Outdoors Access Builds, Connects and Inspires BIPOC Communities: Reflections from Trailhead Direct 2022
ECOSS recently wrapped up its summer season of in-language hiking trips to Little Si, on Snoqualmie Ancestral Lands, through King County Metro and King County Parks’ Trailhead Direct program, with support from Washington Trails Association’s Outdoor Leadership Training. Part of ECOSS’ mission is to connect BIPOC, refugee, and immigrant communities with environmental solutions and stewardship opportunities. BIPOC communities have historically experienced barriers to recreation and outdoors access, such as language, transportation, safety, and general knowledge about hiking. ECOSS’ guided in-language hiking program utilizes KC Metro and KC Parks’ Trailhead Direct bus service to expand access for these communities. This year, over 66 community members of all ages and across 7 languages participated.
For many of the community members, aged 4 years old to 50+, this was their first experience in hiking, exploring, and learning how to express themselves in nature. ECOSS’ program created an opportunity to engage with Seattle’s public transportation system and a popular hiking trail in a way that felt accessible and comfortable, especially with in-language support available to coordinate logistics and answer questions. The trip leaders each received training from WTA to further support their community members on the trail and teach them about different aspects of safe outdoor recreation.
We connected with some of the ECOSS outreach team (Kevin Duong, Cindy Anh Thu Nguyen, Oni Curitol, and Ernest Mak) who led trips this past summer and reflected on their experiences hiking Little Si with their communities.
Q: How did your hikes go this summer?
Kevin: We did two hikes. It was a lot of the participants’ first time actually hiking, and experiencing a more challenging hike. The youngest participant was about three or four years old and by the time she got on top of Little Si, we were amazed at her accomplishment, with the parent’s help carrying her on the way. There were actually four kids who all made it to the top. When we met together at the summit, we ate bánh mì, and grapes, took a break, and just really talked to each other and had a nice community conversation on top of the mountain, building that relationship there.
Cindy: We had a really great turnout—there was actually a pretty long waitlist of people who wanted to go. Thirteen people participated in the Vietnamese group ranging in age from three years old to over fifty years old, so truly an intergenerational group. Most of the adults were also more recent immigrants as well, so the language assistance and being able to speak Vietnamese was something that they really appreciated. The majority of them also live in South Seattle, Renton, or Kent and so it was really a trip for them to come up to Seattle and take the Trailhead Direct bus. They really enjoyed the convenience and learning that there is a service like that available. Many said that they had wanted to try hiking before but had been looking for a Vietnamese group out there that they could connect and go with. I think the idea in my head of “Oh, maybe people in my community don’t go outdoors” or, “they don’t like the idea of it” is changing and I’m seeing that in Seattle. There is a lot of interest in outdoor recreation and people waiting to see if there are programs or opportunities like this to have someone like them help them start the process and navigate it.
Oni: The participants were so excited about this trip and the bus service. They were constantly talking about how there’s not really much representation in the Latinx community when we go outside to hike and mentioned that they seemed like they were often the only people, and it was nice to hear other Spanish speakers, hikers, are out there. At the bus stop before we left for the hike, they were already interested in leading trips like this on their own and getting involved with more Latinx members in outdoor activities, and future restoration or stewardship volunteer work with ECOSS. Going the same day as the other groups was special because we built relationships between the groups with different languages. When we’d stop to rest, we were cheering up all together so that was pretty amazing and beautiful. My group also mentioned that they love to do this in community and they see the connection between spending time in nature and enjoying it, and the link with taking care of the environment and also passing those values on to their families. You care about something that you have a relationship with or you love, so, I think it was a pretty wholesome hike in terms of the vibe between the groups.
Ernest: I had a group of about 6 to 7 seniors, excluding me, their average age was about 60. They had never hiked before but it was great. I used some of the training and techniques that we did in the WTA workshop like timekeeping, water breaks, and little activities to let people rest in between the hiking duration and keep it interesting. We were able to have lunch at the top, but at the beginning of the hike, we weren’t planning on going to the top because we were unsure if it was too challenging. As we kept going, I asked if they felt comfortable walking a couple more minutes and if they felt uncomfortable continuing we would stop at any point and then go back, but we ended up going to the top so we were able to enjoy the view at the top and have lunch there. ECOSS doesn’t have hiking gear, like boots or hiking poles. But the individuals were interested in learning more about where to rent gear and what the process is, so I shared that information with them and they were so excited. They’re looking forward to doing more of this but with the gear next time.
Q: Why is it important to be able to offer experiences like this, in different languages?
Cindy: The most important reason for having trips specific to different language groups is that it’s important for the Vietnamese community to hear and see people speaking in their language, going outdoors, and on trails where they commonly don’t see much diversity. They could feel comfortable going together because they can express themselves in nature in a way that is unique to them. I noticed for the Vietnamese group, we learned that it’s important to take a lot of breaks and that they bring all sorts of foods. When I was starting out hiking, like, I thought I had to bring a certain type of granola bars, or, this is the only type of food or backpack that I can bring, but they brought whatever was comfortable for them.
I think just learning how they want to engage with the outdoors as a group is a culture that is still forming in a way. “How do Vietnamese people interact with nature,” is something we are learning and wanting to develop. There was also a lot of teaching each other what all these different terms (Trailhead Direct, light rail, trail, mountain peak) mean and how to pronounce them—even just saying “Little Si” out loud helped one person feel more comfortable knowing they weren’t saying it wrong, and vice versa, it was an opportunity for me as someone who was born here to hear new words in Vietnamese that I hadn’t learned before. It’s a chance also for youth growing up here to develop their Vietnamese vocabulary and feel confident speaking the language, for older folks to practice their English, and for different generational groups to engage in dialogue with each other and preserve the Vietnamese language. On that same day, Oni and our colleague Allan’s groups were there. It was cool to see all these different groups: Vietnamese speaking, Spanish speaking, Nepali speaking, encounter and interact with each other and encourage each other to keep going on the most difficult sections of the trail, sharing food, snacks, water, and taking pictures of each other.
Kevin: We want our community to be able to navigate and eventually be able to guide hiking trips and having language support makes it less scary for them to go hiking their first time. Especially when using public transit where safety is a concern, being able to go with a group makes them feel safer, and having somebody to lead and guide makes the community members feel confident going out to nature.
Ernest: I think it is important to offer in-language assistance because, for most of the participants that I lead, it was their first time using the bus service. I was able to use in-language assistance to tell them where they can find information for a specific trip, where to locate the bus stop, and trail information like the elevation, and the weather for the day. Being able to tell them this information gave them a feeling of comfort because going to a new place, not knowing anything, can be stressful. If they had any questions or concerns during the trip, they could also ask questions and I’d answer them. But I think most of the in-language effort is put towards the bus service, the logistics, and the organizing of the whole trip.
Oni: Having in-language activities creates a sense of belonging. I think having a shared language on a hike is really powerful because it’s also a reminder that nature doesn’t belong to any group or any language itself, and that it is something that is a shared space that we all get the chance to enjoy. Seeing other communities at the same time, speaking their own language, sharing, and resting together as a group also brought the essence of a shared community instead of a competitive one. So that was very beautiful.
I had one participant, she has been here for over 10 years and doesn’t speak English very well so she was saying it was pretty cool to be together sharing this experience in the same language. Now that they know how Trailhead Direct works, they feel more confident taking the bus by themselves or inviting people because they know where to go and how it functions. So I think that it’s good for bringing inclusivity to the outdoors.
Q: Do any other moments from the hike stand out as particularly great or memorable?
Oni: I was going up with four members and the rest of the group was already waiting for us on top. It was pretty beautiful to meet together at the top and then share lunch. I think that was the highlight because they had the chance to introduce themselves to each other and then also get to see Cindy’s and Kevin’s group, sharing food on top—I think that was very, very special. We also helped each other take pictures from the different groups, so that felt very in communion. On the same note, when we were meeting on the way up or the way down with Allan’s group, and seeing how they cheered each other on, I think that was so wholesome.
Cindy: A mother and her two-year-old joined our group and even though she and her daughter were typically behind, she really let her daughter try to walk as much of the trail as possible. Something I noticed was that everyone else in the group was patient, and offered to support her or carry the daughter. She also expressed it was really great that she didn’t feel like she was judged for being slow or being the last one and that was really great that people were supportive and did not set expectations. Even for the other mother and her six-year-old—she and her daughter liked to go off trail a lot and spend a lot of time doing all those things and it was awesome to see her let her daughter learn how to connect with nature in a way that was more exploring and not in any particular way. I think parents here are really wanting to let their kids experience nature in their own way and express themselves and enjoy being outside.
Ernest: Because I was leading seniors, I thought they might need more rest. I kept asking if they needed water breaks or to rest a little bit, but they ended up always saying they didn’t need it, that they were okay, and to just keep going and so I was the one asking for rest. I just remember thinking “Wow you guys are amazing, you guys just keep going.” I was amazed by them, by how great they are, athletically speaking.
Kevin: After the hike, we were pretty hungry even though we got a lot of sandwiches. We took the light rail back, and for those who could stay, we went to a restaurant to eat and connect further. It was fun to really get to know each other more through deeper conversation and getting to know their families as well. After the hike, a lot of the participants really wanted to continue doing activities like this so we created the Vietnamese hiking club group chat. As we continue to do outreach we will add the people who are interested to the chat. People post the hikes that they’re going on and a lot of the people like carpooling together to go hiking so it’s like a community gathering so that they can continue enjoying nature beyond this program.
ECOSS’ in-language Trailhead Direct trips are made possible by the support of King County Metro, King County Parks, the Wilderness Society, and the Washington Trails Association. To learn more about ECOSS’ programs, visit ecoss.org/projects.