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Sole Searching: Sneaker Culture and the Outdoors with Jahmicah Dawes

Slim Pickins Outfitters owner Jahmicah Dawes was drawn to the individuality of sneaker collecting, streetwear and skate culture - industries he saw Black role models freely expressing themselves. After a few summers on his grandparents' farm, and with the help of new friends, Jahmicah discovered his passion for the outdoors, and realized his old and new hobbies have a lot in common.

Black History is American History. We say that, but what does that really mean? From the impact of Black culture on music, entertainment, and style as well as the construction of many of our Nations Parks, the influence of Black folks on this country is undeniable. 

As a young Black male growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, it may be hard to believe, but many things were more interesting to me than the great outdoors. Sneaker culture, street wear, and the skate industry were much more appealing to me. These interests seemed like an easier fit. Seemed like a place where someone like me wouldn’t have to blaze a new path or fight for space. I loved that in these industries I saw Black men and women, Black role models, freely expressing themselves in style and movement. 

That’s not to say that I didn’t give the outdoors a shot. I did give it a shot. A good shot. Years spent in the scouts, family camping trips, and attempts at fishing (and I intentionally said attempts) resulted in a sour taste in my mouth. Some negative interactions and difficult situations, as well as realizing I did not want to sleep on the ground brought about some strong feelings of negativity towards the outdoors as a whole. 

As luck would have it, I had two parents that had a history of being outdoors as well as a set of grandparents that cultivated farmland and raised animals. I spent summers on their farm in Florida. That provided me a peace so much so that I always kept in the back of my mind that the outdoors couldn’t be all bad. 

In college I made friends that not only participated in outdoor activities, they were passionate about them. I began to field questions about why I couldn’t join them on their weekend adventures. The truth was, I didn’t have the know how, the gear, or the access to the gear whether it be due to limited financial resources, or simply because I did not know where to obtain it or what I should be looking for. My friends, while I don’t think they were setting out with the idea to “diversify the outdoors” they did just that. They provided extra gear. They shared their knowledge and their time. It wasn’t performative. It wasn’t to fulfill a social obligation. It was friends sharing passions with other friends. That’s what changed my life, and ultimately led to Slim Pickins Outfitters. 

When my friend shared his father’s fly fishing rod with me in the Ozarks, the groundwork was laid for the Fellowship of the Flies events hosted by SPO. When a different friend invited me to join him in Leadville, Colorado for a weekend on the mountain, the notion for adventure was planted. When a different friend took me on a southwest road trip and we spent the night camping in the Organ Pipe Desert it prepared me for nights spent in remote Alaska. Floating the Arkansas River with gear provided by a friend’s family, led me to a remote float trip down the Devil’s River. 

As one of my mentors and role models Teresa Baker always says, “We do this work together,” and the intentionality of people that didn’t look like me, drew me back into the outdoors where I was reminded that Black people do belong outdoors. Black people cultivated the American land for centuries. Black people were instrumental in the development and construction of many of our National Parks. (Oh, you didn’t know that? Well, I think it’s because that’s not the American History we are often taught). For goodness sakes, Harriet Tubman is considered by many historians the Ultimate Outdoorswoman. Her navigation and foraging skills as well as her use of the owl call to secretly communicate put her high on the list of survival experts in history and today. 

While becoming reacquainted to the outdoors established a connection with the ancestors and those who paved the way, it also connected me to Black people that were already doing the work and involved in the diversification of the outdoors and the Outdoor Industry. Black anglers, mountaineers, climbers, cyclists, birders, journalists, explorers and more were actively making moves in the outdoor space. They fascinated me, because how was there another subset of the population that I didn’t know existed? This discovery was the embodiment of  the phrase “Black people are not a monolith”. 

I also found that my previous passions meshed extremely well with my new passions. Who knew that streetwear and outdoor apparel were so closely related? Technical outdoor apparel and footwear are just as common in photo shoots and style roundups as they are on the trails. Apparel created with sustainability and performance in mind, translates well into the streetwear space, so much so that high end designers and outdoor giants are creating pieces that have many similarities. I found that I could continue to express myself through style in my new interests and industry and admire the innovation of others doing the same. Unbeknownst to me, skate was already part of the greater outdoor industry, just not necessarily the part I was involved in. Since the inception of Slim Pickins Outfitters we have had the honor of partnering with an inner city skate organization 4DWN, that provides Texas kids with a free space to skate, alleviates food insecurities, and provides creative opportunities so young artists get experience and receive inspiration from professionals that look like them. Additionally, this organization is one of the most environmentally conscious organizations we’ve ever worked with. Even their food justice program is zero waste and teaches composting, recycling, and regenerative farming practices. This ethnically blended staff is making space for everyone in the outdoor industry, and that is overwhelmingly exciting! 

Perhaps our biggest community partner, is Black Outside, Inc. out of San Antonio, Texas. Black Outside’s mission is to reconnect African American youth to the outdoors. While simply stated, this is not always easily done. The thing we are most proud of from our partnership with Black Outside, is that they do not only want to diversify the outdoors in the present, they are intent on building a new generation of outdoor participants and leaders. This is important because less than 1% of park goers identify as Black. Further, studies show that America is likely to be a “white minority” country by the year 2045. If we do not cultivate a new generation of young people that love and care about the outdoors, we will see a decline in the stewardship of outdoor spaces. Ergo, Black Outside is doing the work of the future. 

I am the most proud of the growth we have seen in Black owned outdoor retailers since we began in 2016. Intrinsic Provisions, Wheelz Up Adventures, AV Overland Supply, and Outlandish have made their mark on the outdoor industry. The truth is, business is tough. Even after 7 years, we still scrap and claw. We work hard to make SPO a reality, and sometimes it seems like it could become a memory. But the facts are that this has never been about selling outdoor gear. It’s about making a difference in the outdoor industry as it pertains to leadership and ownership. No matter what happens with SPO we can look around and see the proof that we made an impact in the industry. We see Black owned brands coming into their own. I’m not under any illusion that we are the only catalyst for Black owned businesses in the industry, but we do feel confident in the fact that we have been part of the conversation. We’ve been part of the change. 

Slim Pickins is going through some big changes during this Black History Month. We have moved locations, shutting down the space that has been our home for the last 7 years, and moving into a new spot. Surprisingly to my wife Heather and me, our boys have taken the move hard. We want to leave a legacy for them and we want the outdoors to be a safe space for them, but we didn’t realize that the ownership was already taking hold. On one of our last days at the previous shop, our oldest son voiced that he would miss the old shop. We assured him that we would, too, but that we were excited for what was to come. In a moment he turned, looked me in the eye and said, “Dad, I’m gonna be a shop owner like you. And maybe I’ll have my shop in this building.” We shook on it. Whatever is to come for our future, I’m honored to have been part of paving the way so his dream can become a reality.

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