Welcome to Connecting the Dots on Diabetes, a series by Sydney Williams of Hiking My Feelings, chronicling the organization’s mission to hike 1 million miles for diabetes awareness in 2021.
Throughout the series, Sydney, who received a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes in 2017, will interview diabetes advocates, community organizers, policy makers, and patients to answer the question: Is there a relationship between trauma and diabetes? If so, if we treat the trauma, can we more effectively treat diabetes?
When Hiking My Feelings was on tour in 2019, we visited 42 states, 12 national parks, and countless city, state, and other local parks along the way.
Over the course of the 9 months we were on the road, we hosted more than 140 events around the United States, sharing the story of how hiking helped me heal my body and manage my type 2 diabetes and inviting the audience to join us for a local hike to experience the healing power of nature for themselves.
I spoke at 60 different REI stores around the country, and while our experience was overwhelmingly positive, we did notice a disconnect between what we saw on social media and in-store advertising, and what we saw in real life.
One of the most common things we heard on the road and in online conversations between tour stops was that some folks don’t feel safe, represented, or welcome in the outdoors.
Members of the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ communities and folks with chronic illnesses, varying body types, and different abilities all felt invisible.
We saw this illustrated in nearly every tour stop. While the marketing online and in store reflected a desire to increase inclusion in the outdoors, the majority of folks in our audiences were white. The stores were in affluent, mostly white neighborhoods, staffed by mostly white people.
As we were doing research for our Take a Hike, Diabetes campaign and upcoming tour, we saw an overlap.
Some of the communities who don’t feel safe, represented, or welcome in the outdoors also have a
- Native American/Alaska Native (14.7%)
- Hispanic (12.5%)
- non-Hispanic Black (11.7%)
- non-Hispanic Asian (9.2%)
When I first started hiking and backpacking, I didn’t feel represented either.
On my first backpacking trip, I shimmied and squeezed into an extra-large shirt and a size 16 pair of pants, because those were the largest sizes offered at the store where I bought all of the necessary equipment for that trip.
As someone with a new diabetes diagnosis, I didn’t see any representation for people living with this illness when I was seeking out communities of outdoors enthusiasts.
I had a panicked conversation with my doctor about what I could eat during a backpacking trip because as I looked at the nutrition labels, I was convinced that everything I was used to eating on the trail before my diagnosis would cause me to backslide and send my blood sugar through the roof.
And as a survivor of sexual assault, I naturally have fears about being isolated by myself in a place where I’m far from help.
All of my hikes and backpacking trips have been done with my husband, and while everyone has the right to feel safe while hiking solo, I know that hiking with him gives me an extra layer of security and peace of mind.
All of that said, I was able to find deep healing in the outdoors, and I want everyone to be able to experience the same.
Fortunately, there are some incredible community leaders, organizations, and outdoor industry brands who are working hard to increase access and inclusivity of outdoor spaces.
Jahmicah Dawes is the owner of Slim Pickins Outfitters in Stephenville, Texas. It’s the first Black-owned outdoor gear store in America.
In 2020, they almost closed their doors for good due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the outdoor community raised $172,000 to cover expenses and offer a bit of a runway for an uncertain future.
“If I had a magic wand, I think it would be about the outdoor industry meeting Black-owned businesses where they’re at, and helping in a way that we need help, and not in the way that you want to help,” Dawes says.
“Instead of asking us about ‘building a store in the hood,’ give us the opportunity to make money and instead buy that plot of land and create a green space,” she adds. “That way, our youth can have access to it, learn about the healing power of nature, and the health implications of being able to be outside.”
The folks at Outbound Collective did just that.
The Outbound Collective is a POC-owned and operated company committed to making the outdoors more inclusive.
According to the company’s website, their goal is to create an outdoor experience that is “rooted in community, compassion, and inspiration” and build “a place where everyone feels welcome, represented, and empowered to live healthier lives through the pursuit of everyday adventures.”
“We wanted to challenge the outdated narrative of who belongs in the outdoors, and what’s considered ‘cool,'” says Brian Heifferon, CEO and co-founder.
After creating a film about Slim Pickins, they were the ones that made the suggestion to Dawes, and they handled all of the logistics of getting the fundraiser set up, spreading the word, and bringing awareness about Slim Pickins to the outdoor community.
“I think the concept of meeting folks where they’re at was central to the success of the Slim Pickins fundraiser,” Heifferon says. “We’d never organized any sort of fundraiser before, and we didn’t really have any idea of what to expect.”
“Like many of our initiatives, we took a grassroots approach to launching the film,” he says.
On the day of the film and fundraising launch, the Outbound Collective team took the film and the fundraiser to their network of friends, affinity groups, nonprofits, leaders, and advocates within the outdoor industry.
Within 2 weeks, they had exceeded their fundraising goal.
“We learned that there’s something really powerful about connecting directly with different communities who share a common purpose — and then witnessing their collective solidarity and support for building a better, more inclusive outdoors for everyone,” says Heifferon.
If you don’t feel like you belong in these spaces, you won’t spend time or money to have outdoor experiences, and will instead focus your attention — and dollars — on places where you do feel welcome.
So what can the outdoor industry do to capture the attention of these different communities? Outside of diversifying marketing and advertising materials, how does this industry move from talking the talk to walking the walk?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, the outdoor recreation economy accounted for 2.1 percent ($459.8 billion) of current-dollar gross domestic product (GDP) for the nation in 2019.
One of the most important purchases for someone looking to spend more time on the trails is a good pair of shoes, and Salomon is an industry leader in technical gear, inclusion, and sustainability.
The company has incredibly high sustainability commitments to support their people, planet, and products. Becky Marcelliano, outdoor marketing manager for Salomon in North America, is passionate about how inclusion and sustainability tie together.
“If we make a shoe that’s built for an urban hiker, that allows us to serve more folks in cities. If we create a product that’s made of recycled materials, that appeals to those whose purchasing decisions are driven by purpose,” she says. “If we build a lower price point walking shoe, that allows us to provide performance-driven footwear with fewer financial hurdles.”
“There are so many ways that sustainability and inclusivity braid together, often in ways that collectively move forward through a longstanding commitment to micro-developments,” she adds.
As part of UST’s commitment to supporting athletes of color and increasing representation in the outdoors, they are sponsoring Evan Gill, a Black veteran who is on a mission to increase visibility for Black outdoors enthusiasts by summiting all 58 of Colorado’s 14ers (mountain peaks greater than 14,000 feet above sea level).
“If I had a magic wand, everyone would have experiences of growing up and spending time in the outdoors, and an understanding of the healing power of nature,” says John Holdmeier, brand manager at UST.
“When it comes to improving community health, that would help a lot, which is why we’re excited to support these kinds of projects,” he adds.
Jay Readey is the founder of the Outerbelt Alliance, a nonprofit organization that created the Chicago Outerbelt, connecting existing pedestrian walkways, green spaces, and trail systems to create a 200-plus-mile backpacking loop around the city of Chicago.
The organization is on a mission to promote eco-recreation in a metropolitan environment, engaging diverse communities in outdoor experience.
Readey lives in the South Suburbs of Chicago, where four dozen fragmented, disinvested, and underinvested suburbs suffer from stunted economic growth as a result of decentralized control and deindustrialization.
Both because land is less expensive and the area is rich in natural features, the forest preserve assets are among the best and most plentiful in the Chicago region.
“I started running, hiking, and biking them over 15 years ago, but became frustrated that their offerings aren’t reaching or engaging the surrounding communities,” Readey says.
“Gradually, as I realized one parcel of forest and field connected to the next, I discovered I could reach Lake Michigan — and the diverse neighborhoods on the Southeast side of Chicago — without leaving forests or trails.”
He started staring at maps, believing that the route could be extended all around Chicago and could become a galvanizing, region-wide focus to engage the communities that the trail passes through in outdoor recreation.
The comprehensive goal of circling the Outerbelt enables people to see and experience greater Chicago in new, intimate ways.
The Chicago Outerbelt is accessible via public transportation, which opens up recreation opportunities to communities that don’t have reliable personal transportation or who don’t have the time or ability to travel far distances to find outdoor experiences.
We are officially on the road for the #TakeAHikeDiabetes Tour and we are excited to welcome both Salomon and UST as partners for the tour.
This summer, as part of the tour, Hiking My Feelings will be embarking on three urban backpacking adventures to demonstrate that you don’t have to travel far to experience the healing power of nature. You can find it in the cities and towns where you work, live, and play.
Along the way, we’ll be showcasing the community leaders, organizations, and brands who are making the outdoors more inclusive and supporting the local diabetes community.
(Both Salomon and UST are contributing prizes for program participants who log a minimum of one activity per week, including free hiking shoes and a tent. They’re also matching donations made to the campaign, up to $10,000 total.)
As far as we know, this is the first initiative of its kind to encourage the diabetes community to take a hike.
Sydney Williams is an adventure athlete and author based in San Diego. Her work explores how trauma manifests in our minds and bodies and how the outdoors can help us heal. Sydney is the founder of Hiking My Feelings, a nonprofit organization on a mission to improve community health by creating opportunities for people to experience the healing power of nature. Join the Hiking My Feelings Family, and follow along on YouTube and Instagram.