Higher Ed Takes A Course In Outdoor Access
Ron Griswell Of HBCUs Outside On Collegiate Opportunities
Ron Griswell, founder and CEO of HBCUs Outside, is a Backcountry Trailbreaker—one of the advocates we sponsor to make the outdoors more inclusive. HBCUs Outside, the nonprofit Ron founded and currently serves as CEO of, makes outdoor activities more accessible to students of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)—which typically don’t have the same outdoor programs as Predominately White Institutions (PWIs). We chatted with him about his experiences, challenges, and goals for both his organization and the outdoors as a whole.
What does a better backcountry look like to you?
One that is all-inclusive and representative of all communities.
What barriers to outdoor experiences do you see the Black community experience most often?
It’s typically a lack of gear, lack of transportation, and uneasy feelings of safety and belonging in these outdoor spaces.
Tell us about an unforgettable experience you’ve had with HBCUs Outside.
I hosted a cabin trip for some students near the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, where I shared my story, aired my faults, and spoke about HBCUs Outside’s mission. I wanted to highlight the power nature had on my life, and how it drew me towards my mission. But mainly, my goal in sharing my story was to help them understand theirs.
While sitting around a bonfire, I saw a reflection: my students’ eyes full of curiosity and infectious smiles of joy. In these students, I saw the reflection of the child I once was, looking for someone to show me more or just someone to experience it all with.
After all of the adventures, and the trials and tribulations of growing HBCUs Outside as a nonprofit, there’s one thing I’m most certain about: I’ve become the person I needed when I was younger. That is why I see what I do as important.
Tell us more about the impact nature has had on you and how it drew you toward your mission.
I have always had an affinity for being outside and exploring but in high school and my early years of college, that was put on the back burner when my cultural identity as a Black man started to become challenged because of my unorthodox interest in the outdoors.
The love that I had for the outdoors all came rushing back after taking a service-learning trip to Belize with my university. I had the chance to snorkel, sea kayak, and hike. Returning stateside, I discovered I caught a bug—I needed to immerse myself within outdoor activities. I noticed I was happier, more fulfilled, and more focused. But my institution, the largest HBCU in the nation, had no programs for me to participate in. This frustrated me, because right down the road at a PWI, they had a robust outdoor program with access to gear, outings club, and a climbing gym.
How did you channel that frustration into HBCUs Outside?
After finding an outdoor nonprofit to work for in Minneapolis, MN, I took a sabbatical to acquire the knowledge and skills I needed so that I could return to my university with solutions. The challenges and solutions I identified were not unique to my school, but rather the entire ecosystem of HBCUs. Thus, my mission and nonprofit were born.
“I’ve become the person I needed when I was younger.”
What are key differences you see between attending an HBCU vs a PWI?
There is a heightened level of self-policing, microaggressions, and code-switching occurring for Black students on the campus of PWIs. For Black students attending HBCUs, you are surrounded by peers and professors who look like you—the complete diaspora of blackness is on full display. Through constantly seeing your reflection in others, you feel free, open, and seen.
What do your participants take away from working with HBCUs Outside?
I want students to take away the feeling of being free, open, and seen. The skills that I believe are important as these students continue to navigate the rest of their lives are leadership techniques and being comfortable stepping into a leadership role, and understanding that following can also be a form of leadership. Lastly, I want students to have a deep reverence, love, understanding, and appreciation for the outdoors. I want them to not only feel the need to make better environmental decisions in their personal lives, but to become stewards of the earth and advocate for better protection of the planet and all of its inhabitants.
“Through constantly seeing your reflection in others, you feel free, open, and seen.”
What does Juneteenth mean to you, and what do you think it means to the Black outdoor community?
Reclamation. Though Juneteenth has always been celebrated across the U.S., I feel that with the unfortunate murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others last year, the great awakening of America’s collective consciousness elevated the holiday. The day is our jubilee to commemorate and celebrate our ancestors and our journey to today. It is ‘our’ holiday.
Keeping with the theme of reclamation, I believe that Juneteenth to the Black outdoor community is about recognizing that we have always been in these spaces. The great outdoors is a part of our heritage and legacy. In celebrating, we also reclaim our known and forgotten presence within the outdoors.
If you could tell the outdoor community anything, what would it be?
Within the outdoor community, our networks are not inclusive of Black people. I believe it would be wise to start building connections with HBCUs. Brands, you need to recruit Black talent and the best future Black leaders to diversify your organizations internally so that your organizations are as inclusive as social media would have them look.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Want to help make the outdoors more inclusive? Check out our Breaking Trail program to meet Ron’s fellow Trailbreakers.