Future of Us: The pandemic brought Americans outside, but racial barriers remain

A person poses for a portrait
Duluth nature photographer and author Dudley Edmondson poses for a portrait in Duluth on Feb. 1. Edmondson says “that bizarre combination of the murder of George Floyd, the pandemic and [Black birdwatcher] Christian Cooper” opened the door to make outdoor recreation more welcoming.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

This story is part of a series called “Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

The pandemic brought Americans outdoors in a big way. Remember sold-out bikes and snowshoes? Patios in the dead of winter? What Duluth nature photographer and author Dudley Edmondson remembers most from those days is who was getting outside. 

“There was a time when I thought that I was the only Black birdwatcher in America,” Edmondson said. “And in the last three years, I have met and spent time with literally dozens of Black birdwatchers. And that has to do with that bizarre combination of the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic.”

What happened to Christian Cooper was also a factor. Cooper is the Black man who was birdwatching in Central Park in 2020 when a white woman, Amy Cooper, who is unrelated, called the police on him. 

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At the same time that more Americans were embracing outdoor recreation — up 20 percent, according to one study — many were also reckoning with systemic racism. Cooper’s story underscored how that racism often plays out in nature. 

Edmondson and other outdoor enthusiasts sought to change that

“I've spent quite a bit of time trying to get people, particularly people of color, to make that connection to nature in hopes that it would help them deal with stress a little better,” Edmondson said. “Disproportionately, people of color have higher levels of stress in this country than white folks do, just because of systemic racism. And I think we've gotten too comfortable with the higher levels of stress that we deal with. I just want people to understand that finding green space, getting out into nature, can be very therapeutic and mentally healthy.”

But while the past three years have raised interest in outdoor recreation and highlighted gaps in who is most likely to access it, barriers for people of color remain. Edmondson described a white neighbor who threatened to call the police when she saw him photographing wildflowers for a book.

“She was 100 percent convinced that what I was doing was actually photographing the contents of all of my white neighbors’ homes so that I could come back and steal what was in their homes,” he said. “She literally said, ‘You don't look like a nature photographer I've ever seen before.’” 

Edmondson said many of the people he took on excursions during the pandemic had experienced similar racist incidents or were hesitant to get outdoors because they feared they would.

“If you think that racism in America is dead, you have not been paying attention,” he said. “I think at the moment it feels like it's almost as strong as it was decades ago. But I think the reason that is the case is because I think it's in its death throes.” 

Edmondson said he has seen conservation organizations bring more people of color into their work in recent years and encourages them to continue those efforts. Moving forward, he also wants to see governments put more of their dollars toward urban greenspaces. He said they can be a stepping stone to get more people of color involved in outdoor recreation.

“A friend of mine once said that they didn't think a tree in Yosemite was any more important than a tree in, say, Compton or West Philadelphia. A tree is a tree. It does the same thing wherever it is; it’s sequestering carbon and producing oxygen,” Edmondson said. “We should put as much money into urban green spaces as we do into some of our national treasures. Invest in that stuff.”

Hear the full conversation with Dudley Edmondson using the audio player above.