Q&A: Judith Kasiama, Founder of POC Outdoor Group Colour the Trails
The Congolese Canadian on building communities as a refugee, the need for inclusivity not just diversity, advocating through action, and asking for help
Situated just south of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo is, Kikwit, hometown of Judith Kasiama. It was there where Judith spent her early years watching her community integrate the natural world into their everyday lives, through agriculture and as a source for food and water. For Judith, the surrounding rainforest was a place to feel her own freedom as she explored with natural wonder. Then the Great War of Africa arrived, forcing Kasiama's mother to make the tough decision to pack up her four chidlren and flee everything they knew and loved.
Now an adult in Canada, Kasiama has channeled her love of the outdoors and longing for a new community, like the one she knew as a youth, into founding Colour the Trails, a grassroots organization that provides a starting point for BIPOC, LGBTQIA members, and allies interested in outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, climbing, and kayaking in places where they otherwise might feel unwelcomed.
Once a refugee, Kasiama has seen war, and experienced homelessness. She has lived some of our greatest fears. Yet, she stands today, passionate to give back and cultivate a new community in North America as we've never seen. In creating a space for Black and brown folk to explore the outdoors —Colour the Trails now has three chapters across Canada and the U.S.—she has helped secure a seat at the campfire for more diverse voices.
To learn more about Colour the Trails, her experience straddling an identity of being both Congolese and Canadian, and just how difficult it is to start a community from the ground up, we recently spoke with Kasiama over zoom. The following is a condensed form of that conversation.
What are your first memories of being outdoors?
I had a lot of opportunities growing up in DRC. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and had total freedom to explore, to be honest. Whether it was exploring a our jungles or watching our families farm and do agricultural work, I was always exposed to nature. It was very much all encompassing.
I wasn't sheltered—I was very much let loose to do stuff in nature and be outside and play and then just come home before dark. That was basically my childhood growing up there.
With chapters in British Columbia, Alberta, and Colorado, Colour the Trails seems to really be taking root. Tell us more about that.
I'm finding Colour the Trails is growing. It's just about exciting people to be able to create community. The whole purpose with Colour the Trails and with all these chapters is to get a community of people to come together and just spend time together and go outside and enjoy nature. That's how it started in Vancouver—I was inviting people to come hiking with me.
"We can be as colorful as we like in the outdoor space because at the end of the day nature doesn't discriminate. It's humans who discriminate. Nature welcomes us all."
In Vancouver, we are very lucky in terms of where we are geographically. We have a lot of ocean inlets, and then we have mountains that surround us. So, access to nature is not so far away. It's a thirty-minute drive to the nearest ski resort. Not everybody gets that privilege of accessibility to the outdoors. Getting people to know that they have access to these places is what Colour the Trails was founded upon. Giving people the opportunity to be like, "Yes, we live in this beautiful place, and we do have access to this. So let us come together and go do these things that we may feel that we're not really a part of, or we're not invited to, but we do have a right to be in this space."
Why ‘Colour the Trails’?
I founded Colour the Trails to be inclusive—it's calling in different races to be part of the trails. Also folks who identify differently within the LGBTQ+ community—showing solidarity. We can be as colorful as we like in the outdoor space because at the end of the day nature doesn't discriminate. It is us humans who discriminate. Nature welcomes us all.
Anyone in the industry or who has spent time outdoors recognizes the importance of being out in nature and how beautiful it is. And I love bright colors. I love the colors that you see in nature. So, I just wanted to have that vibe where it's "Colour the Trails," where we can all be on the trail coming from every walk of life and just, you know, be one with nature.
Kickstarting a community-focused outdoor group could not have been easy. Please tell us about this experience and share any advice you have for others hoping to reach their goals?
You have to be persistent. You have to be okay with rejection.
With Colour the Trails, I've only got traction in the past few months since the global racial awakening. But I've been doing this work for almost three and a half years, advocating for diversity and inclusion, taking people out, putting my own financial resources out there.
There were so many times where I honestly wanted to give up because I was pouring so much into it. Having a supportive partner, as well as a community around me that saw my vision and kept pushing me to keep going forward because they knew the work I was doing was important and necessary, that helped me go for it.
"We know diversity exists in the world but it's that inclusivity piece that's missing. Colour the Trails mentorship program is to bridge that gap."
With any successful company or business, everybody goes through horrible, horrible periods, but it's that persistence and stubbornness not wanting to give up [that makes the difference].
If it is something that you truly love and want to do, just be persistent. Don't give up. Don't allow rejection to take you from your ultimate goal, because the opportunity will come. A lot of the companies that rejected me, that we're not interested in me, we’re now beginning to partner up together.
Whatever it is you're doing, people will see the genuineness of it.
Colour the Trails has a mountain biking mentorship. What was the impetus behind that?
When I advocate for diversity and inclusivity in the outdoor space, I don't want to just advocate through speaking. I want to advocate through action and actually see things change. And one of the ways is beginning to create programs to get people outdoors and to be able to recreate in whatever sport that they like. But also breaking barriers—there's a lot of costs in all these activities.
There's so much talent in Vancouver in terms of mountain biking. There are a lot of people in the community that I want to support and get into this sport, but sometimes they don't know how to do it. So that's how the idea of the mentorship program came to be. This mentorship program's whole purpose is to set up a mentee with a mountain biking mentor who has the experience to train them and give them the accessibility and tips they need.
This is how we begin to diversify the outdoors: through a grassroots movement. Are we really going to rely on government? I think a grassroots movement is the way to go. My whole process is bridging the gap and bringing in that inclusivity piece. Because there is diversity. We know diversity exists in the world but it's that inclusivity piece that's missing. Colour the Trails mentorship program is to bridge that gap.
What lessons have you learned from your journey that you've taken into the outdoors?
Accept help. I think sometimes, we human beings are terrified of asking for help when we need it. I wouldn't be here today without the random people that I may never meet again in my life who stepped in and helped my family. The journey itself has been very difficult. To find permanent residents in a country to accept us as refugees. We’ve bounced around a lot and it didn't work. We tried the U.S. for ten years—it didn't work. So, we came to Canada. I'm now Canadian, and I don't have to worry about my visa running out, paying all these international fees. I'm very humbled by that.
We need to ask for help. We can't do life on our own—it's difficult and it's stressful. Knowing your limit and being able to vocalize your need, because sometimes we can get angry and frustrated that people don't see our pain or don't see what we need, only to realize it’s because we haven't vocalized it to them. Realizing that the circumstance that you are in now doesn't have to define where you're going... a year from now or two weeks from now.
"There are things we can't change in the environment we're in but how we view ourselves and view life makes a huge difference. So be persistent and seek help when you need it."
As somebody who was a refugee at one point in my life, we were homeless a couple of times... at a young age, I've experienced a lot of things. I've seen violence, I've seen war, and I've seen all these things, but I don't allow those circumstances to define how my life is going to be.
Rather, I've learned from those experiences, and I get to choose how my life is going to be defined. I think that's the greatest lesson that I've learned: that life is not easy, life is not fair, but based on my own lived experience, it's how we carry ourselves during those hard times. There are things we can't change in the environment we're in but how we view ourselves and view life makes a huge difference. So yeah, be persistent and just seek help when you can, when you need it.
Outside of being an outdoors activist you recently turned to art and worked on an editorial project called, "Unmasking the Diaspora." Can you tell us a little more about that project and why it's so important to you?
Yeah, I love art. I love photography because I find it has power in telling a story. For example, I was born in the Congo. Two of my siblings were born in South Africa. The other was born in Australia. Meanwhile, all of us were raised outside of our birth country. Even though we're Congolese, because my mom is Congolese, we don't feel like we fit anywhere. We feel like we're in this in-between space. We don't speak the language and we're seen more westernized. And then we're in the West, but our race plays a huge part in terms of how we move in that space. So it's like, I was basically trying to figure out as a diaspora, I know where I come from, I know my culture, but I'm also being removed so far from it. It's been over twenty years that I've been in the Congo, so I can no longer identify with the Congolese culture because it has also grown and changed in twenty years. So, where do I fit?
Why do you think it's so important to share the outdoors with Black and brown people?
I think it's important because right now we know our environment is in crisis. There's a lot of environmental issues coming up. We know about environmental racism. A lot of things impact the community of color. We can't say, “We need to save the whales,” when a lot of people have never seen the ocean and have never seen the whales. How will they go to save the whales when they're in parts of the community where every day there's pollution impacting their children's ability to breathe? Why would they care about the environment? The community of color is bombarded with a lot of different things—the stress that it has on our bodies and the health of our bodies is huge. So, I also advocate for mental health.
But by having communities of color more in the outdoors, it's reaffirming that you do belong in this space. This space is for you, as well as everybody else. You have the right to enjoy and recreate responsibly in this nature and appreciate this nature. And once you begin to appreciate that, I think it impacts how we vote. It impacts how our money is spent. We can’t have X without Y—all these things are really, really important.
It's time for Hike, Camp, Climb—a play on Fuck, Marry, Kill. So, Rue Mapp, founder of the Outdoor Afro, James Edward Mills, author of the book, The Adventure Gap, Changing the Face of the Outdoors, and Rihanna.
The founder of Outdoor Afro, I'll hike with her. In terms of climbing, I'll pick Edward Mills because I feel like he's very adventurous. With his years of experience in the outdoors and writing about the outdoors, I'd feel safe with him guiding me up a mountain. And I'll camp with Rihanna because I think we'll have a lot of fun up in nature. Like I can set up a tent—fine! She'll put on the music and we'll just dance. We can even have a whole Fenty show up there...