An interview with the founder of Refuge Outdoor Festival

The very first Refuge Outdoor Festival takes place this weekend, bringing together people of color and people from all backgrounds.
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Chevon Powell, founder of Refuge Outdoor Festival

Chevon Powell is the founder of Refuge Outdoor Festival, a festival geared toward people of color, but welcome to all.

A 2016 survey conducted by the National Park Service found that less than 20 percent of park visitors were non-white. For many reasons, including economic and safety issues, the outdoors can be intimidating, particularly for people of color. Chevon Powell, founder of  Golden Bricks Events, is committed to flipping that stat and making the outdoors accessible for everyone.

This coming weekend, Powell is hosting Refuge Outdoor Festival in Carnation, Washington. This festival—the first of its kind and in its inaugural year—is a camping experience geared toward people of color, but open to everyone. It’s focused on representation, community conversation, and long-term engagement. We spoke with Powell to learn more about her experiences in the outdoors, the inspiration and mission behind the event, and how we can all make the outdoors accessible for people of color.

When were you first introduced to the outdoors?

Chevon Powell: I was first introduced to the outdoors through my Camp Janus experience in Texas. It was a camp for burn survivors, primarily children. I started going there when I was 3 years old. It wasn’t your full-on outdoor camping. It was cabin camping because there were various levels of abilities. We fished, we hiked, we looked at the stars. We did all of these things outside, and that was my first introduction.

What have you found most rewarding in your time spent outside?

CP: Nature has really been a healing source for me and a source to find peace and strength. I go outside, and a lot of times, I’m outdoors doing stuff alone just because it gives me the place to clear my mind. But also, when I’m with people, I always feel it’s different. People are authentic. It’s a different type of community when you’re outside because you have to rely on each other. We don’t get as much of that in the city. As much of an introvert as I am, I can also be an outgoing introvert. I enjoy being with people in that peaceful space and creating my kind of community.

Have you felt unsafe, unwelcome, or judged in the outdoors? If so, can you walk us through that moment?

CP: All of the above. The big one was my police incident three or four years ago. I was going on my first solo backpacking trip. I was traveling late, so I was going to stay in a hotel the first night. I was looking at the directions and saw a cop following me. When I pulled into my hotel, he pulled in behind me and turned on his sirens. I actually was out of the car before he turned on the sirens. He had me step back to the car and put my hands on the car. Like most cops, he asked, “What are you doing in the area?” I said, “I’m checking into the hotel because I’m in the area to go backpacking.” That’s when he started saying it was unbelievable and asking me what was in the car. I said, “My backpack. My hiking boots.” 

In his view of who I was—and there were clearly judgements being made—he did not believe that I was going to do those things. Backup was called. Backup was like, “Let her go.” From that moment, there was just this shift for me and I felt like I had to do something. There’s ownership that I have to take in this situation, so it doesn’t happen again.

I live in Seattle. I worked for an outdoor company, and people would say, “Oh, did they bring you here? Did they, like, introduce you to the outdoors?” I’d say, “No, I moved to Seattle because I saw nature and wanted to be here.” There are tons of judgements passed all the time about me being in the outdoors. In my mind, the way that I could help was to create an experience that’s positive.

So you founded Refuge Outdoor Festival. What is it, and what’s its mission?

CP: The festival is a camping experience geared toward people of color, yet inclusive of everyone. At its core, it’s about representation. We don’t necessarily always see a diverse body of people in the outdoors—be it people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ.

I want to see some of the crazy things that we see going on stop going on. I had my police incident, and then recently, the co-founder of GirlTrek was stopped by police (post below). There are a number of other people of color that have had police incidents or have had really, really traumatic incidents just being who they are and going outside. People will question, “What are you doing here?” So representation and showing that this is not uncommon [for people of color to be in the outdoors] is my first and foremost mission.

That’s why it’s geared toward people of color because there are few outdoor events that are specifically geared to the needs, wants and interests of people of color. Are our interests the same as other people? Absolutely. There’s always overlap. But it’s a struggle to be in a space and not see anyone who looks like you.

From that, I think it’s important for us to continue to build community. I hope this event turns into an annual event and grows and does all sorts of amazing things. But even in whatever it ends up being, I want it to be a connector to people and community, getting to know each other—people in positions of power getting to know people that want to be in those positions.

What has been the response to the event thus far from individuals and brands?

CP: It’s been kind of all over the board. A lot of good reception. I’ve had people say “Refuge” is a horrible name. There have been some interesting comments on that word alone. I’ve had people say, “Don’t say it’s for people of color. Just say it’s for everybody, and then more people will come.” But that’s the core of why I’m doing this— to engage people of color and make them the most comfortable. And then I’ve talked to people of color that say, “I get it, and I’m there. I’ve not seen this thing happen, and I want to be a part of it and see it happen. I want to see more people get connected. I want to just hang out with people of color outside for the weekend.”

When it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusivity in the outdoors, where do you think the outdoor industry is progressing? Where do you see significant room for improvement?

CP: I’ve only been in the outdoor industry a few years, and from what I’m told, it’s progressed. But I see a lot that needs to happen and needs to happen quickly. It’s not always going to be pretty. There will be mistakes made, but we have to keep pushing.

I would challenge organizations to look at who they have and where they have them and really think about the impact moving forward of not addressing this in an equitable away and not addressing this at all. There’s a lot of work to be done, and there are a lot of awesome organizations supporting the industry to get this work done: Climbers of Color, Outdoor Asian, GirlTrek, Latino Outdoors, Rainier Valley Corps, Brown Environmentalist.  More people need seats at the table. Power has to be shared, and you see the power struggle right now—in our country across the board.

People or color hiking along a trail

At the festival, attendees can expect camping, nightly concerts, food trucks, art, a community service project, and community conversations.

What role can someone reading this interview play in making the outdoors accessible for people of color everywhere?

CP: Start with your internal perceptions. Start with you. Keep an open mind. Maybe you want to give good advice to someone you see on the trail, maybe they’ve been doing this for 20 years. If they’re doing something unsafe, of course, say something. But know that not everyone you see that’s a person of color is doing something for the first time. Some of us are, some of us aren’t. There are so many things I’ve never done before and so many things I want to try in the outdoors. I’m not saying I’m an expert on anything. I’m saying please stop assuming this is my first day outside. I think that alone will go a long way.

Also, share your power. If you know of a person of color that’s working in the outdoors, reach out. Don’t always assume that they’re going to reach out to you. Do your work, and reach out to them. Be an ally and support. If you have contacts, share your contacts. Share your leads on jobs. There are so many opportunities to be an ally.

I think it’s important for us all to see this and be a witness to people of color leading. We’ve been outside for a long time. We didn’t make it to 2018 without being outside. If it’s not this event, see where you can participate with people of color—and not by tokenizing anyone. I’ve done some work building my community, and it’s diverse and inclusive.

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