Ian Solomon, 24, has been an avid outdoorsman for six years, but being black meant he had never really seen people outdoors who looked like him.
This lack of representation eventually became the inspiration behind Amplify Outside, a group that Solomon started with the goal of “liberating the community through outdoor recreation.”
“I really built that relationship with the outdoors,” he said. “And I’m just someone who likes to share things with people.”
Ron Olson, chief of parks and recreation at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said location is a primary factor in the diversity represented in state parks — the department does not track how often certain demographics use the state’s outdoor recreation, but saw that this varies from place to place.
“There’s a lot more engagement that we want to try and do and make things as relevant as possible,” Olson said. “The system is welcoming to everyone.”
Originally from Detroit, Solomon first fell in love with the outdoors after his family moved from the city to West Bloomfield during his senior year of high school.
“All of a sudden I’m surrounded by trees and lakes and things like that that I never really thought about before or didn’t know were there,” Solomon said.
Solomon said he thinks a big barrier to why black people generally don’t explore the outdoors is that some believe outdoor recreation is exclusively for white people; something he said is not true.
“It’s just the people who have immediate access to it,” Solomon said.
Solomon’s new adventure with Amplify Outside began on Twitter, once he saw people start noticing him after he started sharing his experience camping, hiking, and exploring Michigan’s trails.
“I was really surprised by the number of people who reached out to me and responded,” Solomon said. “I didn’t expect people to care so much.”
The unexpected, but welcome, responses led him to create an Amplify Outside TikTok account, where he explained how, where and what of the outdoor excursions he’s been going to in different places in the state, as well as the cost of what it takes to do it.
“It seems to be the keystone that attracts dating – that people would feel more comfortable if they saw more people like that here,” Solomon said.
The attention reinforced Solomon’s belief that there are legitimate barriers preventing black residents from traveling to outdoor recreation venues in Michigan.
Driven by a need for data, Solomon shared a Google survey to amplify outside social media accounts, asking Black Michiganders to weigh in on their experiences outside.
The survey generated more than 200 responses and, according to Solomon, the results showed that access, representation and economic barriers are among the main deterrents preventing more black people from exploring nature.
Among survey respondents, 64% also said racism played a role in their willingness to explore Michigan’s wilderness.
“Having more people outside and showing and representing that we’re outside — and you can meet another black person on a trail — is important,” Solomon said.
Solomon hopes to use these survey responses as support to help expand the group in the future and guide the group as it continues to grow.
“Data is power when it comes to community organizing,” Solomon said. “It shows how excited people are about going out and how much we need to break down those barriers.”
Olson said to help communities of color explore Michigan’s outdoor recreation spaces, one of DNR’s goals is to provide a variety of offerings to help people find what they love to do.
“One of the ideas is to work to identify all the things we could do, and then initiate actions to make what we do as relevant as possible to diverse populations,” Olson said. “It’s something we want to keep working on. And the other thing is to try to keep diversifying our workforce so that when people come to the park, there are people who look like them.
This summer, Solomon plans to work on building a team around organizing his efforts and raising funds. He also wants to organize group outings to different places in the state. The first scheduled is a public outdoor “sound bath” event in May, to be held on Belle Isle in Detroit.
“Overall, Michigan is an extremely black state, there are so many black communities,” Solomon said. “We view this as an opportunity to not only bring people out, but to connect black communities in Michigan.”
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