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 Vasu Sojitra, athlete and diversity, equity, and inclusion strategist.

A man wearing a red hat and a backpack.
VASU SOJITRA | Photo Credit: Courtesy Vasu Sojitra
You will probably find Vasu Sojitra (he/him/his) outside.

The North Face–sponsored athlete loves to connect with the natural world through whatever means, from skiing to trail running, packrafting to biking. With his motto, “ninjasticking through the woods to bring intersectionality to the outdoors,” Sojitra is challenging the biases facing a person of color with a disability. He is a cofounder of Earthtone Outside, a nonprofit that elevates the visibility of Montana’s outdoorspeople of color, and a member of the In Solidarity Network, a new initiative building a better, stronger, more diverse outdoor industry. He’s also worked for Eagle Mount Bozeman, an organization empowering children and adults with disabilities through outdoor adventure.

Meanwhile, you might be wondering what the heck “ninjasticking” is. “I use crutches all the time, but when I reframe my activities as ‘ninjasticking,’ it’s kind of this more positive, active, dynamic, powerful thing,” says Sojitra, who lost his right leg to a blood infection when he was nine months old. “Whether it be on trail or going grocery shopping, whatever form of mobility I’m taking part in can be ninjasticking.” Sojitra says that despite stigma around the term, “the word ‘disability’ for me is actually very prideful. It’s okay to have a disability, we just have to make sure the barriers that are put on us by systems of ableism are being dismantled and people are actively working to help support folks with disabilities.

“Throughout history, the most marginalized people are left out of these conversations,” Sojitra says. “We’re seen as disposable. COVID-19 has been a prime example that people don’t take disabled and marginalized people seriously.”

As an activist, I know it can be exhausting to be asked how to be a good ally. People have a world of knowledge at their fingertips every day via the internet, but we’re asked to defend our experiences and educate, while enduring oppression and mistreatment. When I asked Sojitra what non-disabled people can do to be better allies, he gamely offered ideas. “Take the time and initiative to understand these issues. Volunteer with organizations working with people with disabilities. Break out of your bubble. You will likely feel uncomfortable because you might not know how to handle someone with autism or someone in a wheelchair, but I personally think most people learn through either personal experience or storytelling.”

“We have to dismantle the systems of ableism.”

Sojitra lost his job with Eagle Mount because of COVID-19, but he’s ready for the next chapter. He’s planning to get a master’s degree in public administration, to learn about some of the inner workings of the outdoor industry. From there, he wants to start consulting on diversity, equity, and inclusion issues for outdoor brands and agencies, to put some of his ideas into action. He has also cofounded the Inclusive Outdoors Project, which hosts events that bridge the gap between affinity spaces created by BIPOC, Adaptive/Disabled, and Queer/LGBTQ communities, and outdoor organizations.

Disability is diverse. It can be visible or invisible, and you can’t know someone’s needs just by looking at them. While Sojitra doesn’t have many accessibility needs to consider, his experience with those who do through his work at Eagle Mount influences how he sees the world. “I was down in Rocky Mountain National Park and out of the 355 miles of trails there, only four miles are accessible,” he says. “If we can build a super highway, we can do better!”

Learn more about Vasu and follow him on Instagram @vasu_sojitra. Follow the Inclusive Outdoors Project at  @inclusiveoutdoorsproject

Read more conversations in this series here.