How Color Outside Empowers Women of Color Through Outdoor Adventure
“If you can do the freaking John Muir Trail, you can do this.” I’ve had this thought an immeasurable amount of times in the nine months since I stood on top of Mount Whitney. Whether it’s a work stressor, a particularly tough hill run, or a personal problem, I draw upon my experiences in the outdoors as motivation. As thru-hikers, we push ourselves to the absolute limit and come out the other end confident and empowered, despite the occasional diarrhea.
Nailah Blades Wylie, founder of Color Outside, uses physical accomplishment in nature to show women the extent of their strength. Color Outside is a Utah-based organization, hosting retreats and workshops for women everywhere. Nailah’s main focus is helping women unlock their true potential, in the face of economic and social barriers.
The Beginning of Color Outside
Four years ago, Nailah moved from Southern California to Salt Lake City, Utah. Exploring her new surroundings, she found herself intrinsically drawn to the spectacular nature just outside the city. In her time outside, she began to find clarity and shifts within herself. She saw how the benefits of physical activity in the outdoors had allowed her to heal and grow in such a short time, and wondered how she could share this gift with other women. Specifically, women of color in Utah who may be transplants or haven’t found their niche quite yet.
Nailah’s goal was to “create a safe space and community of women who were looking to explore.” What started as a local hiking group morphed into a nature-based retreat and workshop program, open to women from all around the globe. It was never Nailah’s original intention to make Color Outside her career. However, as the organization grew, the need for that space became apparent. Since its founding, Nailah has led retreats and workshops around Utah to show women how to step into themselves and claim their space.
What Happens at the Retreats?
Color Outside retreats combine nature experiences and intentional coaching. A typical day might include a vision and goal workshop in the morning at breakfast, followed by an afternoon of skiing.
“That setting works really well, because we’ll talk about limiting beliefs or fears within life. Then an hour later, women will ski a hill for the first time in their life. If your body can do that, if you can literally climb a mountain, what else can you do? Maybe you can ask for that raise at work.”
These nature-induced epiphanies are what keep us all coming back to the trails. What better way to show yourself that you have the tools you need to succeed than having your body do something you explicitly told yourself it cannot? Guiding women through career or life-related goal setting, then guiding them up a mountain, Nailah is able to demonstrate the tools we all have within ourselves.
This work is specifically targeted toward women of color, because they historically have not been given the same access to space or resources. It’s commonly known that women make 79 cents for every dollar a man makes (source). However, this is just an average of what all women make. Black women make about 65 cents on the dollar, and Latinx women make even less, at 54 cents (source). So asking for a raise as a woman of color is especially intimidating. The pay gap works in insidious ways, with these disparities coming from a number of different reasons, such as a lack of mobility for women and the burden of child care*. Color Outside is tackling these barriers, by inspiring and empowering one woman at a time.
Centering Voices of Color
One aspect of Color Outside retreats is addressing personal limiting beliefs. Women of color specifically note feeling unsafe or unwelcome, as the outdoor industry still has enormous strides to take in representation. Nailah notes that “you don’t know what you don’t know,” meaning that without role models or mentors introducing people to the outdoors, it is intimidating to buy a first pair of hiking boots.
“We also do a lot of combating against the way we’ve been socialized as women and women of color. Feeling like we have to shrink ourselves, or feeling like we have to take care of everyone else or put everyone else before us. Feeling like we can’t take up space, that we should be quiet or tamp ourselves down.”
When the dominant culture does not look like you, this has an impact. Color Outside provides a space for women of color to be with others who have lived similar life experiences. “Knowing that your experiences will be validated and centered takes a weight off of your shoulders,” says Nailah. “Women of color are often the only ones in the workplace or in joining a recreation group, so there’s no guarantee there will be someone who looks like you.” At Color Outside retreats, women undergo transformational growth, without ever explaining the cause of limiting beliefs.
“Knowing that your experiences will be validated and centered takes a weight off of your shoulders.”
Unlocking Pure, Unadulterated, Unapologetic Joy
Tackling new activities in the outdoors is intimidating. No one is born knowing how to use an ice axe and crampons. Nailah herself had a pivotal moment in her life when she signed up to climb Mount Adams, without a lick of mountaineering knowledge. Though she moved slowly up the mountain, she stood on top after completing a physical task so wildly out of her comfort zone. Had she known what she was getting into, she wouldn’t have ever attempted the climb. But she was able to do it.
“We all have the answers, yet we’re looking for these external voices to tell us what to do. We just need to find the ways to get quiet and listen to those voices. The moments that make us glimmer or make our heart skip, if we can follow that voice and become more of who we were before society got to you, then things will fall into place. We all deserve to have that joy and deep fulfillment in knowing about who you are. We all deserve to take up that space exactly as who we are. Nature is a really powerful facilitator in getting us to that space.”
In just one Color Outside trip, women are shown what they are capable of. This past February, Nailah took a group of women skiing in Sundance Resort in Utah. Most of them had never skied before. “It was so incredible to see this group of women in all of our bright ski gear, really supporting each other and learning this new thing,” Nailah recalls. Even if they left without the desire to ski ever again, each woman proved to herself that she could do something new, and smile while doing it.
Looking Forward, How Can We all be Better?
Each and every one of us has work to do before we achieve a more inclusive and diverse outdoors. Nailah wants brands and individuals to know that these processes take time. “It’s a journey, it’s not something you’re ever going to arrive at and be done. People are going to make mistakes and get called out, and that’s OK.” If you can treat the feeling of being “called out” as an invitation to join the conversation, mistakes become a part of the learning process. Even companies created to specifically address diversity and inclusion are not immune to these mistakes.
Nailah poses this question: whose story aren’t you considering? She recalls an instance in which she didn’t consider size discrimination on one of her rafting trips. Color Outside had planned a rafting trip, and one woman called to ensure she would have a life jacket available in her size. Nailah reflected on how important it was to make sure everyone felt welcomed and accepted in that space. “I realized I need to ask more of these questions upfront. I want to make everyone feel thought of and considered.”
It’s easy to feel a sense of urgency when it comes to diversifying outdoors. However, it’s imperative to fight against that sense of urgency and strap in for the long-haul. Systemic racism will not be dismantled in a couple of months, and we will all make mistakes along the way.
The common denominator between all of us is our appreciation for the power of nature. Nailah noted how throughout her life, so many epiphanies and transformational moments happened in outdoor settings. She harnessed this energy, and continues to share it with women of color across the country (and even from Canada). Color Outside is all about pulling the best out of women, and using the outdoors to do that.
*read more on the gender pay gap here.
Featured image via Nicole Lennox
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