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Kate Zerrenner headshot

This New REI Fund Aims to Promote Equity in the Outdoors

By Kate Zerrenner
camping - REI fund equity in the outdoors

During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people found refuge from being stuck in the house by going to state and national parks. But while the outdoors felt like a safe place for some, others may not have felt as welcome. About 60 percent of the U.S. population is white, but they make up around 90 percent of visitors to U.S. public lands.

REI, one of the country’s oldest outdoor outfitters, hopes its new Cooperative Action Fund will help even those numbers.

The nature gap

In the 2020 Nature Gap report, the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Center for American Progress confirmed that Black and brown Americans are three times more likely to live in “nature deprived” areas, with less or no access to parks, paths and green spaces, than white Americans. Many factors contribute to this, including historic redlining practices — that is, racist mortgage appraisals leading to segregated communities — which has led to many communities of color having elevated levels of toxic air and water. This confluence of factors has only been exacerbated by COVID-19, making residents of these communities more vulnerable to complications from the virus.

Visiting state and national parks can be cost prohibitive with travel and park fees, but the parks were also initially designed to be white. John Muir, one of the founding fathers of the National Park System, disparaged Indigenous Americans and said they “seemed to have no right place in the landscape,” despite having lived on those lands for thousands of years. Further, many state and national parks were designed to give white Americans escape from the urban environment, code for segregation. In fact, many parks explicitly followed the letter of the segregationist laws.

It is no wonder, then, that many Black and brown Americans still feel unwelcome at parks and are concerned with being singled out as “out of place” in the landscape. Among reasons cited for not visiting public parks are affordability, access, historical trauma, fear for personal safety, and discrimination.

Further, studies have shown that time in nature helps lower stress levels, increase attention spans, boost immune systems, and reduce risks of psychiatric disorders — if one can feel safe in the environment. During the pandemic, access to these natural spaces unfortunately continued to remain available to a select few, despite the increased need for everyone to lower their anxiety levels.

New REI investment fund will back nonprofits promoting justice and belonging 

REI initiated its Cooperative Action Network earlier this year as a grassroots advocacy platform to increase participation in supporting policy and legislation affecting the outdoors. The network focuses on three areas: climate action, outdoor equity and outdoor spaces, such as National Forests and neighborhood parks.

Launched today, the REI Cooperative Action Fund aims to focus specifically on enhancing justice, equity and belonging in the outdoors.

REI employees, co-op members and the public can contribute to the investment fund, which will make an initial $1 million investment in 19 nonprofit partners, with plans to expand. Grants will focus on three themes:

  • Connecting more people outside, which will give to outdoors organizations run by and serving Black communities, Indigenous peoples, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities and women.
  • Create more space outside, which will support community-led climate projects that improve air and water quality in marginalized communities.
  • Centering health outside, which will fund research into mental, physical and emotional health benefits of time spent outside.

REi initially established a foundation in 1993 that funded projects aligned with its corporate platform, such as climate action and access to the outdoors. The new fund, however, is the first to specifically target programs aimed at improving access to outdoor spaces for people of color and low-income communities.

The company has made its name in recent years for taking action seemingly contradicting its bottom line, such as #OptOutside, the campaign started in 2015 that encouraged people to go outside on Black Friday rather than shop, to the extent that it even closes all its stores the Friday after Thanksgiving. But such efforts ended up having a net positive effect on the company’s image and sales.

The bottom line

Like many other retailers, REI suffered during the pandemic as people stayed home. As people start venturing out again, national parks are being overrun with visitors who are desperate for the outdoors. Taking a look at photos from overcrowded parks, the faces remain predominantly white. As REI recovers from pandemic-related losses, investing in increasing access to and equity in open spaces makes sense from a bottom-line and a values perspective.

Image credit: Scott Goodwill/Unsplash

Kate Zerrenner headshot

Kate is a writer and policy wonk, with a focus on water, clean energy, climate change and environmental security. She spent over a decade running energy-water nexus and energy efficiency programs at Environmental Defense Fund as well as time at the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense, U.S. Government Accountability Office, and state and federal legislatures. She serves as an Advisory Board member of CleanTX, which aims to accelerate the growth of the clean tech industry in Texas.

Read more stories by Kate Zerrenner