Decolonising the Outdoors:
A Q&A with Brave Space Project

November 11, 2021 Issue No. 28

5/20 2:07:03 UTC

Chelsea Murphy, Erin Joy Nash, and Sanjana Sekhar are the three codirectors of Expedition Reclamation, a forthcoming nonfiction film foregrounding BIPOC women with “transformative relationships to outdoor recreation.” They plan on using the movie as the first part of the Brave Space Project, a community for BIPOC and women to reframe their relationship with the outdoors. They spoke to us about Expedition Reclamation and the ideas underpinning their work.

How did this film originate?

Chelsea Murphy: It originated from Erin and I here in Leavenworth, Washington. We live in the same little town and it's like 86 percent white — there's a Latinx community and there's like 3 percent Black or other and I fall into that extreme minority. And Erin was trying to break free from the commercial work she was doing and making her voice known as a community leader calling for so many wonderful things, diversity being one of them. Our paths crossed. We started dreaming of a film industry colliding with the outdoors. And so ultimately it was Erin and I just talking about all the ways that we would want to see the outdoors, all the ways we would want to see the stories of women, Black, Indigenous, people of color displayed.

Our first move was to put out a call [on social media]: Are there any Black, Indigenous, or women of color utilizing the outdoors in any way? And not limited to mountaineering or being a rad climber. “Are you taking nature walks?” Over 55 women e-mailed back to us. We started doing Zoom calls with these ladies and started getting to know them. We were planning to work out a way we could get their stories in the most authentic and intentional way.

How long do you anticipate this film being?

Erin Joy Nash: It's going to be 40 minutes. We've been working on it for a year and a half, and we’re in the editing process and working with a composer to finish up some music and hoping that it will be done by the end of this year. Then it will start going into film festivals and local screenings and trying to get it out there and distributed starting in early 2022.

The trailer illustrates the themes of the movie, but not necessarily the narrative. Is this a narrative-focused film or is it a little bit more abstract, a little bit more of a tapestry?

Sanjana Sekhar: “Tapestry” is the word that we've been using. I'm so glad that came to mind because we do have a slightly different approach. We're not following one to three characters and having a hero's journey, beginning-middle-and-end-type of situation. Really, what we wanted to focus on was highlighting 12 women. We wanted to weave them together to show a movement rather than to show what one person is doing. The big issue that hinders a sense of belonging is feeling like you're the only person that looks like you in the space you're in. These 12 characters show it's not just one person breaking stereotypes, it's actually a whole movement.

Nash: We talk a lot on our team about decolonising the filmmaking process and what that looks like. The story structure we have is not your typical, Westernised moviemaking structure. It moreso mirrors Indigenous storytelling. It's not necessarily a structure we're used to in U.S. culture. It's not a new way of doing things, but really reclaiming an old way of storytelling.

What’s one example of an individual in the film who you're highlighting?

Nash: Sam Ortiz. She identifies as a plus-size Latinx mountaineer and rock climber. She started a rock-climbing group for other plus-size climbers to feel like they belong. She's petitioned for getting harnesses that fit all sizes rather than the exclusive sizes that most gyms have.

What do you think are the barriers that exist now for women of color in particular to be outdoors, to be at one with nature?

Sekhar: History informs everything about barriers today. We can easily skate over that and say, yes, this happened in the past, and now people are able to find access if they really want to. But that's not really true. The colonial project is very much alive and breathing. And when you take people away from their lands and forcibly bring them somewhere, that history never goes away. It informs everything from socioeconomic gaps to generational trauma around land to even representation, seeing yourself onscreen. All of these lands have been taken and have been filled up with white settlers and the kinds of recreation they want to do.

Murphy: I'm thinking of growing up in the city and understanding that being my place, not really ever finding that sense of belonging in the great outdoors because my parents didn't go there and my dad still thinks I'm a little bit unwise for going outdoors by myself. He grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, and the outdoors for him was where he saw his uncle die at the hands of white men. These things are very much present-tense for a lot of people who are living today.

There's also this idea of acceptance on the trail or in whatever outdoor community you're involved in. I think a lot of people of color have a hard time being the only one, and the reality is nine times out of 10 you will be.

Sekhar: If I'm going out mountain biking with a bunch of white dudes, then for them, all it's about is going harder, going faster. For me, I have to first overcome the fact that I am in a space where I'm very uncomfortable because I'm a woman and I'm brown, and I have to grapple with that before I can even think about going fast or going hard. For others in Indigenous communities, there are even more layers with the land and with the history of the land. It's an added thing that we're grappling with that doesn't necessarily exist for the majority of the people who we see visibly in the outdoors, which are white men.

From the archives: This piece originally appeared in the Early Majority Substack. Links and content may be outdated—become a member to access all new Tools for Leaning Out stories and content.