We got connected with Tacoma’s Campfire Coffee Co. after discovering we share both a name and a commitment: Protecting our environment for everyone and opening access to outdoor spaces to all. (You can learn more about Campfire Coffee Co.’s story and last month’s AIKD partnership here.) We checked back in with their co-founder Quincy Henry to get his perspective on the interaction of environmental and racial justice as we highlight these topics in April and around Earth Day.
Camp Fire: How do you define environmental justice?
Quincy Henry: Environmental justice is such a big term on its surface, but when you look at the words on their own it’s a very simple concept. Environment: Relating to the natural world. Justice: Just behavior and treatment. So environmental justice is just behavior to the natural world, and that’s how we tend to view it: Treat the earth well, be a good steward of the environment, and enjoy it.
Camp Fire: How did your experience of growing up Black in the Pacific Northwest affect your relationship to nature—and your access to nature?
Quincy Henry: For me—and I think it’s safe to say for a lot of us—being Black and growing up in the PNW, as it pertains to having a relationship with nature, is super paradoxical. You see this endless spectrum of some of the most gorgeous outdoor spaces in the world, but they are somehow outside of your own existence. You hear about your friends who are white going camping, backpacking, fishing, and skiing. But for you, there’s a disconnect somewhere.
Luckily for me, I come from a family that engaged in outdoor recreation a lot before moving to the Seattle area. So I always heard the stories, and when it was my turn to go on my week-long stay at Camp Waskowitz in 6th grade, that sold me. The magic of being in nature with my new friends was something I’d never forget. It had a profound impact on my outlook. I began to develop this empowerment—this deep feeling that this landscape was for me to enjoy like everyone else.
Camp Fire: What are some ways BIPOC communities experience unequal access to outdoor spaces…both explicitly and implicitly?
Quincy Henry: Other than just the high costs associated with enjoying outdoor recreation (cost of gear, cost of travel, cost of park admission, etc), which is probably the biggest immediate hurdle, I think the most impactful thing happening in the relationship between BIPOC communities and access to outdoor spaces is the long-prevailing notion that it’s not for us. I think this notion prevails because we haven’t had any input to the narrative about who outdoor spaces are for. Representation matters. There is power in seeing someone like yourself in a particular space, and there is also power when you don’t see yourself in a particular space. I would hear friends or other family members say things like, “We don’t sleep in tents,” or “The bears are gonna eat you.” Conversely, we celebrate the good and bad that comes with city life. It might be funny on the surface, but those are clear signs that someone believes, for whatever reason, the natural world is not for you. The real question is: Who planted that idea?
Until very recently, when you looked at ads, images, or just a general overview of who the outdoor industry (from retailers to our park system)was targeting, it was mainly white men or white families. When you look on the other side of that coin, historically speaking, while those early ads were being proliferated, black and brown people were actively being moved into more urban spaces like public housing projects and reservations, due to a variety of race-based, government-fueled practices. What’s even more ironic about this history is the Indigenous people were the first ones here in North America and have been documented to be excellent stewards of nature. And though it isn’t discussed much in textbooks, Black people were brought to the Americas because of their ability to tend the land, cultivate crops, etc.
To bring these ideas full circle, it ultimately still comes down to cost barriers. Even if someone does feel like outdoor recreation is for them, we start seeing the effects of income inequality at play. If you have a family, who can afford an RV on top of house and car payments? Who can afford proper hiking, backpacking, and camping equipment? Who can afford skis and snowboards plus the gear that goes along with that? Who can afford to learn how to do those things? The answer is pretty straightforward: People with the funds to do so and/or people with the wealth of knowledge that comes along with having a family or social structure that does have the funds to do so.
Camp Fire: How is Campfire Coffee Co. working to make outdoor access more equitable?
Quincy Henry: We want to eliminate those cultural and financial barriers for people. We’ve set up a nonprofit organization, Campfire Explorers Club, and our big-picture vision is to ignite outdoor recreation in underserved communities by leveraging the “second use” or “reuse” economy. We’re working to amass a gear library where people can check out the gear they need to get outside for free or at a reduced cost. Subsequently, those people could sign up for an outdoor rec class, where they learn how to properly use the gear they just checked out and ideas around environmental stewardship. Eventually, they’d be able to take this gear to Campfire Explorer’s Club Campground or Airbnb to enjoy the gear, have group campouts and retreats, etc.
In the meantime, we’ve sponsored a handful of youth outdoor organizations including Camp Fire. We sponsored Camp Waskowitz’s virtual summer camp in 2020, so kids who couldn’t afford to pay could still attend. We also raffle off nature stays via Getaway and Hipcamp. We’ve given away four stays, and each of the people/families who got them are folks who we believe really needed it.