Q&A with Greg Wolley, Executive Director, African American Outdoors Association
What is the mission and vision of the group?
There are many concerns about health disparities between African-Americans and the majority population. There is a higher incidence of deadly diseases among African-Americans: cancers, stroke, diabetes, kidney disease. There are a number of factors that cause this, of course, but one thing we could do is to improve our lifestyle and become physically active.
We’re promoting physical activity to get people out to natural areas. That’s the great thing about living in the Northwest: in many cases the natural areas are only 15-20 minutes away from your neighborhood. The public lands in the Northwest belong to all of us: we all pay taxes for its upkeep. Why not enjoy nature, and be healthy in the process?
How did the African-American Outdoors Association gets its start?
How does your personal background tie in with shaping the group?
I grew up in a suburban environment in the San Francisco Bay Area. As I got a little bit older, I discovered how peaceful it is to go out into nature. There’s a lot of spiritual value to being in the outdoors. I think it’s especially important for kids today – who are bombarded with electronics and technology – to enjoy nature. Being at home, playing games or spending time on the Internet promotes a lot of sedentary behavior.
Is there a cost to participate?
Our hikes are all free. The only time we ask for a partial donation of cost is when we have to rent equipment. We’ve received some small grants that have allowed us to pay for about 2/3 of the cost of renting equipment for some activities.
The AAOA operates year-round, but we concentrate our outings schedule between spring and fall. About half or our activities are hikes. Many are easy or moderate, about 3 miles or less in flat ground. Other hikes are more strenuous. We make sure that people know of the level of difficulty, so they can choose the activity best suited for their level of fitness.
We have people who have been joining our hikes every year. They’ve helped grow the group by telling their friends. We started to train volunteers to be able to coordinate outings. We have leads for each activity to monitor sign-ups and serve as the main contact.
We also have kayaking, canoeing and cycling trips. In the wintertime, we schedule cross-country skiing and snowshoeing. Last season, we partnered with the Ebony Rose Ski Club, a local chapter of the National Brotherhood of Skiers – a national organization that focuses on getting more African-Americans involved in outdoor winter activities. We were also able to offer downhill skiing and snowboarding.
What are you most proud of?
The thing I’m most proud of is that many of our participants are trying something new for the first time in their lives. Some have never hiked. They’ve never been in any kind of watercraft. They’ve never biked more than a few miles, and most haven’t been on a bike since they were kids. Because they’re able to go out with peers – people they’re comfortable with – they’re able to take some risks and push themselves physically. It’s very rewarding to see people meet the challenge, and feel good about what they’ve accomplished. Personally, it’s great to be able to support their efforts to become healthier.
Seeing the synergy that happens on our trips is really exciting. We don’t preach health, we just bring people out. But then, the conversations start happening: talking about diet, another person doing yoga, or someone talking about alternative medicine. They’re talking about what they do to feel better and take care of their health.
We also serve as a hub for people new to the area that are looking for community. They know the Northwest is known for its natural beauty, so they come on hikes, meet new people and form new friendships.
From a financial point of view, we’ve been happy to move along from year to year. We had no money the first year, so we carpooled from Matt Dishman Community Center. On our second year, we received a small grant from the Black United Fund that helped us with transportation and renting equipment: bicycles in spring and summer, and cross-country skis during the winter months.
Going into the third year, we got a grant from Enterprise Rent-A-Car Foundation, in conjunction with the African American Chamber of Commerce. We now have an account set up with Enterprise that allows us to rent a 15-passenger van for our activities. Most recently, we received a grant from REI that will help us acquire camping equipment and also help with transportation.
In the near future we plan to incorporate as a 501(c)3 organization and raise funds to hire a part-time program coordinator for next year's outings. The demand for our trips has exceeded the ability of our small volunteer crew to keep up. As a non-profit we will be establishing a board of directors and an advisory board to steer our organization into the future. Since we've established a working model for bringing more people of color into the natural environment, we would like to plant the seed in other cities by helping them to establish similar outdoor groups. The AAOA invites folks with interests in the outdoors, diversity and non-profit organizations to contact us about supporting our efforts.