'The more people who have a connection with the outdoors, the more likely you are to save nature'

Phil Young grew up running, cycling, surfing, and skiing – he’s passionate about the outdoors! Aware early on that there were few people in these natural environments that looked like him, he’s been asking why ever since.

Learn about our partnership with Huck Magazine and the Outsiders project

Lockdown and his job on Huck Magazine (On the Edge’s first nature content partner), allowed him the creative space to form The Outsiders Project. This storytelling initiative is all about opening the outdoors to those who haven’t traditionally been participants. Curious about the overlap with On the Edge’s mission to inspire greater appreciation of, and connection with, nature, Sarah Bewick got in touch.

SB: Who decides who enjoys the outdoors?

PY: It's a nuanced conversation. If you're Black or brown in the UK, you are probably in the UK as a result of British colonialism, and although it's hard to believe, for many of us our parents and grandparents were invited here. The problem, one of many, was that race legislation at the time didn't exist and the opportunity to settle in rural towns wasn’t viable. Immigrant communities ended up living in city environments where the white population didn’t want to live. The result was that people have essentially been urbanised. […] The 2021 census said that approximately 97% of non-white British people live in cities. Over generations many of us have lost an emotional connection to the countryside and are unsure how to engage with it. If we add a layer of racism it’s no surprise that we tend to stay away. After all, if it’s racist in the city where we live, what must it be like in rural spaces? Micro aggressions, verbal abuse, and sometimes physical violence – it’s often easier and safer to stay at home and, with limited representation in the media, perhaps the message is that it’s just not for us.

SB: That hasn’t been your experience.

PY: I've been very fortunate to be exposed to the outdoors from an early age and I’ve learned the social and physical skills to be able to navigate the outdoor world in a safe and joyous way. If, however, you come from, say, Hackney and you're used to wearing a black hoodie and your trousers hanging without a belt, people can assume you’re a certain type of person and treat you in a particular way. When that happens, you may have a bad experience and are probably unlikely to want to revisit it. People from rural areas often have limited knowledge of inner-city culture outside misrepresentative media; we end up with a lack of understanding and mistrust all around.

SB: How do you get people to recognise these barriers?

PY: By making lots of noise and bugging people! I've been in the [outdoors] industry for some time. I've been around the people [working for outdoor brands] who are now able to make a difference. I've ridden down mountains with them, paddled out in the morning to catch waves with them. I'm able to put it in terms they understand without being too combative. That helps. But it's not a quick fix. It's a forever conversation and you get pushback. When I first started reaching out, they were saying, yeah, [access to the outdoors is] important but we're trying to save the planet.  We are now at a point where I think people understand you can’t do one without the other. The more people who understand what the outdoors is and have a connection with it, the more likely you are to make a difference trying to save nature

SB: So, how do you help people connect?

PY: If you want people to care, you've got to get them to be in the place so they can see it and experience it for themselves. This can be problematic; it can be expensive to travel to the countryside and then, once you’re there, what do you do? Sports and outdoor activity are often passed down generationally, it comes with unwritten rules, language, and a dress code. Going to the outdoors with the wrong equipment and getting it wrong is fine if you’re a kid, but less so as an adult. We need more instructors of colour, better representation in the media, and a more active and positive outreach to marginalised communities.

SB: What’s the response to The Outsiders Project been?

PY: Clearly, there’s a need for this. The event Black Trail Runners put on in May 2023 – the first Black trail run in the UK – had 400 competitors. Runners World [magazine] reviewed it. They said it was the most amazing thing they'd witnessed because it brought a new dynamic to something you would think has been done to death. The response from the community we're trying to serve has been fantastic because there's a voice for them. That voice can bring partners and funding and access we’ve historically struggled to get. 

Phil Young is also co-founder of the charity Black Trail Runners, and author of Beyond Representation: The Future of Diversity and Inclusion in the Outdoors, a report which advises brands on how they can be more inclusive.