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Outdoor Inclusion Coalition Reshapes Mindset Around Urban Recreation

Learn more about Outdoor Inclusion Coalition, and how you can follow along with their work and support their mission.

In the 1960s, Pittsburgh’s local youth groups and clubs actively utilized a campground located within city limits, in the densely wooded and grassy Riverview Park. But over many decades of neglect, the campground became somewhat of an eyesore, and city leaders revised the city code to prohibit camping or pitching a canopy of any kind without a permit.

 

Then Marcus Shoffner moved to town in 2018. By working with the parks and recreation department, Shoffner and other city leaders proposed rewriting the legislation to revive the old urban campground as a valuable recreational resource for the community. City council supported and approved the proposal, and the campground is in use once again.

 

“I think parks are the kindling to outdoor exploration,” said Shoffner, president and CEO of Outdoor Inclusion Coalition, a nonprofit supporting Pennsylvanians through programs dedicated to attracting, engaging and retaining underrepresented populations in the outdoor industry.

 

Image via Outdoor Inclusion Coalition

Shoffner grew up hiking, climbing, biking, fishing, skiing and more in the outdoors but didn’t see the Black community represented in his favorite activities. He previously worked for the trade show Paddlesports Retailer, and when he moved to Pittsburgh, sharing his love for outdoor sports with other BIPOC folks was top of mind. In a place with more than 130 city and county parks, he sought to reshape urban recreation as a pathway for reconnecting with nature.

The campground is one pathway. Educating community members is another. The coalition offers free one-day training sessions in Riverview Park to adults wanting to lead camping trips either for groups or their families. Some have camped 5,000 times, while others have never camped a day in their life. They welcome all skill levels, teaching or refreshing camping practices like pitching a tent, sustainably washing dishes and facilitating activities.

“We want to keep a lighthearted energy where people still feel interested in coming back to continue their education but enough to where they feel safe and secure outside,” Shoffner said.

Once a leader completes training, they gain free access to the coalition’s camping equipment available through an online gear lending library portal, which is a result of Shoffner connecting with the Outdoors Empowered Network(Opens in a new window). This national network of youth-centered and community-led groups across the country works to increase access and diversity in the outdoors through gear libraries and educational programming.

Outdoor Inclusion Coalition is one of more than 25 organizations across the country serving communities that have been historically and systemically kept out of outdoor spaces.

Image via Outdoor Inclusion Coalition

As an extension of the camping program, the coalition leads monthly camping trips for anyone in the community who wants to go. Included transportation shuttles them to safe and accessible recreational areas around and outside of Pittsburgh, where they can build relationships with people who have shared life experiences. 

The coalition also operates a ski program to encourage the participation of urban youth and provide snowsports experiences—from the gear to the lessons—at no cost. Kids get shuttled to Seven Springs Ski Resort, located only an hour from Pittsburgh, to spend time on the mountain in a safe and supportive environment that inevitably builds confidence.

“We try to use it as a community-building space but also as an exploratory space, especially for community members who don’t get out of the city of Pittsburgh,” Shoffner said.

Image via Outdoor Inclusion Coalition

Shoffner has been getting out of the city a lot lately, road tripping to National Parks in the West, for both personal and professional reasons. As the co-host with his twin brother, Derrick, of the podcast Sincerely Yours, Outdoors(Opens in a new window), they’re interviewing (and filming for YouTube) Black and brown people across the country about their experiences and love for the outdoors.

“I kind of started by just sharing my outdoor experience and how it’s kind of different from the community that I live in now,” Shoffner said. When he tells youth or families in the BIPOC community about his outdoor pursuits, he’s often met with feedback that either Black people don’t usually do those types of things or that they don’t know anyone else who does. 

But the podcast, Shoffner said, will introduce them to more people like him. “I have an experience where it’s more common to see Black people that do what I do than Black people that don’t do what I do. So I’m trying to normalize that in every sense,” he said.

In one episode, they interview CJ Goulding, executive director of Boyz N The Wood(Opens in a new window). In another, they interview Chastity Bey, community outreach educator at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy(Opens in a new window). Each interview takes place in a natural area that’s special to the interviewee, so they’re often sitting lakeside or in a park with wind and birds providing auditory ambiance. 

The podcast is growing and evolving, as is the greater vision for Outdoor Inclusion Coalition. Perhaps the coalition’s camping trips will take people to the National Parks one day. Perhaps Pittsburgh will open more city-run campgrounds in the parks. Perhaps one day Pittsburgh will have its very own Outdoor Inclusion Coalition-operated campground and experience center.

Shoffner and his team are just going to keep sharing what they love and see where it leads them.

Stay tuned on updates from Outdoor Inclusion Coalition through Instagram(Opens in a new window) and their website(Opens in a new window). Listen to the Sincerely Yours, Outdoors podcast on YouTube(Opens in a new window), Spotify(Opens in a new window), or wherever else you access podcasts.

Interested in building a gear library program in your community? Learn more about the Outdoors Empowered Network on their website(Opens in a new window), where you can become a member or a supporter.

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