As a Cuban-American kid growing up in Miami, Katie Boué found solace in the flat Florida swamplands that surrounded her family’s home. Her parents encouraged her to spend time outside, basking in the sunshine, rooting around in the dirt, and befriending earthworms.
“I was raised on literally the most basic version of what it means to be outdoors, and I never realized what a special thing that was until I got older,” Boué recalls.
Years later, a date took her to a climbing gym. While the occasion didn’t result in a romance, Boué left with a new love: rock climbing.
“Through climbing, I was introduced to the idea of public land and the idea of sharing wild spaces,” she says. “The outdoors hold such special experiences and allow us to live these joyous lives and connect with each other and with the earth.”
Joining the climbing community also taught Boué that Mother Nature’s implied “All Are Welcome Here” sign is often obscured by environmental loss and destruction as well as generations of gatekeeping. She began to recognize all the reasons the outdoors might feel unsafe or unwelcoming to marginalized communities. These may include racism, the prohibitive cost of gear or joining clubs, and the misguided belief that there’s a right (and wrong) way to be outdoorsy.
A personal reckoning with these injustices — and her own privilege as a white, able-bodied woman — transformed into a call to action.
In 2019, after years of working as a professional climber, community organizer, and consultant for organizations like Outdoor Alliance and the Outdoor Industry Association, Boué launched the Outdoor Advocacy Project, a community-based initiative geared toward empowering outdoorists of all types to step up as advocates. The organization focuses on education and action, offering workshops, digital resources, advocacy campaigns, summits, and rallies around two intricately intertwined issues: environmental protection and land stewardship, and inclusion and access.
“Outdoor advocacy is environmental justice is social justice,” Boué explains. “They are one and the same, all intersecting as part of a big web, and you cannot have one without the others. As users of natural resources, we have an obligation to take care of them, because we love them and because we need them and because they cannot take care of themselves. And when we protect the land, we are also protecting people and communities.”
Boué, 32, has traded life in Florida for the mountains and deserts of Utah, now living in Salt Lake City with her partner and their dog. But, she says, her Miami roots are a part of everything she does.
“It’s a bit of a stereotype, but you know, Cubans, we are loud people. If we are joyous, you will know about it. If we’re angry, you will know about it. If something is wrong, I can’t not yell about it. Additionally, Cuban culture is so based on family and community. Those things — being loudmouthed and being passionate about community care — have really been a huge part of my identity and are my greatest strengths as an advocate, as a friend, as a steward of the land.”
Q & A With Katie Boué
Experience Life | Your work is largely devoted to the idea of increasing inclusion and access to the outdoors. How do you respond to people who argue, “Well, it’s a free country and everyone has the same rights to use public lands”?
Katie Boué | You hear that a lot: “The outdoors are for everyone, the outdoors don’t discriminate.” And, yes, maybe nature doesn’t discriminate, but the people who we’re sharing nature with do. We need to have a really honest reckoning about the role that the outdoor community plays in perpetuating racism and bigotry in the outdoors.
For many groups in our country, the outdoors is connected to trauma. We don’t spend enough time talking about that, and a lot of people don’t understand that historically, for many folks, the outdoors is where they went to die.
The idea of going outside to enjoy nature and find peace and healing doesn’t apply for everyone. And if we want that to apply for everyone, we all need to collectively do the work to create liberation in the outdoors for everyone. The outdoors isn’t for all until we commit to doing the work to make it for all.
EL | You are vocal in speaking out against barriers to entry for those who want to participate in outdoor activities. What are some of those barriers?
KB | Gatekeeping comes in many forms. There is the low-key and sometimes high-key racism. There’s the cost of buying or renting gear for specific activities. Part of the reason I don’t ski, and probably will never learn, is because it takes over a thousand dollars in gear investment to get started. It’s really expensive, and that is an immediate kind of halt for people who want to get outside but maybe don’t have all that money to drop on an activity that maybe you’ll like and maybe you won’t.
Another example is around the idea of who is and isn’t outdoorsy enough — whether you have the “right” gear or the “right” look, whether you go “extreme” enough. There are many euphemisms for being “enough” and “not enough,” and I’ve certainly felt that in climbing.
I think we’ve had an opportunity to start examining that from a more critical lens and realize that “outdoorsy” isn’t a qualification. If you want to go outside, you are outdoorsy, and I think it’s really cool to see the community breaking down that kind of gatekeeping culture that says you need to do X, Y, Z in order to qualify as an outdoorsy person.
EL | How has your relationship with the outdoors changed?
KB | I used to really focus on climbing hard routes or getting out there on big trips and kind of doing the most extreme thing I could. What I realize now is that my greatest joy outdoors is growing a garden in my backyard.
I had never in my life had the permission to explore a different relationship with the outdoors, but in 2020 and through this pandemic, I think we’ve all been forced to reevaluate those relationships, to explore different ways of getting that peace and joy.
It used to take traveling a few hours to the desert to go camping to light up my life, but now I just sit outside on my patio for five minutes and I can soak up that same level of joy because I have permission to do the outdoors in whatever way feels right.
EL | What does a perfect day in the outdoors look like for you?
KB | I would wake up a few hours before my partner and my dog and go out into the gardens and just tend to my plants and my seedlings. Then we would load up our van and drive a few hours down to the desert in Utah and camp for the night. You know, lounging on the sandstone and looking up at the Milky Way, listening to the juniper trees in the wind. The best of both worlds — home and the desert.
EL | What gives you hope for the future?
KB | Last year I did lose hope for a while. I was really, really down. It was so heavy and dark and bad. Finally, in November, that little spark of hope returned. It’s such an unfamiliar feeling, but I’m trying to lean in to it, and I think we have this opportunity to rebuild in a better way than before.
I recently sowed my first garden seeds, and I can’t think of a more literal example of hope for the future than these tiny pods of soil that I have with little seeds sitting in them, waiting for the right amount of sun and water to become my garden, which I’ll use to feed my family and my friends this coming year.
EL | If our readers could walk away from this article with one takeaway or action item, what would you hope that would be?
KB | If you love an outdoor space, which I can almost guarantee you do, take action to protect that place. Whether that’s the Grand Canyon or your local city park or your community garden, outdoor spaces need and deserve your advocacy.
Donate to a local conservation group, call your representatives to encourage them to take action on environmental protections, get your friends together to watch a film about an outdoor issue that you care about. Take one action today and take another tomorrow and keep taking actions until outdoor advocacy becomes an integrative habit in your life. It’s not just something you do; it becomes who you are.
This article originally appeared as “Wild Heart” in the June 2021 issue of Experience Life.