A Look into Nature with John Yelding 

I got my first job the summer after I turned sixteen working as a lifeguard. Since then, I have been a lifeguard every summer in some capacity. Last summer, I was a counselor in addition to my lifeguard role at the overnight summer camp I worked at. Camp Beechpoint is specifically catered towards inner-city kids, which gave me the opportunity to spend my weeks with diverse groups of girls. Many of my girls did not know how to swim. Water was my first love, and I had never realized what a privilege it was to be able to swim or to spend time in nature until I worked at camp. 

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how many stereotypes Black people have in relation to outdoor recreation (stereotypes that we often perpetuate ourselves). I have heard friends call camping a “White people activity” and I’ve listened to my Black friends joke about not knowing how to swim. 

As a nature lover, recalling these moments piqued my curiosity, and I thought there would be no one better than my Encounter with Cultures professor to share this curiosity with.

Professor Yelding grew up in West Michigan, and his involvement in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts solidified his love for outdoor education and recreation. When asked if his experience growing up camping was consistent with the average black American family’s, Yelding recalled that “it was definitely unusual.”

To understand Black people’s attitude towards outdoor education, specifically swimming, Yelding believes we must look to America’s past.

“There’s a history of fear about being around water because in the south, that’s often where [slaves] disappeared.” While it has been over a century since slavery was abolished in America, this pattern of fear has influenced black families for generations. “A lot of the (Black) people who are in the north now, came from the south. And that fear came with them.” Not only did that fear travel with these families in the Great Migration, but it also traveled through generations. Hobbies and skills like swimming and camping are often historically passed down through families, so as Yelding says, “it hasn’t been a big part about African American culture.”

Aside from a history of fear, Yelding acknowledged that there are geographical and financial limitations that outdoor recreation has had on the Black population. “A lot of the black population is centered in cities,” Yelding admitted. Because of this, making time to head out of the city to state or national parks would be more inconvenient due to time and cost requirements. One of Fielding’s favorite memories growing up was being able to “go camping in my backyard,” something that most if not all inner-city kids are not able to experience.

If they have the time and financial means to camp for leisure, Yelding recognizes that oftentimes Black families opt for luxury. Personally, my siblings and I never camped or participated in scout programs as we grew up. When we vacationed, my Dad opted for resort spots. Upon hearing my story, Yelding says that “as a minority…that [vacationing] becomes a life goal. If a Black man is able to afford it, he doesn’t want to ‘rough it out’, like camping may appear as.” Although the resort experience is desirable, the benefits of being in nature without the bells and whistles is simply unmatched and more financially accessible to the broader community.

As the age of technology continues, people are more connected now than ever before. Especially with the growing number of interracial families, this could be the generation where the demographic of families that enjoy recreational outdoor activities starts to diversify. Looking into the work that is happening now and the work that will happen in the future Yelding encourages the funding and development of programs that provide inner-city children the opportunity to experience outdoor education.

Additionally, practices like camping often become adopted through family, like what Yelding experienced growing up. Culture is always evolving, and while outdoor recreation is not always accessible to everyone, more families ought to spend more time outdoors if they are able to. In a time as stressful as 2024, a day on the lake can provide peace and joy, and people may be surprised to find all the ways that spending a weekend unplugged and in the outdoors can help them, regardless of race.

(Feature image source: Professor John Yelding via  Hope College’s Directory)

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