Episode 4: Finding Black joy in the outdoors with Brittany Leavitt

Episode 4 transcript

Brittany: we have always been connected to the stars to the leaves to the earth the dirt, walks of life. We are, we've been hikers and bikers everyone from Harriet Tubman to Benjamin Baker to Matthew Henson. It's not something that is quote unquote a white people thing because more than likely we probably did it first.

[Outside Voices Intro] You’re listening to Outside Voices podcast. We’re using our outside voices to redefi ne what it means to spend time outside and connect to nature. I’m your host, Sarah Shimazaki. Let’s get started.

Narration: Hey everyone. Before I introduce our next, fabulous guest, a couple updates. If you follow us on Instagram @outsidevoicespodcast, you’re already a bit more in the know. Even so, you probably noticed it’s been some time since we released our last episode. There are a few reasons why:

 1)    One, is, we’re starting to partner with brands and nonprofit organizations. This episode for example, is brought to you by the folks at The North Face. That’s right—things are happenin’! Amidst all this momentum and change, we want to be intentional about what such relationships look like. So, we took a step back, re-grounded ourselves in our values and came up with partnership guidelines. This platform is for all of y’all and we want to ensure the integrity and authenticity of it. We also want to act as a resource for you, so we’re posting said guidelines on our website for anyone who is navigating that line between creating content and working with brands and funders to, you know, help pay for said content creation.

2)    We also hosted an entire month of giveaways with our friends at The North Face. And those take work! Stay tuned for even more giveaways in our near future, we want to get you outside!

3)    I also went on a little road trip in September and recorded a couple episodes, so get ready to hear from our friends in the Pacific Northwest.

4)    Annnd last but not least, I’m trying to take care of myself amidst it all and find a pace that feels truly sustainable. Because burnout is real, y’all. So to all my fellow creators, creatives, changemakers, healers, or really, anyone—I see you and you deserve a break. Rest. Nap. Capitalism has got us out here on overdrive. Resting is resistance. Please take care of yourselves. And each other!

So with all that, I am humbled to share our next episode of Outside Voices Podcast. On with the show.

Brittany My name is Brittany Leavitt. My pronouns are she, her and hers. I currently reside, born and raised in Maryland, DC area. And yeah I'm just here to tell my story. [Laughs]

Narration: So, before we get into it and learn more about Brittany’s stories, I just have to say—from the get go, when you learn about all the different organizations Brittany is involved with, from Outdoor Afro to Brown Girls Climb and others, you’ll get a sure glimpse into her passion and commitment to the outdoor community.

Like all of us though, Brittany’s connection to nature is rooted in something deeper. When we first chatted about Outside Voices Podcast, Brittany told me her favorite aspect of the show is that we actually weren’t hyper-focused on first ascents or out-of-this-world mountaineering expeditions. Our podcast explores the different ways we all relate to nature. For Brittany, the outdoors play a huge role in helping her heal and move through grief and also in asserting her identity and finding her personal Black Joy.

I asked Brittany to take us back to where it all began. The waterways and creeks of Maryland’s Eastern Shore and the dirt of her parent’s garden.

Brittany: I'm someone that's also really into bugs. I was the one who collects worms in a box and shows my parents how great these worms were. And then as a kid I remember traveling all the way up to upstate New York into the mountains where my grandmother lived and spent summers hanging out in the farm and the cornfield to spending more time in the garden and just kind of really soaking in the outdoors. So, we didn't do so much camping but it was a lot of just exploring and kind of always being a, I call myself a barefoot kid.

I can just envision Summertime and the honeysuckle just hanging off the fence. And so every time I run outside with our dogs, that's the first place I would go-- to see the honeysuckle. We'd taste them and for me that has always been a key smell of summertime, the honeysuckle to key smells of the vegetables that were blooming and the herbs, especially mint.

That was something always a love to do just hanging out underneath a tree reading a book and like looking up and seeing the leaves sway. My grandmother had a weeping willow. And that was like my favorite spot to hide in. I would actually climb into the tree and there was a perfect branch where I would just lay there and close my eyes and like how the leaves kind of touched my face. And it was just a very calming place for me. I still did that all the way up until my 20s, so that didn't change too much.

Narration: Brittany identifies as Black. She grew up in a White household with seven siblings. Over the course of Brittany’s life, her mom fostered more than five-hundred babies and teens from New England down to the mid-Atlantic area. The term Brittany uses to describe herself is, a transracial adoptee.

Brittany: It means someone who was raised outside of their own race put in simple terms. So for me I grew up in a white household and therefore you know that's kind of all I've ever known. I've been with my family since I was two weeks old. Everyone's story is a little bit different. So when I talk about transracial adoptees I tried to talk from my own perspective of my own story and you know my story in a sense. There's a lot of great and beautiful things that came of it and I'm very honored to be in that space, because you know I probably wouldn't be here doing a lot of things I'm doing, speaking with a lot of people, if it didn't happen. But also, there's a lot of things that come with it. I always knew my race and I always knew I was different from my family and my family did as much as possible that they could do to instill my culture. But there's just a lot of things for them they were unable to teach and support especially for a black child. As a transracial adoptee, everyone is a little bit different. So, there are some families that are able to do that. Some families are not. There's of course a point in life where you start asking a lot of questions mainly just about yourself and kind of figuring out like where do you stand. How do you represent.

You get a lot of those questions of like the typical “what happened to you?”

Narration: The Eastern Shore of Maryland is, as Brittany describes, predominantly conservative. She shares that, growing up there as a Black woman— well it wasn’t easy, to put it simply.

Brittany: My family, we had a tough time finding a house when we were moving due to a lot of neighborhoods did not favor me and I also have a little brother who's also a transracial adoptee. So we had to find a space that was willing to allow us to be there without us being like a hinder onto them.

For me, I am a closed adoptee so that means I have no contact with my biological parents. And so you know as an adoptee you get a lot of these questions, a key one is “oh are you ever gonna go searching for your parents?”  

I feel content of how I was raised and I don't feel like opening other can of worms and everyone is different but this is my opinion of when it comes to that and I feel OK that there's a reason why that happens and that I accept that reason. And I don't feel bad about it. I prefer to continue going on in my life and in the space that I have now.  

Narration: As a transracial adoptee, Brittany sometimes struggled navigating the intersection of her multiple identities. Not just in the White community she grew up in, as one of very few Black women, but also in the Black community as someone with so-called “white interests” like hiking.

Brittany: I didn't even think I actually found the proper space until I got into my 20s and actually moved to Baltimore  

I used to straighten my hair a lot because for me I didn't know how to take care of my curls. And so straightening my hair was the easier way. So anytime I ended up wearing my hair naturally people would tell me I look better with my hair straight. So I was like OK I'll wear it straight all the time

When I moved to Baltimore I learned that oh I didn't have to change to find myself like word, it is ok to be a black chick that has listened to all of Bob Dylan, who's able to quote Star Wars. It's OK to be able to be proud of who you are and still be involved in so many different interests and learning how these interests aren't labeled or centered into one category or for one specific race.

And of course it's easier said than done because that's what society has always done, from clothes to music you know everything in the sense. And so really just finding that home that I didn't have to change myself and I could just enhance what I already enjoyed about myself so I stopped straightening my hair because I realized my curls are beautiful and that I will figure out a way how to take care of them and I have figured out a way to take care of them. To figuring out and understanding really more about my history and the differences between what my family has been able to do vs. what like my ancestors were able to do.

I've learned that I'm considered quote unquote “acceptable” which I hate using that but I've been actually told that multiple times that I'm one of the good ones, among the more acceptable ones. I'm just I'm one of the smarter ones just because of the way that I talk or the way that I uphold myself and. It bothers me. At first in the beginning, I didn't really think about it too much, I was like “oh they just think I'm a noble citizen. That's great blah blah blah,” until being more included in the black community in black space and learning that language and learning what it actually means. I was kind of like, “Oh so you're just saying I'm not a bad person because of the way that I sound? Cool. You don't know my life. I could be a bad person.” But yeah that was that I mean it still is pretty difficult and I'll instantly admit that the way that I sound has gotten me in spaces, jobs, even just being able to talk to other people. It's been easier for them to talk to me because of the way that I sound. Especially if we're on the phone too. I've had a lot of conversations where we haven't met yet and we're having a full conversation until we meet in person and they're kind of startled because they're like “Oh you you sound you or you look different than what you sound like.” And I'm like “Yep, I'm black.

I don't want to give this false notion of this is what uphold citizen of pretty much a black citizen looks like because we’re a diaspora of beauty and we all have different walks of life and we all sound different, we all think different and you know to be pigeonholed as like “the model citizen” is it's frustrating it's overwhelming and it's tiring and unnecessary but that is our society. We place these molds on people and this is what you're supposed to look like, this is how you’re supposed to act like.  

I don't want to sit in someone's box of this is what a model person looks like because you know it's like you don't know my life world, Like I'm awkward! And you know, I have emotions. I have high days and low days like I can't be, I don't ever want to be put on a pedestal.

You know especially people of color we end up having to be put on a pedestal and I just don't want to have to be high up. I want to be with everyone I want to be able to sit and talk at the same level without having to be that extra, “Tell me your story. Like the dramatic story” I don't have a dramatic story, I'm just here, you're here. Let's do this, type of thing.  

I'm moving grooving and just finding out you know more about myself  

Narration: We’ll share more of Brittany’s stories soon, especially her journey as a climber. But first, and speaking of climbing, we want to share with you all a special campaign by our friends at The North Face.  

For this episode of Outside Voices Podcast, we got to partner with The North Face. We’re a fairly new show, but the folks at The North Face were happy to help support our shared efforts to grow and diversify the stories we tell about the outdoors. I’ve been especially excited to share their campaign, Walls Are Meant for Climbing. Since 1966, The North Face has viewed walls not as obstacles, but as opportunities. Through climbing, they discovered a community of individuals with different stories, experiences and perspectives — strengthened by its differences. Walls Are Meant for Climbing is a campaign dedicated to celebrating the walls that unite us, not divide us. The North Face believes in a world that is united by difference, bound by empathy and strengthened by understanding. To learn more, visit www.thenorthface.com/walls.

Narration: And we’re back.

Brittany: In 2014 my dad passed away via cancer and it was something that happened abruptly. He was diagnosed on Christmas Day and then he passed that February. For me I've always been an active person. So, during that time I was doing roller derby. I was in yoga I had a lot going on, I was also in school and I just needed a break. I kind of stepped away from everything and just before I moved, hung out by the water and did a lot of trail walking around the area. But kind of what really instilled me in starting to do this was, my dad and I would have little talks throughout and he always knew that I had a connection with nature and he always had a connection with nature. But he was also a quiet person and I am a quiet person. And so that was kind of our way of connection. So he taught me a lot of things, like the beauty of gardening and finding a garden in the space of where you need to just be and heal. That could be simple as spending the time just weeding and pulling out plants that aren't needed and getting your hands working and just finding a space where your mind's not racing.

Narration: In her grief, Brittany started walking. She started with 5-mile hikes, but quickly began to push 15-20 miles a day. Living so close to the Appalachian trail, or the AT, a thru- hike trail traversing 14 states from Georgia to Maine, Brittany had easy access to miles and miles of open trail.

Brittany: I just kept walking. And it was a weird feeling. I'm just going to keep walking and just walking alone and listening to the trees and so I'd be on a trail and a lot of times do sections of the AT which is just easy for me to like… I know if I start from this point and then at this point then there's like 20 miles if I turn right back. I guess this might sound weird but like I have also a deep connection with trees in a sense when it comes to healing. With grief it always will forever be with you. You just have highs and lows and you learn to just work with it in your life. It shifts your life, it shifts your perspective of life. And I would sit and write, about things I never got to say or just be in the space.

I found an old Nat Geo book that my dad actually gave to me for Christmas. That was never opened because he was in the hospital and then this book he wrote about how he was proud that I made a connection and that I should continue with those connections that I'm making wherever I go. And so I guess when I look at it and I still have that book I like to look at it sometimes. But I realized that I found that connection deeper and that connection is nature and how I use it and how that nature in a sense is a tool that I not only guide people in, but I want to express and share with people. It's a space where you can enjoy laughter but it's also a space where if you just need to scream or if you need to cry if you need a hug a tree like it's not silly to hug a tree you know as a way to find that comforting feeling. You may have a trickier time to find in everyday life. And you know everyone does their grieving differently. And so I try to find a way how I can make my grieving. You know make the process easier as it can be because it's never going to be easier but just being able to navigate it without it over taking my life. Some days it can feel like that. And but you know I work through it and nature is a space that helps me work through it.

Narration: It was really lovely for Brittany to share all of these stories with me and it just made it crystal clear that her desire to share her connection to nature with others inevitably led to a career in education.

Brittany: I've always wanted to be a naturalist and I've always wanted to be a teacher. So currently what I'm doing now has always in a sense been a dream since I was a child.

Narration: As an early childhood educator with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C, Brittany is always trying to find ways to get her kids outside. And turns out, what worked for little Brittany all those years ago in the dirt of her parent’s garden, seemed to work just as well with the youth she works with.

Brittany: Something so little as getting connected with bugs and being able to be attached to a bug and wanting to find them and continuing and not having a fear on the trail. To me, that was really meaningful because that's one that's one step of many steps that will slowly happen. And side note, these are all like two to three year olds that I'm working with. So like that's a major major thing of just like being able to feel comfortable getting hands dirty, feeling comfortable touching bugs, feeling comfortable with the sounds of the environment. To me is always like a big excitement and like relief.

Narration: A few years ago, Brittany became involved with Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit dedicated to celebrating and inspiring African American connections and leadership in nature.

Brittany: I got to actually go to a training and be surrounded by other black people who not only enjoyed nature but also were, you know, scientists, lawyers, teachers, musicians.

With Outdoor Afro, I've just been able to enhance and instill Black joy in my community and being able to watch the community grow. The D.C. area we're at, we had the highest group of participants. so we have over about 5000 participants in the D.C. Virginia Maryland area and there's seven leaders now. And what's really cool is all of these leaders that have been in the D.C. area have been coming to outdoor afro events for a while and slowly it's created a ripple effect. So like everyone has been in the community in some way shape or form but now they're leaders and so really seeing that community being built and like holding ground and being strong and being able to build a comfort for others I think has been really cool.  

For me it was a space where I learned how to find that voice that's saying “we are part of this,” because for me it was also a learning matter. You know, we've always been into the outdoors. As black people, nature is within us. From the water-- we have a deep connection with the water, but society has put in, from the historical record you know, has put this notion of fear of water to us. But water is something that we have used to heal and to connect. And so this whole idea that you know black people don't swim, dates back from generations from storytelling from you know, family experiences to just history. But we've always been connected to the water. We've always been connected to the trees. Now I talk a lot about the history. I think a key thing is for people to realize that history and nature go hand-in-hand and being able to be part of a group that that's our mission is to just celebrate and inspire what we do in the outdoors. So really honing-in on, you know, we have always been connected to the stars to the leaves to the earth the dirt, walks of life. We are, we've been hikers and bikers everyone from Harriet Tubman to Benjamin Baker to Matthew Henson

It's not something that is quote unquote a white people thing because more than likely we probably did it first.

So I tell people all the time that you know especially going hiking, you know starting with the basics can be scary especially in our own community. And saying that black people don't hike-- we do! That's one of our ways of how we heal. And I talk about how there's, you know, you don't have to be out in the back country to feel nature you know. We have nature right as you step outside your front door. Your garden is nature. Your local park is part of nature. Your, you know, your walk to the school bus to the grocery store that is being part of nature. And then when you feel that comfortability in stepping it up, you can go into a park that still is close to civilization, close to home. You don't have to make this big leap.

Narration: So, Brittany basically articulated the thesis of our podcast, I think maybe we’re done here? I really couldn’t explain it any better than she just did. But something Brittany is also excited about is increasing representation in quote unquote outdoorsy activities that have been traditionally dominated by white, able-bodied men. Just last year, Brittany was a part of Outdoor Afro’s Expedition Team, the first known American all-Black ascent of Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest freestanding mountain in the world. She gets her inspiration from other outdoorsy black women-- because representation matters.

Brittany: I didn't really find that connection until I saw this really cool photo of Chelsea Griffie. She's the first black woman to climb the nose of El Cap in 2001. And this photo is always instilled in my mind when I'm on the rock or when I'm just like working on anything actually, it doesn't have to be climbing, but it's just her hanging out, but her braids are just hanging down. And for me that's the epitome of this sport, it’s just us and we don't have to change our identity to mold ourselves into the sport. And so really showing people that not only in the past from Harriet Tubman but also really we're still in this, into the future. So really showing and telling that story is important.

That's why I've also kind of gotten more into being mindful of storytelling and that it's OK to take photos and post them online because it really is capturing and saying you know you can do this too. This could be you. You know, you can find a space to start from the basics and work your way up. I always tell people especially when it comes to hiking backpacking not to feel that you have to shell out thousands of dollars to be part of something, but a lot of the materials that you have are right in front of you. And you know working on how we’re building the baby steps. Yeah, I think that's the key way of trying to navigate it.

Narration: Remember when I mentioned how involved Brittany is with organizations dedicated to increasing representation in the outdoors? Well, not only is Brittany part of the leadership team at Brown Girls Climb, an organization that aims to promote and increase visibility of diversity in climbing, she also recently joined the team at Color the Crag, helping to organize their annual people of color rock climbing festival in Alabama. It just happened a couple weeks ago, I had major FOMO, fear of missing out. It looks amazing.

Brittany: It’s just a beautiful space to see. It's a climbing festival sure, but it goes a lot deeper too. And that's something that I always like to tell people. It's a deeper space and a deeper meaning that people walk away from you know from the first year that we had the festival. So many affinity spaces were created because of people's inspiration and sparks that they got for just being there that weekend. And so you know our goal is we want to continue to make sure that we're creating that space for people to call home and say I want to bring color the crag back here. I want to create a group I want it. I'm going to do this in my gym or I want to get connected with our community in this way.

 Some people have found nature in their 20s, some people find nature in their 50s and I think with the groups that I work with, my joy moments is when people have the a ha moments of connecting. Of like, this is really beautiful or I've never felt like I could be in this space or I've never felt safe in the space before, but now I feel safe. And that's something what I love to do with group and leading groups. It's not always about talking about the latest gadgets or gears, it's really just finding a space where people can feel truthful and honest. And so a lot of times, especially if I'm leading hikes with Outdoor Afro. We'll talk a lot about current events and how that's affecting, you know, our families, our everyday lives and being able to relay those burdens outside. But doing you in a space where no one's going to judge you. No one's going to harp on you. I think that's my biggest thing is when someone says that I made the environment feel relaxed and had the participant feel like they can try anything and not feel like they had to like complete something but made it a strive in their goal. I guess in what they want to accomplish. I think that is really key to me because I always tell people you know we're out here to have fun. We're not out here to try and like you know be like tough athletes. We're here to fall and to learn and you know to ask questions and that It's OK to do all those things and I want everyone to just walk away feeling you know, strong and confident and so when people say those things but it you know, I was  like “cool, my goal has been set! Has been made.

All of them bring out my own personal Black Joy.

Narration: I asked Brittany to close us out by sharing what Black Joy means to her, especially in the context of taking up space outside.

Brittany: That I'm just proud of me. I'm you know I'm happy in the sense of who I am, what I think, how I speak, how I dress. And I'm going to express it though any way possible. I'm not going to confine into the society of what it's supposed to look like to be an outdoorsy person because I used to. I mean like I love plaid, don't get me wrong but in my mind at the beginning I felt like in order to be considered tough hardcore person you must wear a lot of khaki and plaid. And now I'm just kind of like no, I have a deep connection with fashion and the beauty of just expressing yourself and I like to do that also in nature. So you know, Black joy to me is sometimes I'll go to the Crag and I'll put on eyeliner and a red lipstick but I'm doing it for myself because I feel great and I may sweat it off later but who cares, because it’s for me. just really celebrating yourself and how you perceive yourself.

The joy and beauty that I that I have instilled and that I’m still enhancing because it never stops. To own it in and not to, not to back away from it. If it's a good thing, keep it going.

I'm always leading, I’m making sure that my door is left wide open so someone can come in and continue the path as well. But as they're doing that too, I leave that reminder to make sure to leave your door open so we can could create a continuous line of making sure people can walk through and that it doesn't end with just one person. It will always continue on.  


I felt so much joy creating this episode and equal parts joy knowing folks like y’all are listening. THANK YOU and please continue spreading the word about how much you love our show. Shout it from the rooftops! Use your outside voice!

Our rad logo and cover art was designed by Brooklyn Bell.

That fun intro and outro music is by LIVS or Olivia VanDamme and produced by Jamison Stegmaier.  

All credits, links and resources can be found on our website: www.outsidevoicespodcast.com

You can also follow us on Instagram, @outsidevoicespodcast

Outside Voices Podcast is a project by Resource Media. This episode was brought to life thanks to support from The North Face. Sponsorship is here! Ahh! 

Until next time.