Local Stories

Local Stories: Alex Bailey On A Mission To Reconnect Black Youth To The Outdoors

Alex Bailey is the executive director of Black Outside, Inc., a non-profit organization that focuses on expanding outdoor opportunities to black youth through nature-based programming.

Alex Bailey served as a camp counselor for three summers at one of the country’s premier overnight boy’s camps and taught in the classroom for four years. Throughout his experiences as a camp counselor and educator, he saw the lack of representation in the outdoors, which has predominantly white participants. His life changing experience in nature fueled his passion for the outdoors, which led him on a unique journey to change the narrative surrounding communities of color and the outdoors, particularly the black community. In 2019, Bailey founded Black Outside, Inc., a non-profit organization that focuses on expanding outdoor opportunities to black youth through nature-based programming.

Bailey explains, “after spending seven years in education, I became fed up with the lack of culturally relevant outdoor education opportunities for our kids and decided to start an organization that addresses the problem head-on. Interests are outdoors, hiking, camping, and exploring new parks.”

Black Outside, Inc. is based in San Antonio, Texas and serves as the parent organization to programs with aligned missions: Camp Founder Girls, Brotherhood Summit, Eastside Explores and Bloom Project.

Black Outside, Inc. has served 194 youth across San Antonio and is projected to reach over 275 youth this summer.

What led you to San Antonio, Texas?

I came to Texas by way of Teach For America with an initial passion to teach black and brown students. I became an educator after never having had a Black male teacher my entire K-12 experience. After teaching for four years, I became an instructional coach/manager which brought me to San Antonio where I saw how disconnected nature was for kids of color, particularly those in Title I schools.

In order to move the needle on diversity in the outdoors and ensure our community has equitable “re-entry” points to the outdoors we partner with schools to provide day-long outdoor programming.

What is Black Outside and how did it come to fruition?

Black Outside is a non-profit organization that reconnects Black youth to the outdoors through diverse nature-based programming. We intentionally use the word “Re” Connect, because Black people have been in the outdoors for centuries; through both tragic and triumphant means. In order to move the needle on diversity in the outdoors and ensure our community has equitable “re-entry” points to the outdoors we partner with schools to provide day-long outdoor programming. Additionally, we have a summer overnight camp: Camp Founder Girls which our organization resurrected from the pages of Black history last year. It was America’s first summer camp for Black girls.

Furthermore, we have a weekend boy’s camp called the Brotherhood Summit and lastly we recently helped launch the Charles Roundtree Bloom project, an outdoor healing justice program for youth of incarcerated families. Our hope is that our community can see there is no “one-way” to outdoors nor is it simply for white people.

What sparked your interest in the outdoors and how do your experiences connect with what you hope to be true for Black youth?

Growing up, I remember walking around our neighborhood with my grandfather in Mansfield, Ohio. Peace and tranquility his soul radiated when we spent time watering plants in his garden. My step-father was the one who taught me more extensive fishing skills and took me on some of my first camping experiences. I always remembered the silence of nature and the serene sound of the flowing rivers when we would go outside in the midwest.

During college, I stumbled upon a job as a summer camp counselor. It was my first time camping in the mountains. We spent time kayaking, hiking, swimming, and playing sports outdoors everyday with kids and I saw the transformative power it had. As amazing as it was, it broke my heart to see the lack of brown and black kids in our program and I always dreamed of a program for them.

My hope is that outdoor programming can cultivate a deeper connection to self, a greater love of our beautiful culture, and a deeper appreciation and relationship with nature.

I realized in many cases, my most challenging students were many times projecting a deeper frustration of the failures of the education system.

Do you feel that your time in the classroom equipped you with transferable skills, specifically with the work you do now?

Absolutely, both in my time in the classroom and as an instructional coach, I learned that building healthy relationships with students is the most vital component for impact.  Over the course of my four years in the classroom, I  experienced the beauty, joy, and sometimes pain of relationship-building. Students at times brought so much life to my work and there were times where there was challenge, but I realized in many cases, my most challenging students were many times projecting a deeper frustration of the failures of the education system. Over time I had to learn how to cope with witnessing this first hand and skills to navigate, repair and build trust with my students.

Similarly, our community has been disenfranchised from outdoor programming for years. As I build programming, I think about the student who has no desire to go to the outdoors. I have to ask myself, how can I build 1-2 days of programming that will allow them to see the magic, wonder, and history of the outdoors and its connection to our culture?

Inspiring and surreal are two words that come to mind when I think about our impact in less than a year of operation.

Creating something of your own is powerful. Thinking back to the beginning, how have you seen your vision play out?

When I first began, I actually just wanted a summer camp for title I students. My hopes were to create a summer program similar to the one I worked at in New Hampshire. Over time, I realized there was a greater need for our community, particularly for Black students which led to the inception of Black Outside, Inc.

Inspiring and surreal are two words that come to mind when I think about our impact in less than a year of operation. Our community from all racial backgrounds has been so receptive to this vision. Seeing it manifest into a diversity of programming for our students has been powerful and allowed us to expand our impact.

You’re passionate about the work you do and it shows through the relationships you’ve established, the drive and effort you put in and how selfless you are. This leads me to ask, who or what shaped you into who you are today?

The deep love my grandparents showed for not only me but their community inspires me to this day. Until almost the last years of their lives, I saw them continually give of their time, money, and wisdom to people from all walks of life. Seeing my grandmother sew blankets for families in need until the late hours of the night in her 80s. Following my grandfather into nursing homes weekly where he checked on the sick and shut-in. It was powerful to see how their love had a ripple effect in their small town of Mansfield, Ohio. It shaped me and molded into the servant-leader I strive to be today.

What is significant about the city of San Antonio, Texas? Do you have hopes to expand your work outside of Texas?

The first time, I visited San Antonio, I remember feeling a sense of home and comfort. For me, the importance of family and the fact that San Antonio is “a big small town” has always resonated with me. Lastly, Black people in San Antonio have accomplished so much here locally despite accounting for less than 10% of the population. It’s powerful to step into that legacy and launch a groundbreaking non-profit that has been recognized nationally for its work.

For now, we actually hope to stay in San Antonio. We hope Black Outside, Inc can be a model for other non-profits to think differently about outdoor education. We hope to scale deep in our community versus “wide” into other cities.

For me, I try not to spend too much of my energy focusing on the doubt that sometimes surrounds us and instead, I focus on the positive energy that our movement has attracted and how we can continue to align our vision to impact our community.

What challenges have you faced in this work and what keeps you grounded?

I’ve received a lot of no’s in my work. I was rejected from multiple fellowships and funding opportunities; some even twice. We’ve been told our idea lacked the power to “attract funders” or “families of color,” yet here we sit having served over 170+ students!  For me, I try not to spend too much of my energy focusing on the doubt that sometimes surrounds us and instead, I focus on the positive energy that our movement has attracted and how we can continue to align our vision to impact our community.

If Harriet can hike hundreds of miles to liberate our people, who are we to doubt we can get a few hundred black kids to hike!

Watch: TEDxSanAntonio “Recolor The Outdoors”

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