November–December 2021

Natural Connection

My story of finding peace and community in Minnesota's Outdoors.

Asha Shoffner

Two summers ago, after George Floyd was murdered by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, the need to be “in community” with my fellow people of color felt deep. Knowing that being in nature and being with people who looked like me were necessary and healing, I coordinated several outdoor outings for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color (BIPOC).

Our first event was a hike at Crosby Farm Regional Park, one of my favorite parks in St. Paul. Seeing and learning from folks who looked like me, and knowing we could have open and honest conversations, allowed me to breathe differently. My nervous system settled down and my heart opened. I wasn’t on the defensive anymore. I didn’t feel out of place or unwanted. I felt safe and much more at home than usual. 

I say “more at home than usual” because in my 37 years in Minnesota, I have often felt unwelcome, unseen, and excluded from the outdoors—including in my own neighborhood, where 85 percent of the residents self-identify as white. My neighbors rarely acknowledge me, let alone say hello or engage in conversation. My house doesn’t feel like home, in large part because I am invisible here. When I’m not invisible, it is because people are concerned or confused about what I’m doing here, in their neighborhood, in their space.

I don’t look like my neighbors, or most people in Minnesota for that matter. I was born in India and came to Minnesota as an infant, adopted by a single white woman. We camped as a family most summers when I was little, and I spent a lot of time in nature on my own or with friends, back when it was assumed you’d be outside for most of the day, returning only when the streetlights came on in the evenings. Whether fishing with my grandfather or biking to the river with a couple of boys I went to elementary school with, I felt more connected when I was outdoors—though I might not have been able to connect those dots or articulate that feeling as a young person.

I carried my love of the outdoors into my career. As an environmental and outdoor education coordinator for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, my focus is on connecting BIPOC communities to nature in meaningful, accessible, sustainable, and empowering ways. Early on at my job, I was concerned that I was setting folks up to fail. 

“I’m taking folks into the outdoors, knowing that in the future, when they are alone or with a small group of their family or peers, they will likely face discrimination, anger, microaggressions, and more when they are out in nature,” I told department leadership. I felt torn, because I knew how good being outdoors was for people’s well-being. Yet I also knew that folks like me often weren’t welcomed or wanted in the outdoors. 

I still feel conflicted, but I keep going thanks to experiences like that hike at Crosby Farm. Since then, I’ve coordinated more than 50 BIPOC-specific outings. We’ve kayaked on Pickerel and Loeb lakes, carved wooden spoons at Hidden Falls Regional Park, skied, snowboarded, and ice fished at Como Regional Park, planted trees at Lilydale Regional Park, and so much more. 

Some particularly memorable outings were bonfires along the Mississippi River in April 2021, when time stagnated as the country followed the Derek Chauvin trial. We didn’t have any sign-in sheets or outcomes to track at those bonfires. There were no registration or funder requirements to follow. Rather, folks came and left when they wanted and found their own pace and rhythm. It was momentary relief from the stress and pressure many of us were feeling both internally and externally. We ate, laughed, vented, brainstormed, listened, and soaked up strength and resilience from one another and from the Mississippi River just a few feet away from us.

As a person of color in Minnesota who has often felt unwelcome and unwanted, I have finally found my place here—with 
BIPOC individuals in the outdoors.