Latino Outdoors Grand Rapids is a local organization that brings people who identify as Latinx together to discover and enjoy outdoor activities across the region. We connected with Sergio Cira, the chair of the organization, to talk about the importance of the organization and its connection with the Grand River.
Sergio: Latino Outdoors GR exists to build community among Latinx individuals in and around Grand Rapids who are interested in exploring new outdoors experiences in all forms. We hope to create a condition of physical and psychological safety for our community who share a migration story.
So much of the time, we are made to feel like we don’t belong. This has had an impact on how we see ourselves in the context of public land and the nature and environment that exists in these spaces. This is where the psychological safety comes in. In groups, we experience and wrestle with these topics in very organic ways. We support and affirm each other as we go on outings together. But we are also aware that in numbers, others are less likely to harass or display microaggressions. This is where physical safety comes in.
We also exist to eliminate barriers to access. We do this by pooling our collective experiences so that those who have the most experience can share that and help with planning and designing trips with knowledge usually not accessible to our community. Cost is a factor but not always the main barrier.
Sergio: Our first outing was on August 14, 2019. A friend of mine had been encouraging me to start the local chapter and that week was Latino Conservation Week. After doing some research, I saw that there were no other Latinx groups represented and wanted to put Grand Rapids and Michigan on the map.
I reached out to Latino Outdoors but they seemed to be at capacity for local chapters, so we started the group but haven’t worked with Latino Outdoors in any formal way. We’ll likely change the name of our group this year.
Sergio: We’ve done a lot of different beginner-friendly activities like hiking and trail and mountain biking. Our first event in 2019 was tubing, and we’ve done that again. We’ve also gone sledding, ice climbing and camping.
This year, we will likely be doing more of that but will also do some backpacking and possibly combine backpacking with canoeing and camping. We are collaborating with other groups like Outdoor Afro and Detroit Outdoors to do an outdoor safety training this fall.
People who are Latinx can join our Facebook group where different members initiate their own activities and invite anyone in the group to join. The Facebook group was such an asset for connecting with people safely during the pandemic. Many new connections were made and friendships have developed.
Sergio: We don’t have a formal organizational position for the Grand River. But we did organize a couple of kayaking trips downtown on the river (sponsored by Downtown Grand Rapids, Inc.) with the Latina and Latino Networks of West Michigan and we talked about the Grand River. There were a lot of ideas – too many to cover here.
The Grand River is wilderness, that is until you get to downtown. There, it becomes part of downtown and all of the collective experiences the Latinx Community associates with Downtown Grand Rapids.
One goal of the kayaking trips (there are a couple more coming this year) was to capture in the voice of the Latinx Community by us. We wanted to have the kind of conversation that we have when it’s just us, and to capture it. When a consultant is hired by an organization or government entity to gather community feedback, the space they curate is sterile and can be void of warmth and trust. They’re often not from the community and so the type of person they attract to these meetings is not the same when a group of people who regularly gather get together to talk, amongst people they trust to discuss a topic about a space they rarely frequent.
The feedback we’ve collected will eventually make it to decision makers, on the record, so that the new and improved Grand River contains some design elements which not only communicate to us that the river belongs to us, but that we also belong in all of those spaces.
Learn more about Latino Outdoors and get involved at their Facebook Group.