Ashley Cleveland was 8 years old, walking through Sequoia National Park, when a park ranger pointed out a banana slug dragging itself across the forest floor.
The ranger explained the anatomy and diet of the slug to Cleveland and the group of young campers, and asked if any of them was brave enough to kiss the slimy gastropod. The kids recoiled.
But Cleveland had been the ranger’s shadow throughout the trip, listening to her talk about the habitat and ecology of the park. And she was the only one who leaned down to smooch the slug.
Cleveland’s family was experiencing homelessness and staying at a shelter in San Francisco at the time. The week she spent under the gigantic redwood trees, through an outdoors-focused child care program the shelter provided, sparked in her a profound love for nature.
“If it wasn’t for [the ranger] and that program," Cleveland said, “I don’t know how I would have been introduced to the national park system and environmental science in general.”
The 32-year-old Cleveland now serves as an advisory committee member for the state Office of Outdoor Recreation, part of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development. She also works as the manager of Millcreek’s Promise Program, a city collaboration with United Way of Salt Lake to help unemployed residents, support schools and create a safer, healthier community.
She also is Utah’s only volunteer leader for Outdoor Afro, a nonprofit that helps Black people meet up and engage with the outdoors. Nature, she says, can provide space for Black people and other people of color to process their grief and mourn the lives of those wrongfully killed by police, and find solace as the nation reckons with racism amid the Black Lives Matter movement.
“It hasn’t been hard to encourage Black and Indigenous people of color to engage with nature in Utah,” she said. “We are natural beings, we are a part of the history of these lands; it’s just that boundaries and access have become white.”
Ecologist turned city planner
Utah author Wallace Stegner once said, “National parks are the best idea we ever had,” also describing them as “absolutely American, absolutely democratic.” But people of color haven’t always had equal access to national parks.
When President Woodrow Wilson signed the creation of the National Park Service into law on Aug. 25, 1916, the principles of Jim Crow segregation were well established. It wasn’t until 1945 that Interior Secretary Harold Ickes issued a bulletin mandating desegregation in all national parks, a change that took years.
Those racist policies made visiting national parks unsafe and created a feeling that the outdoors were only for white people, a sense that persists in many places today, according to Carolyn Finney, author of “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.”
Finney told The Associated Press this summer, “Systemic racism doesn’t stop at the park gates. I’ve backpacked all over the world. ... There are places in this country I would never go on my own. It is my loss. I just don’t trust the public.”
Finney was interviewed after a white woman targeted Black bird-watcher Christian Cooper in New York City’s Central Park, where he had asked her to leash her dog. His video of their exchange went viral, showing Amy Cooper (no relation) retaliating by calling the police and referencing his race in describing him as a threat.
A 2018 report by The George Wright Forum showed that people of color represent a small fraction of national park visitors. Hispanic and Asian American guests each comprised less than 5% of visitors to the sites surveyed, while less than 2% of visitors were African Americans.
Cleveland works to help bridge that divide by inviting people of color to hike around the Wasatch Front. She organizes meetups through Outdoor Afro and serves as a member of the board of trustees for Tracy Aviary.
When she was young, Cleveland’s family would sometimes camp on public land during periods of homelessness. “I was a kid, so to me it just looked like camping,” Cleveland said. “Now that I’m older, I know more about equity and access and how homeless resource centers play a role in helping citizens maintain a stable household.
“National parks and lands like that give people a lot of respite. ... it kind of serves as an in-between for the really crowded, stressful situation that existing shelters generally provide.”
Cleveland initially wanted to study English as a first-generation college student. At a California community college, she read and enjoyed “a lot of odes to nature from white men,” especially the work of Henry David Thoreau. And that interest in naturalism led her to investigate America’s history of caring for the environment.
When she discovered the environmental science major offered at California State University-Channel Islands, she decided to change her studies and transferred. While there, Cleveland went on a service learning trip to New Orleans. There she saw firsthand, she said, how environmental injustice plays out in cities, from redlining that restricts where people of color can obtain mortgages and live, to industrial construction in those areas that causes the air quality in African American neighborhoods to be worse.
After graduating in 2011, Cleveland worked for the U.S. Navy as a field biologist and for the National Park Service as a junior ecologist. She was caring for her younger brother when he asked her if she was going to pursue more education, and she was undecided.
“I realized that the reason all these organizations are trying to conserve land is, they’re trying to protect it from the negative externalities from cities,” Cleveland said. “So I thought, ‘Why don’t we just make cities better and make life more environmentally friendly for the humans who live there?’”
She moved from California to Salt Lake City and earned a master’s degree in city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah.
Finding safety and solace outdoors
Cleveland loves to hike, and names the Bonneville Shoreline and Jordan River trails as her favorite places to revisit. She enjoys taking her 3-year-old daughter to the Fred and Ila Rose Fife Wetland Preserve. Her Instagram account (@outdoorauntie) shows Cleveland floating on the water at Pineview Reservoir and wearing a shirt that reads “We hike to heal” on sunset hikes overlooking Salt Lake City.
She makes it her responsibility, she said, to gather those who feel unsafe or afraid in the outdoors because of the color of their skin. Additionally, she knows queer and transgender people of color, she added, who “don’t even want to leave their house because of the looks they would get or the ways they would be approached in public.”
“I don’t know if people realize that safety is a serious issue for us,” she said. “It causes a lot of anxiety.”
A few years ago, Cleveland was hiking in Big Cottonwood Canyon when three unleashed dogs approached her and made her nervous with their “not nice body language.” One growled at her. The white woman who owned them scowled at Cleveland as she caught up to them, Cleveland said.
“When you look back during the Jim Crow era, you see all those black-and-white photos of dogs attacking us,” Cleveland said. “So when a dog is allowed to come up and invade my space, and you aren’t saying anything as the owner, my mind immediately goes to feeling unsafe in those terms.”
As she passed by, she said, the woman also quietly said something about Cleveland’s presence on “her” trail.
“Maybe in her mind, the reason she said that wasn’t because of my skin color,” she said. “Maybe her house is right by it, so she thinks it’s her trail? I’m not exactly sure, but we do spend a lot of time trying to decipher the motives of someone else when it comes to our treatment.”
She pointed to Cooper’s experience while birding and traces the trend back to the death of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African American who was fatally beaten and shot in Mississippi after being accused of offending a white woman in 1955.
“This is nothing new; it’s just that people are now filming it,” she said. “White women have weaponized their position in life against us so many times. We can’t leave potential for that to happen anymore.”
Cleveland was frustrated, she said, when she saw the tone of a peaceful protest against police violence shift in May as a Salt Lake City police car was flipped and set on fire. What was intended to be “our place to communally grieve,” she said, was disrupted by “someone else’s riot, someone else’s agenda.”
The feeling grew when a Salt Lake City memorial honoring George Floyd, a Black man killed this summer by a white officer in Minnesota, was defaced with tar. The graffiti left her wondering why Black people can’t express grief without pushback from others, she said.
“We can’t sleep in our own homes, that’s what happened to Breonna Taylor. We can’t walk home carrying Skittles in our own neighborhood, that’s what happened to Trayvon Martin,” she said. “If you could just give us a list of things we’re allowed to do, let us know, give us a PSA [public service announcement], because we’re just tired of dying.”
Cleveland recommends that people who want to become allies donate outdoor gear and equipment to people of color in their community. She also encourages allies in positions of power to “look to your right and your left, and see who’s in the room. If it’s just a ton of people that look like you, then you need to reach out to someone who doesn’t look like you, and ask them what their barrier is to get them to engage with you.”
Cleveland relies on her family and the outdoors, she said, to cope with the injustices she’s lived through and seen in the lives of others. Recently, she took her daughter on her first “big girl” hike to a waterfall. The young girl played with ants along the trail and listened as she explained that caterpillars were just “baby butterflies.”
“She was just so connected to what was around her,” Cleveland said. “That just brought me so much pride, because it takes someone else introducing you to it. I’m glad that I got to be that person because you need someone who makes you feel safe. For me, that was a white woman who was a ranger, but for her, that’s her mom, and that makes me very proud.”
HOW TO CONNECT WITH OUTDOOR AFRO
Outdoor Afro Salt Lake City arranges hikes, fly-fishing, bike rides and ice cream socials. Find them on Meetup at http://meetu.ps/c/3TksD/ljqsM/d or connect with volunteer organizer Ashley Cleveland on Instagram at @outdoorauntie.