Ambreen Tariq first explored U.S. public lands after she and her family immigrated to Minnesota from India when she was 8 years old. Camping with her family, Tariq found solace from the challenges of growing up as an immigrant in a place where so few of her classmates looked like her and where even simple tasks, like doing laundry, had to be relearned in the so-called American way.
“When we got to that campground,” Tariq remembers, “Our world sort of shifted onto very tangible problems and empowerment and positivity.”
It was freeing to zero-in on the necessities of food, water, and shelter. She reveled in the instant gratification of successfully pitching a tent or lighting a fire. But still, the challenges of life as an immigrant crept into her family’s campsite.
Photos courtesy of Ambreen Tariq
“There was obviously a culture of camaraderie that people shared that we definitely weren’t able to tap into. But we sort of kept to ourselves and we never expected anything else,” Tariq said of her early experiences on public lands. “When you’re an immigrant, you identify as being an outsider. That’s just normative: to be an outsider, to be looking in, and not really expect to be embraced in a communal way.”
After Tariq graduated from law school and got married, she and her husband decided to reintegrate outdoor activity into their lives. For Tariq, this was a conscious decision to ground her adult life in the feelings of joy and empowerment that she’d always found in the outdoors as a child.
Full-time office work can be stifling; the path to career advancement can seem capricious and littered with bureaucratic roadblocks. But outdoor activity offers a touchstone amidst the frustrations of the everyday. Activities like bringing together friends and family at a cookout in a city park or reaching a mountain summit after a difficult hike provide equally important feelings of achievement and fulfillment that are so often missing from the daily grind. To balance herself as she started her career, Tariq decided, “I need to find empowerment in other ways [than work] to lift my spirits and remind me that I’m capable of greatness, I’m capable of achieving my goals.”
When she hit the trail after so many years, however, Tariq was shocked to find that those who participated in outdoor recreation were largely just as homogenous as they were when she was a child. In 2016, 73 percent of all outdoor recreation participants was white. In 2014, nearly 80 percent of the National Park Service staff was white. This lack of representation in the culture of the outdoors is a significant barrier to access when it comes to outdoor recreation. So when Tariq got back out there, she said, “I felt like that immigrant child again—like an outsider—because of just the lack of diversity, how out-of-place I felt."
In response, Tariq decided to build and nurture the diverse community she’d always wanted to find in the outdoors. She started her Instagram account, @brownpeoplecamping, in August of 2016, just as the National Park Service celebrated its centennial with a media rollout that specifically highlighted the need to increase diversity among visitors to U.S. national parks.
While this rollout drew some attention to the social and economic barriers that prevent many people of color from visiting the nation’s public lands, Tariq has taken her work one step further, using her platform to explicitly name and interrogate those barriers and highlight the ways they shape the experiences of outdoor adventurers like her. Concerns about her own safety and skill level, social pressures about women’s roles, and anxiety around whether her presence would be welcomed or even accepted by the broader outdoors community have all given Tariq pause during her years adventuring in the outdoors. These and other concerns are common barriers that prevent many people of color and other marginalized communities from participating in outdoor recreation. “It’s really, really important that, as a nation, we have these honest conversations. That it’s not just, ‘Put some sneakers on and get out on the trail!' It’s just not that easy,” Tariq explained.
Above all, Tariq wants her followers to recognize that the outdoor experience is not a luxury. Rather, it is a basic human experience that provides opportunities to learn essential life skills, like problem-solving, perseverance, and self-care. The outdoor experience is more than just backpacking with expensive gear; it is also a walk down a suburban street or a game of pick-up soccer in a park.
“If we can all start to embrace that we are all outdoors people in that sense, then we will all feel a little bit more confident to explore and try new things and build a stronger love for the environment,” Tariq said.
With this expansive and inclusive view of the outdoors, Tariq opens up opportunities to build connections across communities. She encourages her followers to find their own place in the outdoors. “There’s so much to gain from whatever your authentic connection is to the outdoors. For me, it’s joy and empowerment.”
“There’s so many things that I struggle with in my daily life as a woman, from body image issues to [questions like], Am I being respected for my intelligence? Am I being taken seriously? Am I doing enough?” Tariq explained. “But when I get out there, there are no mirrors, there are no people that I’m thinking, How are they judging me? It’s me, it’s this activity, it’s my partner, and we have a list of things to do before the sun sets.”
In her Instagram posts, Tariq shares her struggles to learn outdoors skills and the guardedness she often feels in rural spaces where she’s experienced discrimination that has made her feel unwelcome and unsafe. Her posts show her challenging herself and finding empowerment in places where the media seldom shows women of color. (Activists like Tariq have helped push the outdoor industry to better represent diversity and inclusion in their ad campaigns and organizations, but this work is still ongoing.)
In the year since it started, @brownpeoplecamping has grown in unexpected ways and connected Tariq with fellow activists, allies, and critics who have all contributed to her focus and strengthened her belief in the importance of diversifying access to our public lands. And Tariq’s Instagram account has become a vehicle to challenge the lack of representation of people of color in the broader outdoor media. She ends each of her posts with the question, “How will you help diversify our public lands?” The question serves not only to encourage other people of color to join her outdoors, but also to challenge white allies to use their privilege to make the outdoors a safer, more inclusive space for everyone.
“I just speak for myself and I try and be open about all the different identities that I identify with—as a woman, as a woman of color, as a person of color, as someone who grew up immigrant, as a Muslim American, as a city person,” Tariq said of her strategy. “All of these experiences, identities, add dimension to the lens through which you view the world. And you bring that with you when you make yourself vulnerable and try something new, like venturing into the outdoors and rural spaces.”
Sharing her story through social media and seeing it connect with followers from all walks of life has showed Tariq the power of storytelling. But more than that, it has shown her the power of her own authentic voice.
This realization was transformative. Initially, Tariq was hesitant to frame her project around her story. “This is a common theme I’ve heard among friends and so I can make a generalization of women of color or women: We’re just not as comfortable being at the center of the storytelling,” Tariq said.
But the time constraints of her full-time job forced her to overcome this hesitancy and share her own story, rather than curate the experiences of others. “I thought, You know what, why don’t I be my own testimony? ... Instead of me working to carve someone else’s quote, I’m just going to be my own quote! That was so profound for me and so uncomfortable for me.”
"But more than that, it has shown her the power of her own authentic voice."
This leap toward vulnerability was worth it for Tariq. Not only has she connected with followers across the country, but she’s also represented her cause at conferences, met other activists, helped nurture a community of white allies, and worked with brands to include better representation in their marketing. But more than that, Tariq has created the inclusive space she’d always wanted to find on the trail.
“I have, strangely enough, used this digital world to create my space in the natural world,” Tariq said. “It really does take that community to give you creative confidence in the outdoors.”
As she’s seen so many people connect with her story, Tariq has found that a person’s own experiences provide them with the best tools for advocacy. Sharing these experiences with others can grow community. We all have a role in pushing our workplaces or favorite brands to become leaders in diversity, equity, and inclusion. Success in this goal, Tariq said, “genuinely comes from finding your strength in your story.”
Emily Haynes is an editor and writer who lives in Washington, D.C.