As an acclaimed skydiver, an active hiker, and a military veteran, Danielle Williams is nothing short of fearless when it comes to facing the great outdoors. But for all her experience, she says it hasn’t always been easy to find other Black women to connect with in the “outdoors community.”
Growing up in a military family in the suburbs of D.C., Williams hiked and biked almost daily — but as she got older, she began to note the glaring absence of diversity in the outdoor spaces she frequented. And upon entering the realm of skydiving, that void became even more apparent. So, in recent years, she’s vowed to do something about it: As the founder and senior editor of Melanin Base Camp, an editorial platform launched in 2016 to promote accessibility in outdoor adventure sports, she oversees a team of writers who blog about biking, climbing, base jumping, and more. In 2018, Williams broadened the scope of her advocacy with the launch of Diversify Outdoors, a broader coalition of independent influencers leveraging their collective followings to promote diversity in outdoor spaces through brand partnerships, awareness plays, and the use of the movement’s eponymous hashtag.
Of course, these days, Williams’ adventures are being kept to a minimum while she stays close to home due to the pandemic. “I’m on immunosuppressive medications, so I have not been getting outside — or anywhere — as much as I would like,” she says. Still, even while staying indoors, she’s excited to continue creating content that encourages all folks to get outside. “We're not just writing about the most difficult hikes. We want to make sure that our writing is very accessible and user-friendly,” she explains. “For anyone who’s new to the outdoors, we’re making sure they feel welcome. We’re making content that makes sense for them.”
And right now in particular, while so many facets of daily life are more difficult than ever before, the open air can be an entirely necessary enrichment. That’s why we sat down with Williams for a better look at how she cultivated her love of adventure, and how she’s making space for women of color in the outdoors at large.
Did you grow up participating in “adventure sports”?
I come from a large family and we spent a lot of time outdoors together. I don't think I heard the word “hiking” until I was older — but we did a lot of walking. My mom was also into running, and I picked up a love of running from her. Both my parents were in the military, so we stayed very active. Plus, we grew up in the suburbs, so I rode my bike everywhere I went.
How did you get into skydiving?
The first time I jumped out of a plane was after my sophomore year of college. I always knew I wanted to enroll in the army — which was reassuring when I was in college because I was graduating in 2008 during the recession. When I joined ROTC, I did a great deal of parachuting — which also involves jumping from planes. But I didn't do my first proper skydive until I was 25, on my birthday.
Who were some of the Black women that you looked to as you began to develop a love for new outdoor activities?
When it comes to skydiving, I didn't know any Black women when I got started in the sport, and wouldn't meet any until much later. It's not that Black women don't skydive — we just have a high rate of attrition due to a number of factors. So unfortunately when I first started out, I didn’t have any Black woman role models.
How did the outdoors come to figure as something so important in your life –– rather than just a casual hobby?
Back in 2014, I started a collective for skydivers of color called Team Blackstar with a couple of friends. I'm still connected to those people online — many of whom I haven't met in person. But, in 2016, I got rheumatic fever [an inflammatory autoimmune disease]. I was really ill and I was in the hospital for a while and being stuck indoors for all that time really made me miss that community.
When you’re skydiving, you're out there every weekend spending a lot of time with your friends in this very conditional setting — so losing that sense of in-person community really pushed me to look for one online. But, when I started searching, I was like, ‘Oh, this space looks really empty.’ There just wasn't a common platform for people of color exploring outdoor activities to connect. It was really hard to find each other. That’s where the idea for Melanin Basecamp was born. Skydiving is relatively niche, so unlike with Team Blackstar, Melanin Basecamp also focuses on hiking and other outdoor hobbies, which makes it easier to connect with people from all different levels of experience. I wanted to find or create a platform for all things outdoors.
How much of your work focuses on connecting with people of color who are already into the outdoors, as opposed to POC who think that those spaces aren’t for them?
When we got started, we used words like ‘adventure athlete,’ which don't really resonate with Black and brown communities. That was the phrasing I’d learned growing up, so that was the terminology I was using — but at that stage, I was only catering to people who considered themselves to be experts in their chosen fields. My mindset has definitely changed over time, because that's just such a small category of people. We still have that core group of people who have been hiking or climbing or snowboarding or base jumping, or whatever they're into, for a long time, but now, we're working on reaching people who are newish to the outdoors, too. As a platform, we’ve grown a lot to be more mindful of accessibility — or the need to override a lot of the elitist barriers and unnecessary obstacles to the outdoor activities that we enjoy.
So many Black creatives, activists, and community builders saw an unprecedented uptick in followers during the summer of 2020 as Black Lives Matter protests swept the country. How have you dealt with this increased visibility?
This year, people started discovering our articles on Melanin Basecamp, some of which were as old as two or three years old. We also got donations coming out of nowhere to our website in the wake of the BLM protests. And right now, more white people are following us than ever before. So, with that, the demand for the type of content we produce has definitely shifted. It's been weird, because we're not necessarily writing for a white audience. We have a lot of people showing up on our page who want to be taught or told what to do — and that's great, I just think there are other pages that do a better job of that. Our content has always been by people of color, for people of color.
What do your days look like now?
I have a cat, he's great. His name is Mister Jimbo. I work from home. I traveled a lot for work as a social media editor for the National Business Aviation Association, and now I work out of my living room. I have the luxury and privilege of being able to do that. So I've just been hibernating, I guess...and trying not to get sick.
What’s next for Diversify Outdoors and Melanin Basecamp?
Our first short film premiered last year, about a Black Canadian climber, Sabrina Chapman, and her goal to climb her first 5.14a, which is a gateway for elite climbing. That was very exciting, and we are going to do more, thanks in part to the massive wave of funding that came out of last summer. Writing is great, it's a lot of fun, but people really connect to video and to short film, so we'd like to continue to do more of that.
We're going to continue to put out content that's relevant to our community. And we’re going to continue to grow, that's part of the process. When we started in 2016, I wasn't doing indigenous land acknowledgements and now I am. It's a learning curve, where we're all growing, we're all trying to get better, to be more inclusive, to highlight people with multiple marginalized identities, even within our own community. We could all definitely do a better job of doing that. We look forward to growing with our community over the next couple of years.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.