How Chelsea Murphy is harnessing the power of social media to help diversify the outdoors.
If you randomly stumbled upon Chelsea Murphy’s Instagram account, @she_colorsnature, you would probably assume that she grew up in the outdoors.
It’s clear that getting outside is a priority for her, both on her own and with her family. It is also clear that she feels most alive and at home in nature.
More than Meets the Eye
But if you read the words beneath her photos, you would begin to see a more complex narrative unfold.
Behind the images, as always, there is more to the story.
Curating Courageous Content
It wouldn’t take long for you to learn that Chelsea is a black woman living in the almost entirely white mountain town of Leavenworth, Washington.
You might pick up on the fact that she didn’t truly uncover her connection with the outdoors until about seven years ago. This is when she moved to Leavenworth, where her husband is from and where their interracial family now makes their home.
If you keep scrolling through her feed, you will see her consistently uplifting other black, brown, and indigenous voices in the outdoor community.
You will witness her promoting diverse children’s literature and reminding her followers that black people DO. They DO hike, they DO climb, they DO camp, they DO snowboard. Even though they are woefully underrepresented in the outdoor industry as a whole.
You will discern that she is deeply engaged in promoting diversity in the outdoor community. You’ll see that she is committed to helping other families of color break through the barriers many of them face to living an outdoor lifestyle.
There’s Room for Everyone Here
If you are white, like me, you might begin to feel challenged to be more conscious of the role you play in upholding these barriers. You might initially feel a bit defensive, helpless, or surprised by some of the words Chelsea shares.
But if you press into that space – even just a bit – you will undoubtedly find yourself blessed by her wisdom.
Her grace and authenticity will quickly disarm you, as you realize that you have stumbled upon a truly unique space within the often complicated and dispiriting social media landscape.
This is where I find myself. And this is why I wanted to share a bit more of Chelsea’s brilliance with the Tales of a Mountain Mama community.
I have learned so much from her. And I believe that listening to her truth is helping me become a better mom, better friend, and better human being. Interviewing her for this post was an absolute honor.
So grab yourself a warm beverage. Settle into your favorite chair. Allow yourself to get to know this fellow mama. I promise it will be a gift, and I hope that she will inspire you as much as she has inspired me.
The Trailhead – Where it all Began
You would never know it by looking at her life today, but camping and hiking weren’t really part of Chelsea’s family story growing up.
She remembers always wanting to be outdoors, spending long days at the beach and biking, boarding, or blading around her neighborhood in San Diego. But her only camping memories were from a brief stint as a Girl Scout in California and then a handful of trips with friends’ families after she moved north to Tacoma, Washington.
She has incredibly fond memories of those few trips, and of the friends who included her on their family adventures to Offut Lake, Lake Chelan, and the outskirts of Mt. Rainier.
“Looking back, there have always been those monumental people placed in my life here and there that just connected me with nature and reminded me that I do like being outside. And all these people that have made these connections, these are still my key people to this day.”
Finding Home in the Hills
The spark had been lit inside of her. But for the most part it remained dormant until she met her husband and relocated to Leavenworth, Washington.
Suddenly she found herself in this outdoor mecca nestled in the North Cascade mountains of central Washington. A Bavarian-themed tourist town, Leavenworth draws thousands of climbers, hikers, rafters, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts throughout the year.
“When I first moved here, I didn’t really know anyone except for my husband and his family. It was pretty scary. And then one of my girlfriends literally just asked me if I wanted to go hiking with her. Out of my whole background I had never really gone on an official hike, I guess you could say. So I agreed. ‘Sure! I’ll go walk up this mountain with you, that sounds easy! There’s a trail!.’”
As Chelsea is telling me this story, a smile spreads across her face. She recalls how much she ended up hating that first hike up Icicle Ridge.
She laughs deeply as she describes her internal monologue at the time. This girl hates me! Why would she bring me here? I don’t understand…it’s dusty, it’s dirty, we saw a snake that we had to go around, and I’m never going to see my family again! The memory is still fresh.
But her friend kept inviting her.
“She was very persistent. She kept telling me, ‘This is so good for you and it’s what people do around here.’ So I kept going with her. Honestly it was just the fact that she kept roping me in and driving me to the trail, because I was still postpartum at the time. I didn’t want to get out and do something like that…but maybe at the same time I did? It’s hard to say. Anyways, we have a great friendship now and still laugh about the time that she dragged me up the mountain.”
(Check out this post by TMM Team Member Emily for some great tips on bouncing back to adventure after baby!)
The Floodgates Are Opened
Again, relationship had opened the door to a new experience and broken through a barrier of unfamiliarity. Within the context of a safe, trusted friendship Chelsea was able to press through discomfort. On the other side she found a lifeline and a source of unparalleled joy.
She started trail running, and later that year completed her first half-marathon. The momentum from those first couple of hikes carried her into a whole new world.
A few years and another child later, the outdoors is everything to Chelsea. She is dedicated to getting out every single day, either by herself or with her two young daughters in tow.
Everything’s Better Outside
Whether it’s a longer day hike on one of the countless local alpine trails or a quick out-and-back with her girls, she is ultra-focused on spending at least 30 minutes outside.
She strongly believes that the time outside benefits every aspect of their family life. She feels a difference in everything from their attitudes to how well they all sleep at night.
“Where we live right now we have such a small window of daylight that we have to just get out there and beat the sun. Having a child in school who gets home by 3, and knowing that the sun sets at 4, we have to just come in the door and get right back out again. Whether it’s at the park or on a trail, we’ve been really diligent about this since the beginning of the year and it has been great. My house is dirty, but that’s fine. We’re not inside anyways!”
Can I get an “Amen” to that?!?
Wayfinding – Discovering Her Voice
When Chelsea first started her Instagram account, @she_colorsnature, she saw it as a potential avenue for connection. She knew that she had a unique perspective to share, being a black woman in a mountain town, and she was also feeling the loneliness of that space.
“We’re about to take the census here in Leavenworth, and in 2010 black people did not even register. I mean zero percent. It’s just not a thing, and I’m feeling it every day. When I go to the store, when I go out on the trails, unless there is a big festival or something, I just don’t see people who look like me.”
Chelsea describes herself as a natural encourager, a cheerleader, and someone who loves to bring people together.
She saw the cliques that existed in her own community, people segregating themselves primarily by their outdoor hobbies and rarely interacting outside of those circles.
She also felt the nagging isolation of fitting in everywhere and also fitting in nowhere within that paradigm.
“The rock climbers hang out, the bikers hang out, the hikers hang out, the stay-at-home moms hang out, the working moms hang out…that’s just how people pull together here. I’m kind of a hodgepodge. I want to try all of those things and I am all of those things.”
And so, using Instagram as her medium, she began to express what she was feeling and experiencing.
Seek and You Shall Find
Chelsea always had the intention of encouraging other black people to get outdoors, but she also longed to figure out where she fit into the broader community of moms.
And as her network of followers has grown steadily over the last year, so has her confidence in the power of social media to be a force for good.
“I get a lot of messages from people of all colors, whether they are black and they relate to my experiences or they’re white and they want to know more. It’s been a really awesome thing that has promoted growth in my life. When I got started I was just searching for something, I think. And I do believe I’ve found it.”
Anyone who follows her can attest to her ability to be a welcoming, positive, connecting, unapologetic, and challenging voice in what can be an extremely negative space.
She brings both remarkable grace and invaluable truth to the conversation about race and representation in the outdoor industry.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
While she is not shy about sharing examples of feeling isolated and marginalized as a black woman in outdoor spaces, she is also not shy about empowering herself and others to change that narrative.
One beautiful example of this can be found in the ongoing “Hair School” story highlight on her Instagram page. She has spent countless hours figuring out natural hairstyles for both herself and her daughters that enable them to spend as much time as possible adventuring outdoors.
“Hair School” contains a whole series of videos that detail her process, empowering other black moms to address one of the many barriers they can face in getting outside more with their kids.
At the same time, she educates those of us outside of the black community so that we can be more sensitive, inclusive, and understanding when we invite our black friends to hike and camp and play outdoors with us.
This concept of breaking down barriers is incredibly important to Chelsea in the way that she lives her life and the way that she shares her story through social media.
She is relatively new to living an outdoors-oriented lifestyle, and still finds herself coming up against factors that many people of color face in getting outside consistently.
Trip Report – Acknowledging the Obstacles
When it comes to getting out into nature, one of the significant barriers many people of color face is a lack of generational knowledge.
Even when she started to develop the interest in trying different outdoor activities, Chelsea found that she often didn’t know where to start. She didn’t know what gear she needed, what to wear, what to expect.
“Not having the knowledge leads to fear which then leads to thinking, ‘Why am I even thinking that I want to do this in the first place?’ It leads to doubt, ‘Am I adequate enough? Can I do this?’ Which then leads to, well, you’re probably just not going to do it because you feel like too many things are in your way and up against you.”
Historically, accessibility to outdoor spaces has been a significant issue for black and brown communities.
Unpacking Our Baggage
Throughout our country’s history, people of color have been barred from owning land. Families have been pushed into highly populated urban areas by discriminatory housing policies. Many even had land literally taken out from under them during the Jim Crow era.
Because of this a significant number of black families, like Chelsea’s growing up, have simply lacked exposure to outdoor activities. They weren’t raised by parents who hiked, camped, climbed, skied, or snowboarded.
“My mom didn’t hike, but I took her hiking and she loved it. But her mom didn’t hike, and her grandma didn’t hike, and so it’s this generational thing that goes on and on. And if I can break that, which I have, it’s crucial.”
Another significant obstacle for a lot of black families, which is tied in a lot of ways to the same historical injustices related to land and housing, is economic feasibility. This is an area that Chelsea is especially passionate about and works hard to address on her Instagram account.
“A big part of my account is showing people how to be outdoorsy in a frugal manner. Because that’s what I have to do. My husband and I have never been big spenders because that’s just my comfort zone and it’s better for our wallets and for the planet. I’m trying to show people that you can get around spending a bunch of money. There are ways you can make things more accessible.”
The Reality of Racism
The final barrier that Chelsea is seeking to raise awareness of is the fear of racism that many people of color carry into predominantly white outdoor spaces.
“I’m just being honest – it’s something that people have to think about. Just last year there was a woman at a KOA campground who pulled a gun on a black couple. It was scary. Your life is in actual danger sometimes when you’re living as a person of color. It’s so unnecessary, but so real. That probably didn’t help people when they saw that on the news. If they thought they were going camping, now they probably won’t. Because something like that could happen.”
Even though she is well-known in her own community, Chelsea describes often receiving strange looks walking to and from local campsites.
In almost every outdoor space that she occupies, she is one of the only people she sees that looks like her. She knows that these issues run deep in our country, and that most white people are unaware just how significant they still are today.
“When I bring this up, white people are typically shocked. It’s maybe not intentional, but it’s blindness. They’re just unaware of the impact of their actions. And reverse impact – how much could you do if you just tried a little? What would it look like for companies, businesses, and individual people to actually dig deeper and promote diversity and inclusion instead of just talking about it? Think about the good that would do for so many people.”
Trail Maintenance – A Call to Action
Here’s where Chelsea’s passion really shines through. For every issue she raises, she genuinely believes that there is something each of us can do to address it.
And it all starts with our own selves and our own families.
“As for what individuals can do, some people don’t even think that privilege is a thing. So that’s a great place to start. If you’re still in the boat where you think that the color of your skin didn’t have any effect on where you are today, then you aren’t ready for the next part of the conversation. Start there. You can’t talk about diversity and inclusion until you’ve talked about privilege and until you’ve started dismantling all of the things in our history that are completely centered around certain groups being privileged over other ones.”
Diversify Your Mind
For many families living in communities like Chelsea’s – mountain towns, outdoors-oriented communities, and rural spaces – there isn’t necessarily much of an option to expand their circle of face-to-face relationships to include more people that don’t look like them.
“If you don’t have the ability to actually submerge yourself in a diverse culture, the information that you’re putting into your head really matters. Start with your social media, your podcasts, the books you’re reading. You just have to break that down. Choose black authors. Shop at a place that’s uplifting indigenous voices. There are so many things that we can be doing, it’s about being mindful.”
The same goes for teaching our kids. Chelsea is a huge advocate for diversifying their bookshelves, ensuring that all kids are exposed to characters who don’t necessarily look like them.
Access to diverse books is an incredible source of hope for someone like Chelsea, who grew up in an environment where these conversations were just not happening.
“I spent all of my high school years as a closed door – I didn’t want to talk about these things. I noticed that I didn’t have very many black friends. Pretty much all of my friends were Caucasian, and I was ok with that at the time because it was just my normal. But I didn’t want to talk about the fact that I was different. People said things that made me feel super uncomfortable, but for some reason I still called them friends. I want to forgive them and think that they just didn’t know any better, but you can only do that for so long.”
Looking for some book ideas? Check out this post for a great list of diverse children’s literature, including several favorites that Chelsea shared with us.
Encouraging a New Dialogue
This is why she works so hard to open doors for conversation, even with those who may not initially understand or agree with her perspective.
Her desire is not for any individual white person to internalize guilt or shame surrounding these issues of racial justice and representation. Her deep desire is to create space for growth and increased understanding.
“White people have lived under a system that has worked so well for them. Honestly I can’t say I really blame them for being comfortable. I mean if the system worked as well for me, would I want to change it? If the roles were reversed, would I be up in arms about things changing? Maybe. But even though I can understand it, that doesn’t make it ok. I want to come with grace and compassion and say, ‘Here. Here are some tools to shed light where there is no light right now.’ If you want to take those questions and ask more questions, then you’re on your way to being an ally. Nothing happens overnight.”
She believes deep in her soul that we can grow so much as a country and as a society as we embrace diversity.
Likewise, she believes that all of us and all of our kids would benefit from living in a world where more voices are heard, more differences are embraced, and more perspectives are honored.
And finally, she reminds all of us that it all starts in our own houses, our own communities, and our own friend groups. It starts with us.
On Belay – Helping Other Moms Reach New Heights
When it comes to encouraging and empowering other mamas of color to get outside with their kids, Chelsea knows that fear and trauma can run deep.
She recognizes how important it is to acknowledge that many have grown up with the idea that black people just don’t go into nature.
She also knows all too well that the aforementioned obstacles of knowledge, accessibility, finances, and fear of racism can feel insurmountable.
For her, a change in perspective has been critical. She sees her time in nature as an option for therapy – a tool to help navigate generational trauma.
If getting outdoors is intimidating to you, Chelsea suggests adopting the mindset of caring for yourself. You don’t need to decide right away that you’re taking on a new hobby or lifestyle!
Simply see fresh air as nourishment for your soul. This can make the first steps onto the trail a bit less intimidating.
Find Your Bearings
She also recommends using the seemingly endless information that exists on the internet.
From Google to YouTube to blogs like this one, there is a wealth of knowledge out there. Use trusted resources to help build a basic sense of familiarity and preparedness before venturing out.
Apps like AllTrails provide directions, maps, and detailed trip reports. Most of them can be accessed as long as you’re within cell phone range.
(TMM Team Member Jackie has a great post on the Best Apps for Camping and Hiking if you’re looking for more ideas!)
Basic knowledge can go a long way towards increasing comfort in an unfamiliar space. So can trusted relationships.
Be Safe, Be Brave
When you go on your first hikes or adventures, go with someone who makes you feel comfortable. Be sure they won’t make you feel silly for being nervous, having questions, or just being your whole self.
Perhaps more than anything, though, her encouragement is to break down the thought that you shouldn’t be doing this.
It may not be glamorous.
It may not even be enjoyable the first time or two, as Chelsea experienced on that initial trip up Icicle Ridge.
Indeed, it’s OK to start small. A 20 minute nature walk through a park can be just as beneficial as summiting a mountain.
You don’t need fancy gear, you don’t need to feel like you’re getting a workout, and you don’t need to overthink it.
“If you go on a trail that’s high traffic, it’s really just walking – but in nature! Like walking through the city, but your landscape has changed. Go with the thought that this is a therapeutic thing, a clearing of the mind, an opportunity to breathe fresh air. I think that could be more settling to people.”
(Live in an urban environment? Or just don’t really consider yourself “outdoorsy”? Check out this post for some simple ways to expose your kids – and yourself – to the love of dirt!)
Find a Community
There are also a number of great organizations around the country that are organizing group hikes for people of color. Black Girl Trekkin’, GirlTrek, and Outdoor Afro are a few that are working hard to provide community support and opportunities to specifically help black women discover or rediscover their connection to the outdoors.
Leave Only Footprints – Living a Legacy
While issues of race and diversity are perhaps the most prominent areas Chelsea is addressing on her platform, she doesn’t stop there.
She is a passionate advocate for the planet, and she frequently shares how she and her girls are learning to take better care of the beautiful spaces they love to explore.
In addition, this year she rallied other local moms to bring their kids out for a weekly trash pickup hike. Together, they proved that you’re never too young to learn importance of Leave No Trace principles.
She hosted a yoga event for local moms and kids in her area and used it as a fundraiser for the Colville Tribe’s Children’s and Family Services – gathering donations, diapers, and clothes.
“It was this really awesome thing where I brought my community of moms, my hodgepodge of moms that I know and love, and they all came together. They were meeting each for the first time, and we all had a great time doing yoga. Their kids loved it and they were all texting me asking when we’re going to do it again.”
Big Dreams, Small Steps
Chelsea has far-reaching visions for other ways she can leave a positive and important imprint on the world around her. She has even considered starting a non-profit 5 or 10 years down the road.
But more than anything, she desires to remain open to seeing how she can live out her values in her day-to-day life as a mom, wife, sister, friend, and community member.
“It’s interesting how this Instagram account has kind of directed me. I’m really just along for the ride and up for anything. I work on the weekends which allows me to focus my time in a flexible way, and I’m loving building community in a way that just doesn’t exist right now. There is so much need in my community so I’m just here and waiting to see what’s next.”
Whatever is next for Chelsea Murphy, I have no doubt that she will continue to spread her incredibly contagious joy, hope, and passion.
She will continue to build a community that transcends race, class, religion, gender, and socioeconomic status.
She will also continue doing the insanely hard work of not just telling but actively showing her girls what kind of legacy she wants to leave on this planet.
And I, for one, feel incredibly fortunate that she has chosen to give the rest of us a little window into that journey.
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