Our everyday lives went sideways in 2020. Where do we go from here?

This summer, writer and activist Jenny Bruso, creator of Unlikely Hikers, interviewed outdoor leaders who are creating a whole new outdoor culture from the ground up. Read Jenny’s conversation with Mercy M’fon, founder of Portland-based Wild Diversity.

A black woman wearing a plaid shirt and a beanie in the woods.
MERCY M’FON | Photo Credit: Shawn Linehan
“As a queer African woman, there are so many ways that we don’t get to just be.

We’re so heavily stereotyped. We don’t ever get the benefit of the doubt. People are intimidated by us whether we’re aggressive or not and it makes just walking through society like walking on eggshells.” That’s Mercy M’fon (she/her/hers), founder of Wild Diversity, an outdoor organization centering Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ communities in Portland, Oregon.

Wild Diversity focuses on reinvesting in community knowledge expansion through outdoor education and skillshare. The group limits barriers to outdoor adventure through sliding-scale fees for adventures and education, scholarships, and a gear-lending library. They offer all kinds of activities, from day hikes to movie nights to bird watching. Regardless of the setting, M’fon believes it’s enormously important for members of underrepresented groups to have a safe, intentional community of peers to experience the outdoors with. “To be able to be part of an affinity group feels like being at home, where you’re able to take your pants off. You feel safe. You can be yourself.”

“We face so many challenges regularly as communities of color and queer and trans people. Doing something that’s challenging in our free time can be a deterrent,” says M’fon, who has over 15 years in community leadership as an educator and facilitator. “I want people to know that they can come into these spaces as they are and whatever way they interact with nature is completely valid. Things don’t have to be rigorous or wildly adventurous. They can be, but it can also be really chill.”

M’fon says it’s past time to dismantle outdoor culture’s conquering mentality—the narrative that compels us to go faster, stronger, harder, longer, crush, conquer, etc. “I think outdoor recreation is also centered around profit-driven activities,” M’fon says. “Can’t we just go relax? In this capitalist country, working hard is what makes you ‘good,’ so when you’re recreating, you have to be working hard there as well, because it’s ‘good.’”

“People can come into these spaces as they are. Whatever way they interact with nature is valid.”

I asked M’fon how the outdoor industry and public lands agencies can show up better for BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. She says that funding and access have tended to accrue to established, longstanding conservation organizations, shorting community-based groups like Wild Diversity. “We still can’t get permitting in these spaces because the system parks and wilderness areas use puts orgs like mine at the mercy of nondiverse organizations supporting diverse organizations,” she says. “And then they go on to talk about how they can’t get Brown people into the backcountry. I think they just need to get a little bit creative.”

M’fon acknowledges the weight of inertia she’s been working against for years: “The way-things-have-always-been-done mentality is really heavy in the outdoor industry and not much has evolved in a long time,” she says. But she’s not giving up on her vision for a future where the outdoors can nourish and sustain BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities. In that future, “We have access to safe spaces, summer camps for our communities, permits, the things other groups have had, historically, as part of their introduction to the outdoors,” she says. “Outside, I see no dominant outdoor culture, no specific thing taking up all of the space. I see infinite outdoor activities and styles of being outdoors that feed the mind, body, and soul.”

Support Mercy’s work at wilddiversity.com and follow @wilddiversity on Instagram.

Read more conversations in this series HERE.