Thank you to 2021 COBS alumnus, Riya Chandra, for submitting this inspiring story about youth activism, service, and community building in the outdoors.
The summer after my sophomore year of high school I was fortunate to go on a two week rock climbing and backpacking Colorado Outward Bound School (COBS) adventure through the Rocky Mountains. After a long time, I found myself completely immersed in nature. This experience sparked a deep interest in the outdoors and of the possibilities it opened for me.
Amid the pandemic when the world was full of uncertainty, I too had lost direction. The COBS experience meant a lot to me because when I went on my COBS trip, I was trying to cope with a traumatic experience of social exclusion in my school. On the trip, nature was there to give guidance. For me, it was the sound of streams, whispering winds, the chirping of birds, and the evening stars. The more time I spent exploring the outdoors, the more I began to appreciate nature as a form of healing. Slowly, I harnessed the strength and motivation the outdoors gave me and found a way forward.
The more time I spent exploring the outdoors, the more I began to appreciate nature as a form of healing.
Upon my return, as I hiked more in my neighborhood in Westchester NY and in other NY State parks, I kept the COBS experience in my mind as a constant source of motivation. However, as I continued to traverse the outdoors, I found myself in the minority. I was always one of the few girls of color. As I researched the topic of diversity in hiking and read newspapers and research articles, I was alarmed at the findings on the systemic factors that disadvantage people of color from hiking experiences. Historically, outdoor spaces in America have not been inclusive. I learnt that families of color are less likely to go hiking on a regular basis than white families as there are many systemic disparities that stem from socio-economic differences and unequal access to information.
…as I continued to traverse the outdoors, I found myself in the minority. I was always one of the few girls of color.
As I became more curious, I reached out to a few women leaders of local hiking groups such as Brown Girls Climb and Young Women Who Crush to gain deeper insight into these issues and seek support for hiking groups for people of color (POC). I also got in touch with my program coordinator at COBS, Ms. Jackie Kuusinen. Together we brainstormed, and the idea of HYPE: GIRLS (Hiking Youth Program for Equity: Girls) was born!
My hope is to empower more girls of color to claim outdoors spaces as their own. When one doesn’t own the right equipment or live in an area where open spaces are easily accessible, the outdoors can be really intimidating.
“I want to bring my experiences to my peers so that they could grow to appreciate nature the same way I do; to realize the mental health benefits of being outdoors, and to feel ‘included’ in historically marginalized spaces.”
I want to bring my experiences to my peers so that they could grow to appreciate nature the same way I do; to realize the mental health benefits of being outdoors, and to feel ‘included’ in historically marginalized spaces. I want to help them connect to the outdoors and develop their own relationship with nature as a way of coping and self-discovery.
HYPE: GIRLS is now an established program for teenage girls of color. We have been on several hikes over the past year and more and more girls are joining.
The program promotes passion and curiosity for the outdoors, encouraging teenagers to step beyond their comfort zones and experience something new.
The program promotes passion and curiosity for the outdoors, encouraging teenagers to step beyond their comfort zones and experience something new. Through collaboration, members can connect with peers from similar backgrounds and develop a sense of community. The program offers hikes, nature walks, and guest lecture series (e.g. mental health counselor, dietitian). Since HYPE’s focus is also on promoting wellness and mental health support for teenage girls of color, an area that is often overlooked, the program aims to create spaces where issues can be thoroughly discussed, and girls feel safe in sharing their stories and perspectives.
As I have begun to assume leadership responsibilities, I have joined training forums to develop my leadership skills such as the leadership council of Girls Inc. I completed my CPR certification and focused on my own personal training by doing harder regional hikes like Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield in Vermont. My greatest hiking accomplishment was this summer when I was very lucky to be able to go to Tanzania with my father, and successfully summit Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa and higher than any mountain in Europe! As I stood on the roof of Africa (quite literally!) I was overcome with pride and joy. It was a deeply spiritual moment. Something inside me changed. It showed me how far I can push myself and it taught me the importance of training and having self-confidence.
I feel energized to bring my experiences to others and to continue to expand my work to make nature and the outdoors accessible to more and more youth.
An idea that sprouted from my COBS summer trip has grown into something big and meaningful in just one year! It gives me hope. I feel energized to bring my experiences to others and to continue to expand my work to make nature and the outdoors accessible to more and more youth.
Riya Chandra is an 11th grade student at Hastings High School in Westchester, New York. She founded the non-profit HYPE GRILS after a Colorado Outward Bound School rock climbing and backpacking expedition in 2021. As a girl of color who loves the outdoors and hiking, her mission is to share her experiences with other girls of color. To learn more about HYPRE GIRLS visit https://www.hypegirls.org/