painful moments. While in Yosemite, kids would often talk about how they were being perceived, the feeling of being outsiders, and in a sense they were. That feeling culminated recently during a 4-day service project trip to Yosemite as volunteers with the National Parks Service.
One evening, after a long day of habitat restoration out on the trails, Bill and his group of young volunteers from LA were told by Park Staff that they would not be allowed to use the shower facility at Curry Village without proof that they were, in fact, volunteers. Even after providing sufficient paperwork, armed park rangers were called to the scene because the staff member behind the desk felt ‘threatened’ by the seemingly unnecessary confrontation.
“Racial profiling in national parks is not uncommon, and that’s why people of color are not going to parks,” said Bill after sharing his story. “Why should we have to prove we are who we say we are?”
Thankfully, the confrontation between Bill’s group and Park Staff did not escalate further, and an apology was later issued by both the concessionaire “Aramark” and the NPS.
The incident though serves as a sad reminder of the disparate treatment of Black visitors and misconceptions about African-Americans relations with the outdoors and a greater part of the United States’ legacy of racial violence and segregation.
Bill’s hard work has not gone unrecognized. His student volunteer group from BBTO received the Youth Volunteer Group of the Year from Yosemite National Park in October of 2017. The awards are given to outstanding volunteers for exemplary service in the park.
The annual Yosemite Trip is on hold this year due to the COVID-19 crisis and lack of grant funding, but Bill looks forward to continuing the trips once the pandemic has passed. “It’s important for kids of color to associate these experiences outdoors with people who look like them,” he said.
“These same kids will soon be the ones to decide whether to save our natural world. If we deny them these experiences in nature, soon our movement will be gone and so will our natural world.”
For members or public supporters interested in supporting programs similar to BBTO, Bill suggests checking out The Los Angeles Inspiring Connections Outdoors (ICO). The program partners with local schools, serving as a bridge that enables underserved youth, disabled individuals, and others to visit and develop an appreciation for our natural environment. Check out their website and see volunteer opportunities here.
[Photo: BBTO Founder Bill Vanderberg © David Coburn all rights reserved] [Header photo: Yosemite Creek © John Fisanotti all rights reserved]