A north Alabama family of five is encouraging more Black explorers to take up space outdoors as they trek through trails and mountains of the Tennessee Valley.
Known as Black Adventure Crew, Zenovia Stephens, her husband, George, and their three sons, don’t travel far from their Huntsville, Ala., home to explore the wonders of nature. The neighboring Green Mountain Nature Preserve becomes their playground every week as they hike to Alum Falls, splash around in creeks and spot a cave that once sheltered Native Americans during the Middle Woodland Period.
Whether they’re taking a short excursion to Alabama’s highest natural point or voyaging through Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, 37-year-old Zenovia Stephens hopes these adventures is teaching her boys the importance of respecting nature and being the architects of their own happiness.
“I want them to know they can create joy, or whatever lifestyle they really want to live, right where they are,” Zenovia Stephens said. “I want them to be confident in occupying any space they chose to be in. Be it in nature or a career path, I want them to be confident knowing that it’s all for them. Don’t let anybody take that away from you.”
It’s a lesson she wants other Black people to learn as well, but she didn’t see a lot of families who look like hers when she first started hiking in 2011. So in January 2020, she started documenting her family outings on Black Adventure Crew’s Instagram to inspire more Black and brown families to get outdoors. It was divine timing, she said.
As the coronavirus pandemic forced families to stay indoors, nature became an oasis for those seeking relief from cabin fever. Zenovia Stephens then expanded her family’s mission last summer by founding Black Kid Adventures Inc., a nonprofit that ensures Black and brown families have easy access to the wealth of outdoor activities that’s in their backyards. In about six months, Black Kid Adventures raised $7,199 and served 175 people through free community events such as a yoga in the park series and a Halloween hike. Eight families participated in the nonprofit’s free family camp at Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, Ala., in December. About 10 families signed up for Black Kid Adventures’ second camp in May.
But that’s not all. Zenovia Stephens also joined forces with Nailah Blades, founder of Color Outside in Utah, and Debbie Njai, founder of Black People Who Hike in St. Louis, Mo., to launch an annual social media campaign called Black Hikers Week. More than 30 organizations worldwide participated in the inaugural event that empowered more Black people to hit the trails.
The Stephens’ family’s actions make their message loud and clear.
“This land is a part of our history and we need to take advantage of everything it offers,” Zenovia Stephens said.
Zenovia and George Stephens saw the need to reconnect people to nature while trying out new activities themselves. A friend joked about the couple “losing their Black cards” after she posted pictures of a whitewater rafting trip on the Ocoee River near Gatlinburg, Tenn. Planning a skiing trip became an impossible feat in college for Zenovia Stephens because her friends thought Black people didn’t ski.
But she doesn’t fault her friends for the mindsets. She blames the lack of representation, which is one of the biggest barrier that keeps Black families from exploring the outdoors. She said most outdoor companies advertise to a certain demographic: white, wealthy and elite.
“How can you imagine yourself doing something when you’ve never seen a picture of yourself doing it?” Zenovia Stephens said. “Some people, like me, can do that because I’m all about trying new things. But for the person who doesn’t have that type of attitude, they need to see that representation to be like, ‘Wait, this is for me too. I belong in this space.’”
Then there’s another, darker barrier. People often associate the legacy of racial terrorism, like lynchings and other forms of racial violence, to the woods. This history creates a hesitation that Zenovia Stephens heard in her mother’s voice when she first started hiking. Eventually, her mother became more comfortable with her decision.
On one trip with a family friend to High Falls, a majestic 35-foot-tall waterfall in a small unincorporated northeast Alabama community, the sight of Confederate flags almost made their friend turn their car around.
Then there are the news reports of white people calling law enforcement on Black citizens. Black Adventure Crew planned a hike the weekend after a white woman called the police of Christian Cooper, a Black bird watcher, in New York’s Central Park last May. Zenovia Stephens’ oldest son, who is 8, became concerned.
“I remember him asking, ‘What if a white person tries to hurt us?’” Zenovia Stephens said. “It was hard to talk through, but I explained to him that we’re not going to let this incident fill us with so much fear we think that we have to stay in the house and that we can’t do these things.”
Zenovia Stephens said her sons, ages 8, 5 and 2, have been hiking their entire lives – and she has the baby photos to prove it. Nature has given her sons the space to blossom into their personalities. Her oldest is growing into his role as what they call a creative director in training for Black Kid Adventures and is planning a heroes hike for veterans in November. Her 5-year-old son is the hands-on hiker who enjoys giving his mom bouquets made of dandelions, flowers and other weeds when he’s not looking for critters in creeks and streams.
Black Adventure Crew has grown together as a family as well. Zenovia Stephens’ favorite out-of-state trip was a fall break excursion to York County, South Carolina. Black Adventure Crew stayed in a camper for the first time at the 26-acre Ebenezer Park, got adventurous at the only Olympic-level BMX training facility on the East Coast and felt the adrenaline rush of wakeboarding.
Zenovia Stephens’ blog has become like an atlas of advice for parents who want to know which hiking trails have the best views or her thoughts on the best carriers for hikers who are still getting used to their land legs. Her most important tip: exploring the outdoors isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience. While camping may work for one family, it may not be a good idea for another.
That’s why experiences like Family Camp are important, she said. Black and brown families experience a range of outdoor activities like hiking, kayaking and rock climbing during the camp, which helps them discover how they want to explore the outdoors.
Nature can be a place of transformation. Not only is Zenovia Stephens watching her children flourish during their trips, but she also believes families can reclaim the spaces that once caused Black people harm by embracing the solitude of nature.
“There’s a lot of benefits in nature — not just to recreate in it, but also just to heal in it by letting out those endorphins we need after a bad day,” Zenovia Stephens said. “Getting outside can transform those feelings.”
While Black Adventure Crew enjoys the wonders of the outdoors present in their backyards, Zenovia Stephens does fantasize where her family will trek, climb and splash next.
When asked about the places her family dreams to visit one day, Zenovia Stephens said, “Everywhere. Literally, everywhere. We want to see it all.”
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