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Zenovia Stephens: Co-Founder of Black Hikers Week and Black Kids Adventures

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Zenovia Stephens is a nature enthusiast who founded Black Kids Adventures as a way to encourage and inspire Black families to get outside. She is also a founder of #BlackHikersWeek. Stephens is a strong believer in using local community – in addition to social media – to spread awareness, acceptance and embracing Black hiking. She also highlights the importance of having hard conversations about race with children, following incidents like the one experienced by Christian Cooper in Central Park last year.

Nature talked with the Alabama mother-of-three about her family and inspirations, her hopes for the future and what’s next for #BlackHikersWeek. She also shares some answers that have been shortened or edited for clarity.

Photo courtesy of Zenovia Stephens

Q: Tell us a little bit about your background and what sparked your love of nature and the outdoors.

Zenovia Stephens (ZS): I grew up in Chicago and  I’ve always had a relationship with the outdoors. It just looked different. I grew up running track, fishing, staying in cabins, and exploring the wooded area behind my neighbors home. Although I didn’t get into hiking and a few other things until adulthood, it wasn’t hard for me to fall into the activities because of my established outdoor relationship. Hiking wasn’t anything I or my husband did as children. Neither of us knew anyone that hiked.

Q: How long have you been into hiking and adventure? Is it part of your job or do you keep your professional and recreational lives separate?

ZS: I’ve always been outdoorsy and honestly, pretty adventurous. I’m the kind of person that will try almost anything at least once. Doing new things excites me and fuels the flame of life. I began hiking in 2011 when my husband and I moved back to Alabama from Florida. It was an escape from the uncertainties of the future and helped me focus and gain clarity on my life.

Photo courtesy of Zenovia Stephens

Q: How did Black Kid Adventures (BKA) and Black Hikers Week (BHW) start?

ZS: BHW was born as a result of Black Birders Week. As I watched and shared stories from the movement, it occurred to me that this same energy could be put into recognizing and uplifting the Black hikers’ community. Like Black birders, Black hikers don’t get the same recognition and publicity as white hikers. I thought it would be good not only for the soul but also a beautiful showcase of “yes, we do this too.” I reached out to Debbie Njai of @blackpeoplewhohike and Nailah Blades of @wecoloroutside and together, we created Black Hikers Week. Black Kids Adventures, inc (formerly Black Kids Do Hike), was born during the same time. While the social movement and community were wonderful, I wanted to provide and engage with a physical community in my local area. I felt like a social media movement just wasn’t enough, so I got busy and made action on bringing the organization to Huntsville, AL.

Q: What was going through your mind during the Christian Cooper/Central Park aftermath? Have you had incidents or experiences like that? So much of what you do is about encouraging kids of color to feel comfortable and seen embracing nature. How did you handle those conversations about what happened with them? 

ZS: I was appalled, disgusted and hurt by the incident. It’s exhausting having to continue to endure the racism spewed by privileged folks towards Black and Brown folks. Whether it’s directly related or not, it affects me and those I love because, at any moment, we can be on the receiving end. There’s nothing stopping these incidents from hitting close to home except being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. Every time an incident such as that with Cooper is brought to light, we have to have talks with our boys.

We have to make sure they are aware of how they may be perceived in the world and try to equip them as best as we can. The conversations are hard. They can become emotional for us as parents, but they have to be had. It’s important for us to make sure our kids aren’t ignorant to the ways of the world but also aren’t afraid to take up space wherever they please. They need to be comfortable but also prepared for anything at any time.

Q: More about Black Hikers Week (BHW) and Black Kids Adventures (BKA): Do you have a team behind BHW? What has the response been to BHW? What sort of events do you organize? Are they connected? 

ZS: BHW is made up of myself, Debbie Njai and Nailah Blades. Last year was our first annual BHW and the response was so much more than we could’ve imagined. Our main hashtag was used over 1,000 times during the week and continued to grow. We had the opportunity to connect Black hikers from across the world and simply stand in support and encouragement for one another as well as help those interested in hiking with organizations, groups and meetups. One of the highlights was our virtual town hall in which we joined in and discussed what we want to see, with regards to being Black outside, in the future and ideas on how to make those a reality.
BKA and BHW are not connected outside of being one of the accounts to host BHW online. BKA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to expose, educate and empower Black and Brown families to find their outdoor adventure. So far, we have hosted a family yoga in the park series, virtual and live hike meetups and have taken seven families away to sleep-away camp. The organization has only existed since last June, but we have definitely made a mark!

Photo courtesy of Zenovia Stephens

Q: What advice do you have for people and families who aren’t sure how to explore their love of nature? Why is it so important for kids to be included? What do you want everybody to know about your passion and your work? Most importantly: What would you like to see happen with regards to making the outdoor industry and environmental space more diverse?

ZS: We’re creating a space for Black families to jump into the outdoors together. Although we have the word “kids” in our name, we’re actually engaging the whole family. In order to change the next generation, I believe pulling on the entire family is needed. It’s a cultural shift taking place which can then be passed on to the next generation, and generations to come. My hope is that as more organizations step up and do the work in the community, we will see more brands decide to work with us in the Black community. Showing more Black and Brown people outdoors is one of the first places that can help make a major impact on how we’re perceived outdoors.  I also want to see more Black and Brown people hold professional jobs within the outdoor community. We need to see ourselves doing that type of work to know it’s an option.