A Breath of Fresh Air
When Judith Kasiama started hiking and trail running, there were very few BIPOC on the trails, in stores or in brand advertising. Five years later, her organization Colour the Trails is creating real change in the outdoor space
Judith Kasiama grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo, free to roam outdoors, but her country’s civil war forced her family to f lee. She wound up in Vancouver, where she saw few Black people recreating outdoors, and very limited representation in brands. Her company, Colour the Trails, is giving bipoc unprecedented access to outdoor sports opportunities and changing the way brands do business.
Growing up in the Democratic Republic of Congo ( drc), Judith Kasiama fell in love with the outdoors. “My love for nature, as a child who explored green spaces, just stayed with me,” she says. In the late ’80s, the Great War of Africa started in the drc and, fearing for her family’s safety, Kasiama’s mother moved her family first to South Africa, then Australia, then the U.S., then, 10 years ago, to Canada. After two years in Toronto, Judith settled in Vancouver, where she graduated with a degree in international development, decided to take some time off for outdoor pursuits and took a job in a coffee shop.
A curious thing happened when she began running and hiking, which were easy, affordable activities to undertake in Vancouver. It was strange enough that she saw so few people of colour on the trails. But when buying gear, she noticed that almost all people in any brand advertising were white – there was nobody that looked like her. There were sometimes Black models, of course, but rarely real athletes.
She decided to start Colour the Trails ( ctt) to provide safe spaces for bipoc and lgbtq+ people to participate in outdoor events. She soon realized that it wasn’t enough just to run events without backing them up with
activism. “My work entails creating safe space,” says Kasiama, “for bipoc to recreate in the outdoors by organizing events and advocating for more diversity and inclusion through better representation in media and storytelling.”
Kasiama shares that there were, at the time, many Facebook groups for people to join hikes and other activities, but there was nothing aimed at bipoc. “For me, being a Black person in that space, I recognized I was often the only one, and I was more and more aware of it,” she says. “I wondered, if I were to create something that brings the bipoc community to the outdoors, if people would be interested.” They were – but Kasiama was cautious in her approach, researching the issue extensively for several months before testing the waters. She notes that all the information she was able to find was American – she found nothing on the subject of diversity and representation in the outdoor space in Canada.
Four years ago, the hikes were going well, and Kasiama added some snowshoe events, and things grew from there. Her work led her to start publicly calling out brands for the lack of representation and for the stereotypes in their advertising.
It took a few years, but she started getting more recognition for her efforts to increase representation in the outdoor industry. Brands took notice, and slowly opened up to having conversations about diversity in the outdoors. Last year, for example, Colour the Trails was one of five individuals or organizations in North America to receive a grant from Salomon to support inclusivity in outdoor sports. “We are committed to doing our part, to continuously improve as a company, to listen to and elevate bipoc voices,” says Virginie Murdison, senior marketing manager for Salomon Canada.
While all this was going on, she branched into mountain biking events. Colour the Trails partnered with a local mountain biking company that provided guides, and Kasiama organized rides and lessons. People were thrilled with the events, so Kasiama developed a mentorship program for seven women of colour who each had a mentor they could ride with and learn from, and this year ctt is helping participants buy bikes.
In August 2019, Kasiama quit her job to focus on Colour the Trails full time. (Her partner is employed and is supporting them for the time being.) Kasiama isn’t taking a paycheque from the organization yet, but she hopes to soon. ctt is a for-profit business, not a notfor-profit. She lost money last year, but when pandemic restrictions loosen up, she’s confident she’ll be able to bring in more cash.
In 2019, she also learned how to ski, and in 2020, she brought 20 people to learn to ski in Whistler. For $25 each, they had a lesson and dinner with the group. “We were all learning together,” she says. “It’s hard to learn new sports as an adult. ctt creates a safe environment for bipoc to do this.”
Colour the Trails also has a wide range of participant ages – from 18 to 50 and over. Kasiama offered skateboarding, and met a 40-year-old woman who had always wanted to learn to skateboard. Thanks to ctt, she felt comfortable taking it on. Kasiama had an even bigger Colour the Slopes skiing program planned for 2020, but the pandemic made it impossible. This summer, she’s hoping to offer kayaking. She has also worked with brands and magazines to create content that better ref lects the diversity of people doing these sports.
So far, there are three Colour the Trails chapters, in Vancouver, Calgary and California. She has leaders in each place who receive compensation and support from brands. “I don’t believe in free labour,” Kasiama says. She’s also offered ice climbing, with certified guides who support ctt. With multiple chapters, she no longer has to participate in everything herself.
“ctt has allowed me to cultivate a community of like-minded people that I can try new activities with in a safe and welcoming space,” says Calary-based Zahra Abdullahi, who leads the Alberta group. “When you have a supportive community beside you, you are more likely to push yourself out of your comfort zone and push your perceived limits.”
She hopes to offer trail running this spring/summer. If B.C. allows it, she will offer an intro to trail running with qualified guides and B.C. Adventure Smart to teach participants about route planning and trail safety in Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains.
Kasiama has encountered some resistance, and has even been accused of anti-white racism because there are
some events where white people are not welcome. (Mountain biking and skiing, for example, are for bipoc only, because there are more barriers to access in those spaces. But some, like hiking, are for bipoc and allies.) On the issue of antiBlack racism generally, she says Canadians assume things are different here than in the U.S., but she feels it’s important to have the same conversations. There are still many barriers to access for bipoc in the outdoors space. It can be intimidating – especially in Vancouver, where everyone is, as Kasiama says, “super hardcore.” Colour the Trails provides safety and comfort for people to try new things, and she is very proud of her work. (Colour the Trails also welcomes the queer community.)
When it comes to being in the woods, Kasiama says, “there is a lot of history that has to be dealt with. Canada inherited a lot of American racism. For a long time, bipoc were controlled by keeping them in urban settings. There’s a lot of anxiety
“For a long time, BIPOC were controlled by keeping them in urban settings. There’s a lot of anxiety regarding Black people in the outdoors”
regarding Black people in the outdoors. In the city, there are eyes and witnesses to what happens. Not in the trails. It isn’t just about going for a run in the woods.”
For some people, there are also barriers to getting knowledge and being able to afford the right gear. “Oftentimes,” says Kasiama, “I didn’t have the knowledge of what was available. If you’re going to get into trail running or hiking, and no one in your family or community has any experience about what kind of clothes or footwear you need, it is intimidating to ask people who don’t look like you in a store.” She also points out that “people with refugee experiences have traumas and memories that make enjoying the outdoors a challenge, and that needs to be acknowledged. Also, there are single moms who didn’t have privilege to go, previously. Not everyone can just go out there and run or hike.”
So what was different for Kasiama herself ? “Because I grew up in the Congo, I was always exploring, because Congo has a large rainforest, so I spent a lot of time in the outdoors,” she says. “Coming to B.C. and rediscovering that, I was very motivated to get outside. Even though I wasn’t seeing that representation, I was also realizing that I really love being outside, and I love hiking.”
Kasiama is quick to point out, however, that there is nothing inevitable about the present lack of experience on the trails: “There were people in our community who have had these skills – people like Harriet Tubman, who guided former slaves to Canada through the woods of the Underground Railway – people historically not remembered.”
So far, the reaction to Colour the Trails has been positive. The space is very much needed, and participants love coming out and trying things that perhaps they could not do on their own. Unfortunately, however, Kasiama says, “I have also experienced backlash. Some people online told me to go back to where I came from.”
So, when Kasiama and the participants i n her programs lace up their shoes to go for a trail run, they’re undertaking challenges that go beyond how far they’ll run that day.
Kasiama’s motto is “Community starts with an invitation,” and she invites people to participate in the movement to make the outdoors more inclusive by “contributing financially, showing up to advance Colour the Trails, listening to perspectives different than yours, doing internal work, recognizing personal privilege and using it to help, volunteering, calling out racism in the same way as calling out sexism and shutting down harmful behaviour.”
Indeed, there is more to diversifying the trails than having a pair of running shoes, but Kasiama’s point is that we all have a role to play.