Crystal Diaz ’22

Chicago, Illinois

Belonging in the Outdoors

originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of Sagatagan Seasons

As an out-of-state Saint Ben’s student – I was born and raised in the inner city of Chicago – I never had the direct exposure to what I understood “the outdoors” to mean. All that started to change immediately upon entering my first year of college.

I was drawn to the opportunities Outdoor U brings to students to connect with the outdoors: Collegebound, the Peer Resource Program, and the Outdoor Leadership Center all facilitate programs, challenge courses, and wilderness trips that are open to the whole student body. My first year, I even signed up for a spring break climbing trip in Utah while having no climbing experience whatsoever. I now have a great passion for climbing and enjoy using the campus climbing wall with my friends. I have had the incredible opportunity to learn about and appreciate our natural spaces, and through these experiences I have created some of the best memories and friendships, as well as a huge appreciation for exploring our beautiful world.

Even as I was discovering my passion for the outdoors, I couldn’t help but notice that I didn’t seem to fit the mold of what it means to be “outdoorsy” and started to second-guess if I could be. I especially remember seeing all the films in the annual BANFF Film Festival and being at once overwhelmed and inspired by the amazing snow sport films, but also lonely in the realization that BIPOC (black, indigenous, people of color), queer, disabled, and plus-sized athletes were not represented within the norm of how society defines an outdoor athlete. With that one, mostly white, perspective of people’s relationship with “the outdoors,” I started to think that there was no way I, a Latina woman from Southside Chicago, could call myself outdoorsy.

Barriers to connecting with the outdoors are very real for people with disabilities, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and other marginalized communities, including access to outdoor spaces, feeling unwelcome, discrimination, lack of financial resources for “proper” outdoor equipment, and many others.

I’ve worked hard to regain my footing to consider myself outdoorsy and personally connected with the natural world. I try not to allow my passions to be discredited by comparison to the stereotypical outdoor experiences. This personal journey inspired my collaboration with Outdoor U student naturalist, Sara Holmes, and the Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s student senates to create a platform where students and the wider CSB/SJU community can share their unique stories and experiences with the natural world.

Nature’s Narratives: where we work, live, and play seeks to both change and add to the narrative of “the outdoors.” We welcome images and experiences of “traditional” outdoor experiences of big mountains, forest, lakes. But we especially invite sharing those “non-traditional” outdoor experiences from our community members hailing form all over the world, many of whom did not grow up within reach of those traditional outdoor spaces.

Connections to nature look different for each of us. As a city girl, my connection to nature includes running in neighborhood parks, walking the dog, and gardening with my mom and grandma.

Outdoor U staff have committed to increased efforts to reduce barriers to outdoor experiences for marginalized communities. CSB/SJU is founded on the Benedictine Values, including Respect for Persons, Justice, Stewardship, and Community Living. As Bennies, Johnnies, and members of the extended CSB/SJU community, we are privileged to be surrounded by beautiful and accessible outdoor spaces.

We are excited to highlight the unique and diverse experiences with the natural world within our community through the Nature’s Narratives project. The Benedictine Values can serve as a guide to how we can be more mindful of our diverse identities and sharing this land so that someone like me no longer has to question whether my values, passions, and experience belong in the outdoors.