By Emi Okikawa
Arunika Bhatia spent their college years leading hikes for other Students of Color. Having attended a Predominantly White Institution, spending time outdoors with other students forged Bhatia’s sense of community and connection.
“Something we’ve talked about on a lot of our hikes and trips are just about the way that nature allows us to build relationship with each other,” they say. “I think that talking about how critical the land has been to you and your families over history…makes you feel connected more with your ancestors through the land and to the people you’re with on these trips.”
So, when Bhatia moved to Seattle in 2020 amid a global pandemic, they wanted to find that familiar sense of belonging. After being introduced to groups like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro, which aim to support their respective communities in the outdoors, Bhatia began to wonder, Who was serving the Asian and Pacific Islander community? A cursory search led them to them to the Outdoor Asian Facebook page.
“It was just really exciting,” they say with a big smile, “because it turned out there was an equivalent [group] for Asian people.”
Now, they volunteer as an event coordinator for Outdoor Asian, planning trips, working with the leadership team, and leading organization management. At the time of the writing of this article, they are gearing up to lead their fourth trip in March through the Wing Luke Museum’s Seasonal Food Tour of the Seattle Chinatown-International District. Despite the upcoming logistics and their heavy work schedule, their eyes are alight with excitement.
Creating Outdoor Asian
Chris Chalaka first thought of the idea for Outdoor Asian in 2016, leading him to create the group’s main Facebook page, which Bhatia stumbled across. The page has since served as a beacon for others in the Asian and Pacific Islander diaspora looking to build community around a connection to the outdoors. Once the group had gained enough traction and support, Chalaka, along with cofounder and Washington Chapter Manager, Kaiwen Lee, officially launched Outdoor Asian with the mission of “creating a community of Asian & Pacific Islanders in the outdoors.”
Outdoor Asian has since grown to six chapters and a staff of 16. As their fiscal sponsor, Seattle Parks Foundation helps coordinate and manage Outdoor Asian’s grants by reimbursing expenses used to plan and execute events and programming. This year, Outdoor Asian has 18 trips planned around the state.
For many participants, the advent of Outdoor Asian filled a niche within the outdoor community, where People of Color often feel unwelcome. The “adventure gap” or “nature gap,” refers to the stark lack of diversity in who gets to enjoy the outdoors safely. According to the National Park Service’s most recent 10-year survey, out of all visitors to the 423 national parks, only 23% of visitors were People of Color; 77% were White people. Considering how People of Color make up 42% of the US population, this statistic is a call to action to the outdoors community to be more inclusive.
With multiple barriers to access—such as historic oppression, pervasive racism, lack of transportation, or affordability challenges—groups like Outdoor Asian are necessary to help under-resourced communities feel safe and welcome in outdoor spaces. Bhatia wishes that they had had access to a resource like Outdoor Asian when they were growing up:
“I think about how radically transformed my relationship to healing and trauma would’ve been if I had opportunities to get outside and be around people who looked like me and who made me feel safe.” They pause and then add, “I feel very motivated by this desire to expand this community and provide that sort of safe space for others.”
Since its creation, Outdoor Asian has hosted over 35 events and has engaged over 1,000 Asian and Pacific Islander community members across the Pacific Northwest. And there are no plans to slow down. Bhatia laughs as they list off all the of upcoming events this spring, excited for what 2022 has in store.
“Looking forward,” they say, “we’re really thinking about who we are not seeing in this space and what we can do to elevate people within Outdoor Asian leadership from different parts of the diaspora [and from] different backgrounds. We’re critically examining our own leadership practices and thinking about how to be more inclusive and thoughtful.”