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'Decide to take up space out there': Meet the woman behind Black Hikers Week

Zenovia Stephens wants to see more Black faces on the trails.
Zenovia Stephens co-founded Black Hikers Week and how she's changing her community
Zenovia Stephens is the founder of Black Kids Adventures, Inc. and a co-founder of Black Hikers Week, a social media effort to encourage Black people to take advantage of the outdoors. Courtesy Zenovia Stephens
/ Source: TMRW

Last summer, Zenovia Stephens watched on social media as support flooded in for Christian Cooper, the Black birder who was harassed by a white woman in New York City's Central Park, and Black Birders Week was formed.

"It was this really beautiful scene of all these Black birders coming together and showing the world that just because it's not something you see all the time, we do these things, and we're not a threat," Stephens said. "I'm following and engaging and I started to think, 'It would be really cool to do something like this for Black hikers.'"

She reached out to Nailah Blades of Color Outside and Debbie Njai of Black People Who Hike and together they launched Black Hikers Week, an annual social media event that encourages Black people to take advantage of the outdoors, and highlights those who do. This June will mark the second Black Hikers Week — and Stephens, a mom of three boys, knows that getting outside is more important than ever as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on.

"Something just changes when we go outside," Stephens said. "I can be in the house with them and everything is chaotic and I'm like, drop it all, let's go. Whatever it was that was causing the chaos, the meltdowns, the bad moods, it's literally lifted off."

Zenovia Stephens co-founded Black Hikers Week and how she's changing her community
Stephens with her husband and their three sons on a trip to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Courtesy Zenovia Stephens

Stephens, who lives with her family in Huntsville, Alabama, is also the creator of Black Kids Adventures, Inc., a nonprofit that provides outdoor adventures for Black families.

Her own relationship with nature began early, as a kid growing up in Chicago, where she explored the woods behind her neighbors' yards and went fishing with her stepfather on Lake Michigan. In high school and college, she ran track. But it wasn't until Stephens was an adult that she realized how spending time outdoors positively affected her mood. About a decade ago, in between jobs, she began driving out to a trail on Alabama's Green Mountain to take long walks and get some fresh air.

"I didn't realize that hiking did not have to involve climbing the highest mountain in the world," she said. "I didn't know you could just access a trail in the woods and that was hiking. It just kind of brought me some peace and allowed me to clear my mind and focus, and figure out what was next. And it just made me feel good."

Part of her mission with Black Kids Adventures, Inc. is to show people that going on a hike doesn't have to be some exhausting journey with expensive equipment. It can be as simple as exploring your own backyard.

"My biggest goal is to show (people) that you don't have to travel far from home to experience something beautiful and wonderful," Stephens said. "Don't wait for these huge vacations that may or may not come."

"When you watch movies and look at outdoor magazines, they show hiking to be this elaborate thing where you need all this special gear," she added. "They focus on that wow effect. And as far as representation is concerned, those are definitely not places you see Black and brown people displayed. Representation really does matter. We want the next generation to know they have a place in nature. They have a place outdoors."

She also hopes her efforts will increase the number of Black faces she sees on the trails.

"I do not see myself on my local trails," she said. "Where are the people who look like me? We just don't (take advantage of the outdoors) the way our white counterparts do. Part of that is because we have a history of mistreatment. Our history with regards to the outdoors isn't great."

For Stephens, the best way to change that is by showing people exactly how it's done.

Zenovia Stephens co-founded Black Hikers Week and how she's changing her community
Stephens wants to provide free trips for Black families to explore the outdoors through her nonprofit, Black Kids Adventures, Inc. Courtesy Zenovia Stephens

In December she took five families on a weekend trip to Camp McDowell in Nauvoo, Alabama. (She's currently fundraising for another trip, hopefully this spring.) Although they all maintained social distance and took COVID-19 safety precautions, the outdoors still provided plenty of things to do: They canoed, explored canyons, went hiking, chipped wood, picked fresh vegetables and had a bonfire.

"It was an incredible experience, and not something most of those families had done before," Stephens said. "The idea is to say, how you get outside can be unique to you. It doesn't have to look like it does for my family. Find what works for you. Decide to take up place out there. It is a place for everybody. It is a place we can heal from mental trauma, emotional trauma. It's a place where families can come together and bond away from electronics, away from the stressors of life. There's so much that can happen when you step outside."