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Outdoor adventure sports aren’t inclusive enough – so one woman is working to change that

A celebrated skydiver, active hiker, and military veteran, Danielle Williams is downright fearless when it comes to facing the great outdoors. Despite all of her experience, it was not always easy to find other black women to connect with in the “outdoor community”. Williams grew up in a military family in the DC suburbs, hiking and biking almost every day – but as she got older, she noticed the apparent absence of diversity in the outdoor areas she frequented. And when we entered the realm of skydiving, that void became even more apparent. In recent years, she has vowed to do something about it: As the founder and senior editor of Melanin Base Camp, an editorial platform launched in 2016 to promote accessibility in outdoor adventure sports, she oversees a team of writers blogging about cycling. Climbing, base jumping and more. In 2018, Williams expanded the scope of its advocacy with the introduction of Diversify Outdoors, a broader coalition of independent influencers who leverage their collective following to promote outdoor diversity through brand partnerships, awareness games, and the use of the movement’s hashtag of the same name. Of course, Williams’ adventures these days are kept to a minimum while staying close to her home due to the pandemic. “I take immunosuppressive drugs, so I haven’t gone outside – or anywhere else – as often as I would like,” she says. Even if she stays inside, she looks forward to continuing to create content that encourages all people to go outside. “We don’t just write about the most difficult hikes. We want to make sure our writing is very accessible and easy to use, ”she explains. “For everyone who is new to nature, we make sure that they feel welcome. We create content that makes sense to you. “And right now, when so many facets of daily life are more difficult than ever, the open air can be an absolutely necessary asset. So we sat down with Williams to better see how she’s nurtured her thirst for adventure and how she’s making room for women of color outdoors. Did you grow up with “adventure sports”? I come from a large family and we spent a lot of time together outdoors. I don’t think I heard the word “hiking” until I was older – but we walked a lot. My mother loved running too, and I loved running away from her. Both of my parents were in the military, so we stayed very active. Plus, we grew up in the suburbs, so I’ve cycled everywhere. How did you get into skydiving? The first time I jumped off a plane was after my sophomore year. I always knew I wanted to enroll in the Army – which was comforting when I was in college because I graduated in 2008 during the recession. When I came to ROTC, I did a lot of skydiving – which includes jumping out of airplanes. But I didn’t do my first real skydive until I was 25 on my birthday. Who were some of the black women you looked up to when you started developing a love for new outdoor activities? When it comes to skydiving, I didn’t know any black women when I first started the sport and wouldn’t meet one until much later. It’s not that black women aren’t into skydiving – we just have a high rate of wear and tear due to a number of factors. Unfortunately, when I started, I didn’t have any role models for black women. How did it come about that nature became something so important in your life – and not just a casual hobby? In 2014 I started a collective for skydivers of the color called Team Blackstar with a couple of friends. I’m still connected to these people online – many of whom I haven’t met in person. But in 2016 I got rheumatic fever [an inflammatory autoimmune disease]. I was really sick and I was in the hospital for a while and because I was stuck inside all the time I really missed this community. When you skydive, you spend a lot of time with your friends every weekend in this very conditional environment. So the loss of that sense of personal community really made me look for one online. But when I started looking, I said, “Oh, this room looks really empty.” There was simply no common platform for people of color to explore outdoor activities. It was really hard to find each other. This is where the idea for Melanin Basecamp was born. Skydiving is a relatively small niche. Unlike Team Blackstar, Melanin Basecamp also focuses on hiking and other outdoor hobbies, which makes it easier to connect with people of all skill levels. I wanted to find or create a platform for all things outdoors. How much of your work is focused on connecting with people of color who are already outdoors, as opposed to POC who think these spaces are not for them? When we first started we used words like “adventure sportsman” that don’t really resonate with black and brown communities. That was the phrase I’d learned as an adult, and that was the terminology I used – but at that point I was only there for people who considered themselves experts in their chosen field. My attitude has definitely changed over time because this is such a small group of people. We still have this core group of people who have hiked or climbed or snowboarded or base jumping or whatever they want for a long time, but now we are working to reach out to people who are new to the outdoors too. As a platform, we’ve grown a lot to better accommodate accessibility – or the need to break through many of the elitist barriers and unnecessary hindrances to the outdoor activities we enjoy. So many black creatives, activists and community builders saw an unprecedented surge in followers in the summer of 2020 as protests against Black Lives Matter swept the country. How did you deal with this increased visibility? That year, people discovered our articles on Melanin Basecamp, some of which were two or three years old. After the BLM protests, donations came to our website from nowhere. And right now, more white people are following us than ever before. With that, the demand for the type of content we produce has definitely shifted. It was weird because we don’t necessarily write for a white audience. A lot of people come up on our site to be taught what to do – and that’s great. I think there are other sites that do better. Our content has always been by people with color, for people with color. How are your days now I have a cat, he’s great. His name is Mister Jimbo. I work from home. I’ve traveled a lot to work as the social media editor for the National Business Aviation Association, and now I work from my living room. I have the luxury and the privilege of being able to do this. So I was just hibernating, I guess … trying not to get sick. What’s next for Diversify Outdoors and Melanin Basecamp? Our first short film premiered last year and is about a Black Canadian climber, Sabrina Chapman, and her goal of climbing her first 5.14a, which is a gateway to elite climbing. That was very exciting and we will do more, thanks in part to the massive wave of funding that came last summer. Writing is great, it’s great fun, but people really connect with videos and short films, so we want to keep doing more of them. We will continue to publish content that is relevant to our community. And we’ll keep growing, that’s part of the process. When we started in 2016 I didn’t give indigenous land recognition and now I am. It’s a learning curve where we all grow, we all try to get better, be more inclusive, and highlight people with multiple marginalized identities, even within our own community. We could all definitely do better. We look forward to growing with our community over the next few years. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Do you like what you see? How about a little more R29 grade, right here?

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