Grantee Spotlight: Q&A with Black Outside

a girl with braids pets a horse outside

Black Outside, Inc. received a 2022 Outdoor Grant from NRF. Funding supports Black Outside’s Charles Roundtree Bloom Project. Based in San Antonio, the program aims to create a space of communal healing for youth impacted by incarceration by facilitating healing-centered outdoor experiences and culturally relevant environmental education that will help them envision new possibilities for their lives, for their communities, and for the world.  The team at Black Outside believes being outdoors is the best way to facilitate self-exploration, self-discovery, and self-expression. This outdoor healing justice program strives to transform the consequences of trauma and oppression held within our bodies, hearts, minds, and spirits through exploration, learning, and the development of collective healing practices.

The mission of healing through introducing youth to new outdoor experiences is embodied in the reflection of one participant who noted, “My favorite part of the day was being that close to a horse. I never been that close before and I wasn’t scared surprisingly, I’m glad I came out of my comfort zone.”

Black Outside’s Ki’Amber Thompson (Charles Roundtree Bloom Project Director) and Alex Bailey (Founder/Executive Director) joined NRF for this Q&A about their values, how they support connection to nature for youth in Black Outside, and how philanthropy can support the mission of connecting youth to nature.

Who are you? How do you show up in the world?

Alex (he/him): I am the grandson of a farmer and someone who is curious about ways we can have deeper connections with the world around us. I am the Executive Director of Black Outside, Inc., which exists to support reconnecting Black/African-American youth to the outdoors, with our powerful history, and inspire a new generation of outdoor participants.

Ki’Amber (they/she): I am a dreamer, facilitator, abolitionist, and aim to show up as a bridge in all the work that I do. I’m a PhD student in the UC Santa Cruz Sociology Department and the director of the Bloom Project. I think that within these fields of work, with how I show up and move through life in general, I’ve been really invested in being a bridge, being someone who can understand different ideas, perspectives, issues, understand how they’re connected and be in a role where I’m able to bridge conversations across difference and across places and spaces.

A group of young women sit around a picnic table and smile at the camera

What are your central values? What is at the core of Black Outside and Bloom Project?

Ki’Amber: My most important central value is love. I do my best to show up in love and practice that, which I think is something that is underrated for sure.

At the core of Black Outside and Bloom Project is our love for our youth, our communities, our love for one another. We run these outdoor trips and experiences, but I think the core of that is the love and care that we have for our community. We cultivate that love as we’re bringing youth and other people together, deepening our connection to the land, to our environment, and growing our youth’s love for nature, the environment, and each other.

Alex: I love that. I’ve been leaning into this word curiosity and the sense of beauty that can be found in it. I think that our kids are naturally curious, and their curiosity about both the environment around them and new places we have explored (like Colorado) is so beautiful. They are curious about their own identities and connection to history in the outdoors, exploring activities like bouldering, kayaking, and backpacking, activities in places we have historically been excluded from. Through this, we’re able to weave a lot of Black history in what we do outdoors. I told some of the kids the story of meeting a black bear on the hike and they were all surprised and really intrigued by that. Feeding this curiosity is really at the nexus of what we do.

A group of youth wearing backpacks stands next to a wilderness sign.

How is Bloom Project and Black Outside different from traditional models of connecting youth to nature?

Ki’Amber: Black Outside is based in San Antonio, and we do such a wide range of programming. With the Bloom Project, most of our programming is local in San Antonio, so when we think about nature and the outdoors, it involves going to community gardens, learning about food and water justice, exploring our local river while learning to kayak, while also being able to do cool camping trips in state and national parks like Big Bend National Park (our closest national park).

We’re able to provide such a wide range of experiences, so it’s really not based on taking kids out of their communities. With the Bloom Project, it’s very much a place-based program that’s focused on teaching our kids more about their communities and inspiring them to be leaders in those communities. Cultivating those core values of love and curiosity for the outdoors is community-centric and place based. With the trips that we do, the kids are always excited about what’s next, what else we can do. Even in some of our programs where we are able to leave Texas like our Colorado backpacking trip, where we are going outside of our community in San Antonio, but part of the focus is on what the kids can bring back home from their experience.

Alex: We have an asset-based view of our home community. We don’t want our kids leaving our program feeling like their connection to nature has to be in a place that’s far out, where there’s no service. I believe a lot of youth-serving organizations do kids an injustice by carrying themselves as if “We have to take you way out there, it has to be this adventure, it has to be rugged, it has to be no service, you have to eat MREs the whole time, and that’s when you’re experiencing nature.”

While that is one way to experience nature, and there is a world of abundance where it’s both. Yes, I like backpacking, but I also just like sitting by the river and listening to music. There are kids that like both those things too. We try to introduce them to both through our programming, offering diverse connection points to the outdoors and pushing against the idea that it has to be one or the other.

A group of people stretches in a park while standing on yoga mats

How does healing show up as a critical component of the work you do?

Ki’Amber: Alex touched on how there has been historical exclusion from certain outdoor places, activities, and experiences. We (Black Outside staff and youth) all have a connection to nature, we all spend time outdoors, there is already an established connection that runs deep in our culture. Our work is about continuing to grow the connection our youth have to the land and introduce them to different outdoor experiences that they might not have had due to that historical exclusion.

It’s important to heal, not necessarily the history, but the disconnection and exclusion that has an impact on the places where we feel safe going or the activities we feel safe and comfortable doing. It’s an opportunity to heal that relationship and help our youth understand and foster their relationship with the outdoors in the different places we go and the activities we try.

There are many different ways that we attempt to do this. We primarily serve Black, Brown, and Indigenous youth in our programs. Because of that, we emphasize giving our youth an opportunity to just be and have fun, to be kids. On a basic level, I think it is healing for them to explore, be free, grow their confidence, and try new things in a brave space. In the Bloom Project, we also do some intentional workshops around healing, talking about our historical relationship with water, for example, and how we can heal that relationship (if there’s trauma there).

Alex: I think that healing is also reciprocal. We focus on healing because we realize that through our work, as adults and facilitators, we’re healing ourselves. A lot of us are doing this work and healing our inner child and coming to grips with the reality that we didn’t have these opportunities to engage with the outdoors in this way ourselves. Our kids, especially our older kids, they’re healing their inner child as well. Giving them space to play and be is such an emphasis for us, especially with our Black boys who often feel like they have to put on a hard, tough exterior. Nature is such a healing environment, because out there, that inner kid comes out pretty quickly. By cultivating this relationship with the land, our kids will also become stewards and protectors of the Earth and lead in the healing of their environment and the earth.

Ki’Amber: I was snapping at the part when you were talking about how it is also healing for us in this work and the resulting healing of the inner child. One of my motivations for starting the Bloom Project was to think about what I could have benefited from as a kid growing up in San Antonio, someone who had incarcerated caregivers and relatives. So, our work with Black Outside has been a really healing experience for me even as I’m trying to cultivate it for our kids.

There are these moments where I can really feel it and witness it with the kids. There are a lot of my family members and family of my cousin Charles in the Bloom Project, which carries his name. As we were hiking in Colorado in July, Charles' sister Janiyah said “Do you think Chop (our nickname for Charles) would have enjoyed something like this?” We continued to have that conversation, reflecting that if Chop was here, he would have been up the trail that way, all over that tree. Even though losing Chop was a tragic loss for our family, when we’re having these outdoor experiences and trips, I think there’s some healing that’s happening in the conversations we have in those environments.

How can you be supported in your growth, the growth of your work, and the young leaders you support?

Alex: I have a few ideas, starting with supporting learning alongside other organizations. Black Outside is still growing and learning, piloting new ideas and program models. It is beneficial for those in philanthropy to sponsor spaces of collaboration and connection where possible. These don’t always have to be very formalized settings with everyone reporting out on a three hour zoom call, informal connections work too.

A rep with one of our partners, YETI, has led backpacking trips and shared some advice on trips and knowledge of how other organizations operate. That is an example of informal support, though it is coming from a corporation not a foundation. For foundations, who have touchpoints with many different nonprofits, sharing best practices, or examples of good documents and resources for programming and ancillary ideas like engaging with media is very helpful.

Those are a couple of examples of ways that foundations and philanthropy can be of more assistance. There is so much knowledge in the community, foundations and grantors don’t have to be the holders of knowledge but can facilitate the connection and learning.

Ki’Amber: Even small things, like sharing examples of a press kit or brand kit can be helpful since we (Black Outside) are just a couple of years old. We don’t want to recreate the wheel, so sharing resources, learning from different organizations, potentially shadowing different organizations, all of those are assets.

On the note earlier, about figuring out trust-based philanthropy, we are a smaller organization with a limited capacity, so our team is often on the ground doing the work. I would love to work with our partners and sponsors to meet us halfway so that reporting is not an additional load or burden that takes away from some of the things we could be doing. Building a mutually beneficial relationship is ideal, where partners and sponsors can ask what we need and we can figure out how we meet each other in the middle with collaborative goals.

A group of young children stand at the base of a rock climbing wall

Is there anything else that was sparked for you in this Q&A that you would like to share?

Alex: I think more foundations need people like you (CJ Goulding, the interviewer) who have that community-centered lens, who have touchpoints and deeper relationships with organizations on the ground. I’ve interacted with a few foundations who are intentional about the people they bring in to have these conversations and it is such a support. More foundations need connectors who have a community lens, DEI experience, and can understand the work that we do in that perspective and are able to uplift that in challenging the system and the status quo. Being honest, a lot of foundations operate in White dominant norms, so it’s important that they are open to bringing in diverse perspectives and voices that can challenge that system a little bit more.

Ki’Amber: Agreed, I also tend to prefer interacting with people conversationally. It can be hard sometimes to feel like a relationship is being built if primary communication is through emails and portals and reports. Having people we can have 1-on-1 touchpoints with is really valuable.

Photos courtesy of Black Outside

CJ Goulding

NRF spotlights grantees to share the story and impact of collaboration between funders and the organizations doing the work on the ground. This conversation was facilitated on NRF’s behalf by CJ Goulding, who serves as a consultant to NRF’s Outdoor Grants program. CJ currently operates as a consultant creating pathways, providing resources and developing innovative strategies that support the outdoor and environmental sector in their evolution toward justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion (JEDI). This all grows out of the soil of his professional experience in the fields of conservation and outdoor education, youth leadership development, and DEI with public land agencies, nonprofits, and for profit organizations.