Dartmouth College club helps people of color enjoy the outdoors

By FRANCES MIZE

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 01-15-2023 12:14 AM

Dartmouth College junior Valeria Pereira Quintero grew up in Houston, where she rarely pursued outdoor recreational activities.

But since coming to the Upper Valley, the 21-year-old Hispanic woman has made the outdoors another home, in large part through a campus group expanding interest and access to outdoor activities that members say can often be too white.

Quintero joined the People of Color Outdoors Club, or POCO. Formed in 2016, the club aims to “provide opportunities for underrepresented groups to find their space in the outdoor world,” its mission statement reads.

The group, which hosts weekly meetings, has an overall enrollment close to 300.

“Being in the outdoors is inherently uncomfortable,” Quintero said. “But I found myself much more comfortable when I was around people more similar to me, in that they had very little experience outside, little gear and little understanding of New England outdoor culture.”

The club saw a spike in membership at the height of the pandemic. Students at Dartmouth who hadn’t initially turned to outdoor recreation at the school found themselves isolated in their dorms. Getting outside became one of the only ways they could socialize, but weathering strenuous hikes in COVID-19 masks wasn’t the only obstacle students of color confronted in the outdoors.

Studies have found that people of color are less likely to visit national parks or use public parks and recreation programs. Surveys from the National Park Service noted that the most common barriers to national park visitation — travel distance, transportation and expense — were disproportionately felt by people of color.

With an understanding that “being in the outdoors has not only physical but mental health benefits,” POCO hopes to scramble that narrative, past club president Scarlette Flores said. The club runs winter hikes through the White Mountains and canoe trips on the Connecticut River, and vanloads of students drove two hours to York, Maine, to try surfing.

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Like Quintero, Flores, a 20-year-old Mexican-American also from Houston, noted a cultural barrier to outdoor recreation.

For people who have spent limited time participating in outdoor sports, a sense of competitiveness, or an expectation of performance, can be a hindrance.

“I’ve noticed here that people have this mentality of always wanting to climb the hardest wall or hike the tallest mountain,” Flores said. “But in POCO, we’ve been able to create a culture where you do what helps you have fun outside.”

In the club, it doesn’t matter if you don’t finish the climbing wall you started or you move at a slow pace on a hike. You can still finish the hike, but you don’t have to be the fastest, she said.

“A lot of people come here and are like ‘Yeah, I hiked the Appalachian Trail during my gap year.’ And I go to POCO meetings and get to hear from students who have experienced the outdoors here so differently,” Quintero said. “We had a girl from Ethiopia say, ‘I’ve never ridden a bike before and now I’ve gone on a mountain biking trip. No one had any clue that I hadn’t even been on a bike two weeks earlier.’ ”

POCO oversees an equipment scholarship intended to minimize the cost of outdoor gear — from jackets to mountain bikes — primarily intended for people of color who receive financial aid.

“You see people around on campus and they have their big brand-name jackets, and it means something to people who know what those brands are,” Quintero said. “But to people who’ve never been in the outdoors, especially for people of color, it’s like, ‘As long as you have a jacket, let’s go have some fun.’ ”

Frances Mize is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at fmize@vnews.com or 603-727-3242.

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