In honor of Black History Month, SWFT celebrated the trailblazers addressing the lack of Black representation in cycling and outdoor recreation and leaving an indelible mark on their communities, their sports, and media in outdoor recreation. Photo credit: HBCUs Outside
Few would deny the healing power of the great outdoors, and countless studies have illuminated the physical and psychological benefits of outdoor recreation like cycling. But as we reminisce about our childhood two-wheeler and marvel at the planet’s beauty, it’s important to remember that Black folks in the U.S. are too often excluded from these seemingly universal and accessible pleasures.
Take a cursory glance at cycling and outdoor recreation in the U.S. and it’s easy to remember how deep-seated racial discrimination manifests in ways we might have overlooked. Despite the media's ostensible gains in Black representation, Black people are still seriously underrepresented in environmental organizations and mainstream outdoor media. And it’s harder to address the de facto segregation of a Black person from communities in which they could never imagine themselves in the first place; it’s harder to quantify the opportunities lost from a lack of representation that stems from systemic discrimination. That’s why representation matters.
Fortunately, a number of modern-day adventurers, athletes, and creators are addressing the lack of diversity in cycling and outdoor recreation, and ensuring that future generations of Black folks not only see themselves represented in outdoor spaces, but also have access to these transformative pursuits. Below, we examine the tremendous impact of four of these trailblazers.
Shabazz Stuart, founder of Ooneepod
Biking infrastructure is disproportionately absent from black neighborhoods, denying communities of color a safe way to travel by bike. Cyclists in Black neighborhoods are more likely to be ticketed by police than those riding in white neighborhoods, with the majority with the majority of citations being issued for riding on sidewalks, underscoring the lack of safe bike lanes, bike parking and other forms of infrastructure*.
Former NYC public servant and biking advocate Shabazz Stuart hopes to change the state of biking infrastructure across the country. His new venture, Ooneepod, is a New York-based startup focused on safe bicycle parking with the ultimate goal of erecting thousands of different sized modular parking sheds and storage facilities throughout New York City and beyond.
“The priority is changing the conversation,” says Stuart. “It’s dominated by white men. That’s not reflective of who actually bikes in the city: We’ve got 65,000 delivery workers… who are almost all people of color and immigrants. We’ve got people across the five boroughs who are Black, brown, Hispanic, Asian. And they rely on bikes to get around. A majority of people who bike in New York City are non-white.”
Stuart also walks the walk. The Oonee Pod website describes it’s team as a proudly Black & Brown-led team of advocates, designers and policy experts.
Ron Griswell, outdoor enthusiast & founder of HBCUs Outside
People of color are 3x more likely than white people to live in places that have no immediate access to nature.* This is due to a number of factors rooted in historical racial discrimination including discriminatory infrastructure, biased media messaging (i.e. who is represented in recreation media), and income disparity linked to job discrimination, housing discriination, and redlining.
Despite these systemic factors, Ron Griswell is defying the status quo. After amassing an impressive following as an outdoor influencer exploring the intersectionality of blackness and the outdoors, Griswell turned his sights on the next generation of adventurers. His organization, HBCUs Outside, encourages students and alumni from Historically Black Colleges and Universities to enjoy the natural world and become the leaders we need for a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive outdoor industry.
According to HBCUs Outside, “People participate in the places and spaces where they see themselves reflected. Today, that often starts with representation in digital media. When HBCUs Outside started, we broke stereotypes and inspired underrepresented collegiate youth to get outside for general wellness and to care for our public lands simply by existing in those spaces and sharing our stories”.
While there is profound power in simply existing where you “don’t belong,” the organization takes the extra step to support young adventurers by providing resources, helping with access, and building community.
Historically, black people and other people of color have been excluded from outdoor recreation agencies like the civilian conservation corps and the national park system. National parks of the United States were conceptualized as aristocratic refuges, and developed and managed by white men who held racist beliefs, namely Madison Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Giffort Pinchot, and John Muir, creator of the National Park System.*
Danielle Williams is acutely aware of how historical inequities translate to outdoor sports today, not only with regard to Black representation but also intersectionality - a framework for acknowledging people affected with a number of discriminations, e.g. someone who is Black, femme, and disabled. After graduating from Harvard, Williams joined the army where she discovered her love of skydiving.
Though the experience was transformative, Williams struggled to find a deeper sense of community in spaces where she was often the “only one”; the only Black person, the only woman, the only person with a disability. In 2018 she founded Diversify Outdoors, a coalition of outdoor entrepreneurs, activists, influencers, and non-profits leveraging the power of social networks to promote racial and gender equity. #DiversifyOutdoors has been used over 120K times on Instagram (we’ve used it ourselves).
Williams also founded Melanin Basecamp, an award winning blog, and she’s a cofounder of Team Blackstar, an international skydiving association committed to promoting skydiving in the African Diaspora and in communities of color. In addition to a number of prominent publications, she was recently featured on Season 3, Episode 4 of ‘Your Attention Please’, a Hulu series that explores the lives, ideas, and dreams of a diverse group of Black innovators and creators who are leaving their mark on the world. Sounds about right.
Kévin Reza, French former professional road cyclist
Out of 113 US Riders licensed on professional cycling teams, zero of them are Black. There are no African American riders in any of the seven US Continental teams and none on any ProTeam, WordTeam or Women’s World-Team.*
Only one Black cyclist, Kevin Reza of France, participated in the Tour de France in 2020. Now retired, his illustrious career was not without hardship; Kévin has been vocal about the lack of diversity and racism that plagues the “backward” sport. In May 2017, Italian cyclist Gianni Moscon was suspended from his professional team for six weeks for racially abusing Reza at the Tour de Romandie.
Reza was initially a reluctant champion of equality in the sport; as one journalist stated during an interview with Reza that focused on racism in cycling, “I’m sorry to ask these questions to you, it’s not your responsibility to be spokesperson for this.” But as the sole Black cyclist on his team and one of the few Black faces in an overwhelmingly white sport, Reza couldn’t ignore what he was seeing and experiencing. He became more vocal about the lack of diversity and racism that characterized the sport and put his qualms about creating discomfort aside.
Reza will be remembered as a pioneer in the sport. Throughout his 11-year career he racked up dozens of accolades and three appearances on the sport’s biggest stage, the Tour de France, all while shattering stereotypes and shedding light on cycling’s diversity problem.