As the founder and CEO of HBCUs Outside, Ron Griswell inspires college students across the nation to explore the outdoors and seek adventure—even if it’s just at a local park. He encourages everyone to step outside their comfort zone, and by doing so, Ron hopes to change the very face of the outdoor industry.
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What’s your first memory of being outdoors?
I was roughly four or five years old in the back of my parents' vehicle. We were on a road trip, and I remember looking out and seeing mountains. I remember being frustrated that I couldn't truly get out and see what it was. It was just beautiful rolling blue, green mountains. Years later, I asked my parents, 'Hey, what was going on?' They let me know that we were on the Blue Ridge Parkway. That feeling, that wanderlust curiosity, counted as my first big adventure, which has continued to inspire me.
How do you feel when you’re outdoors today?
Curiosity was the first feeling I had, and it's the one that I continue to have. It’s actually even more heightened because of the amazing things I've seen—I know that there's only more. I'm still always excited. Always stoked. Always looking for something new. I'm chasing that same feeling that I experienced as a child. But through high school and my early college career, I became disillusioned with the outdoors. It was hearing the jokes like, 'Oh, Oreo. You Black outside, but you really white on the inside because you love doing these different kinds of activities.” Once my identity as a Black man started coming to play, it was easier to stop. I didn't have anyone to push me and say, 'Hey, it's not important what they say. Get into these spaces and do what's best for you.'
Why do you think the Black community hasn’t felt welcomed in the outdoors?
It starts with the lack of representation. You look at that poster of someone climbing a mountain or someone walking through the woods—whatever it may be—and you don't see yourself. After constantly seeing, representational wise, that we're not out there, you automatically ‘other’ those experiences into something that's elite. Something that's just for white people. Something that's not for Black people. Automatically, through seeing these things, we've already defeated ourselves. We fulfill those stereotypes of, “We don't do these things, because a lot of us have never had access to these things. And even if we have, we haven't seen us doing them.”
“We All Have A Connection With The Outdoors Already, And It's Not Going To Look The Same As Other People's.”
What needs to happen in order for things to change?
There needs to be a rebranding on what the outdoors is. There's this vision of the outdoors that’s really not accessible for a lot of people. A lot of it is truly changing the way that we look at it and how we interact with it. It's important that we start at home, and we meet ourselves where we're at. The outdoors is right in our backyard if we know where to look. Those moments of being with family at a crab boil, or at a fish fry, a barbecue. Planting that garden on your stoop or in your fire escape window. Those are beautiful moments of getting outside and being outdoors. It’s time for us to realize that we all have a connection with the outdoors already, and it's not going to look the same as other people's or what's normally marketed. Our outdoors doesn't have to look the same, and neither of our outdoors should invalidate the other person's experience.
Why is it important for the Black community to get outside?
Everyone doesn't have to climb a mountain. To get outside with the intention of, 'I'm just taking a walk in this outdoor space,” has extreme benefits to help address many things within the Black community—high blood pressure, hypertension, all of these things that affect us. What a walk outside does, what a walk through a forest does, the practice of forest bathing in the Japanese culture—all have the science behind them as far as how they make us healthier and better our mental health. I believe that Black people as a whole could benefit from taking care of their mental health in that capacity, especially since it’s so stigmatized within our community. There’s also the healing of reclaiming. We're reclaiming our ancestors as sharecroppers, as fishermen living by the sea, the land that they owned and harvested. We’re reclaiming our known and forgotten history within the outdoors.
Why start with historically Black colleges and universities?
When I look at other things going on, there's multiple groups helping kids or inner-city youth with outdoor recreation programs, I often don't see HBCUs within the equation. These students are going to be the ones who are interested in entering the outdoor industry, working as a park ranger or at Patagonia or Eddie Bauer. A lot of these outdoor brands are mainly white. For them to go to these campuses and have Black employees to say, “Hey, we are making a change,” I truly feel like that is going to help diversify the industry at such a faster pace, as opposed to these one-off activities or small programs. It's about inviting people who haven't historically been in those spaces and making them change agents for brands.
“We’re Reclaiming Our Known And Forgotten History Within The Outdoors.”
Any advice for this next generation of Black people who may not feel welcomed outdoors?
There's no shortage of days or times where I go off exploring and drive to these remote areas, and I see Confederate flags and symbols that don't make me, as a Black man, feel welcome within these spaces. But what I tell people is—if I don't go into those spaces, if I let fear control me and keep me away—these things that look like they're gates, they're actually doors. And when you're able to walk through a door like that, even with that fear in your mind, that is you overcoming a part of your comfort zone. And after you step outside of it, then everything else for you also opens back up.
Do people need anything special to start their relationship with the outdoors?
I approach it from just a casual standpoint of, “What do I have access to?” Use what you have. As you continue to get into an activity or sport, you can always make the investment to grab what you're going to actually need, but use what you have. I'm one of those people. I'm just thinking about something that's casual and comfortable, and something that I have quick access to as well. I love the style and swag that we come into the outdoors with, and we’re getting to a point of saying that we are not assimilating into how a hiker should be, or a backpacker should be, or a rock climber should be. We are coming in as ourselves.
What keeps you motivated and passionate?
Following my curiosity and that curiosity of how things can look in the future of the outdoors is what drives me. I have become the person I needed when I was younger. Knowing that I'm able to be a resource for students, knowing that HBCUs Outside is able to give them opportunities they may not have traditionally found before, knowing that lives are being changed. That’s a drive for me. When I think of my legacy and what HBCUs Outside is going to do, I see it as truly changing the face of the outdoor industry, adventure sports and environmentalism. I think about this grand vision where there's a mountaineering team from Howard, and there are rock climbers from A&T, and from Spelman who compete in the Olympics. Tuskegee or Claflin having nature photographers published. I want the HBCU students to be the next leaders, athletes, creatives within the outdoors. That's what I'm trying to fight towards.
“I Want To Elevate And Evolve The Rich Tapestry Of HBCUs To Have An Outdoor Culture.”
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