Some Grand Rapids residents have never stepped foot in the Grand River. In fact, a very small population of people currently use the river to recreate.
Through its work to restore the city’s namesake rapids in the Grand River, Grand Rapids Whitewater is also looking to expand who uses the river and build equity into the $45 million project, which is set to begin in the river in 2021.
To achieve this, the city of Grand Rapids leveraged funding from the Battle Creek-based W.K. Kellogg Foundation to hire Ciarra Adkins as an equity analyst. Adkins oversees diversity, equity and inclusion efforts for the river restoration project and governance.
“There is an opportunity for economic prosperity within the environmental world that typically people of color are not a part of,” Adkins said. “We’re trying to be intentional as the city, and with a lot of our partners, to make sure economic opportunities that arise from our river improvements make space for women and people of color to be able to participate.”
According to Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Outdoor Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the Outdoor Industry Association, minorities consistently have lagged behind for years in participating in outdoor recreation. Caucasians have the highest participation rates, although there have been “promising” increases among underrepresented groups. Participation for Hispanic populations has doubled over the last decade, and African American and Asian populations also have increased participation, but more slowly.
In 2019, 45 percent of outdoor recreation participants were women, which was the highest level on record, according to the Outdoor Foundation.
Organizations across the state are looking to make outdoor recreation more inclusive and welcoming to all people. Livonia-based Michigan Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education is working to create a statewide network and advocate for professionals who educate Michigan citizens in environmental literacy, stewardship and outdoor recreation.
Lisa Perez is a board member at the organization, and chairwoman of its diversity and inclusion committee, which was created within the last five years. The more inclusive outdoor recreation can be, the larger the participation will be, which is good for Michigan in general, she said.
The organization has focused on outreach to organizations that focus on diversity in outdoor recreation, like Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit with networks around the country that lead outdoor recreation activities focused on the African American experience. The Alliance for Environmental and Outdoor Education works to network with organizations like this and create professional opportunities.
“There’s a lot of folks involved in different types of outdoor recreation,” Perez said. “They might not be the typical ones we might think about. They might be enjoying it in ways that are different in outdoor recreation. That’s where it comes upon us as an organization to know that it’s really important to expand those boundaries.”
The Michigan Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan prepared in 2018 for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources sheds some light on the disparities in outdoor recreation.
A survey conducted by Public Sector Consultants for the report found that the participation rate for African Americans and Latinos in statewide outdoor recreation activities was about 25 percent lower than for white Michigan residents.
As well, non-white residents had satisfaction rates 10-15 percent lower than white residents regarding the quality and quantity of outdoor recreation opportunities close to home.
“Our recreation systems should provide access and meaningful outdoor recreation opportunities for all. To advance this effort we need to further evaluate the ways in which we locate and design our facilities and programming to serve all populations and user groups,” according to the report.
Disparities also exist among hunting and fishing participation in Michigan. In 2018, the most recent year for which data are available, women made up just 20 percent of the more than 1.1 million licensed anglers in Michigan, and just 10 percent of licensed hunters, according to the DNR.
Even so, the participation rates for women in the traditional forms of outdoor recreation are changing. According to a pair of studies involving the DNR and Michigan Technological University, women are among the fastest-growing cohorts of hunters and could make up about 20 percent of the hunting population by 2035.
“As gender norms have changed, so too has the role of women in hunting. … State agencies are increasingly recognizing that women are a key stakeholder group that was largely ignored for generations and that could be a potential source of new hunters,” researchers wrote in the report.
Likewise, the researchers found that women anglers could make up 24 percent of all anglers by 2035, given that women born after 1983 “show an increased likelihood to fish compared to prior generations.”
In Adkins’ work expanding boundaries in Grand Rapids, she focuses on contracts for individuals that will be doing work on the Grand River project, assessing the diversity of workforces and hiring local firms. The goal is to look at every economic opportunity that is or will be tied to the river restoration and build equity into each step, Adkins said.
“The (river) banks are really where a lot of the money and opportunity is going to come,” she said. “We want minority contractors to be able to benefit from the work that’s being done in the river, but we also want minorities and women-owned businesses to benefit from the banks. We’ll have all these recreating features — why not have a minority business run the kayak shop, or whatever it is that we ultimately end up doing?”
Disparities in who participates in outdoor recreation exist for many reasons. Adkins said historically people of color were not welcome in green spaces, dating back to segregation and the Civil Rights era. At the same time, many recreational opportunities require pricey gear or money for licenses.
“They also might not feel welcome in certain areas,” Adkins said.
The uneasiness of being outdoors is something Alice Jasper discovered in a recent episode of WGVU’s Changing Narratives series. Jasper, who works as Michigan program manager at Local First, an advocacy group for local businesses, was part of a cohort that learned how to produce narratives for broadcast media with WGVU.
Her episode, “Color Out Here,” focused on the relationship between people of color and outdoor recreation. She and others talked about experiences they have had while recreating outdoors, and the harassment that comes with it depending on the area. The same issue exists for women.
“A lot of (the disparity) is the intimidation to learn new things, and there’s also the very legitimate fear that people of color have being particularly in remote areas,” Jasper said.
There is no “silver bullet” to making the outdoors more inclusive of all people, but Jasper suggests the industry include people of color in its advertisements, and be more collaborative with groups like Outdoor Afro or Latino Outdoors, a national organization that offers free outdoor activities to Latino communities.
Adkins also suggests building equity into formal planning processes, which is a focus in Grand Rapids’ strategic plan. For Adkins, success will be measured by having equity-based policies in place that reach far beyond the river restoration.
“And seeing diversity down at the river,” she said. “To see a multitude of faces and backgrounds, and to see that the river is no longer a divider between two sides of the city, but a connector, I think we will have been successful in our endeavors.”