In Conversation with Tianna Johnson, Founder of Black Girls Camping Trip

Community organiser and writer Tianna Johnson talks with Lichen about founding Black Girls Camping Trip, a community encouraging Black women and non-binary people to connect and enjoy nature together.

Text Mirabella Shahidullah

Growing up in London, going camping was not something that Tianna Johnson grew up with. Still today, Johnson wouldn’t consider herself a nature expert, ‘even now there is a moth in my room that I caught in a cup and it’s not leaving until I know it’s dead.’ She tells me jokingly over our zoom call. In fact, it wasn’t until university that Johnson started considering nature as a space for herself.  

When Johnson started her first year at the University of Nottingham, she also started struggling with anxiety and depression, issues of which she never had to face before. Her mental health slowly deteriorated and after the academic year was over, Johnson made the decision to study abroad. In order to change her mindset Johnson knew she needed to get out of England. It was not long before she had applied go to the University of Tennessee, a place she had never been and never thought of going.

Unbeknownst to Johnson, it was her time in America that would nurture her  relationship with nature and the foundations for what was to be Black Girls Camping Trip. When Johnson was studying in Tennessee, a friend invited her on a camping trip in the Smoky Mountains, telling Johnson that her and some friends were planning to drive from Tennessee to North Carolina to climb the mountain and watch the sunrise in the morning. ‘I was like that sounds like the whitest shit I’ve ever heard,’ Johnson laughs, ‘but at the same time I knew I came here for new experiences and whatever I was doing before at university wasn’t working … I realised this was the only time I’m ever going to get this opportunity.’
Surprising herself, Johnson agreed to join the trip, though she was particularly nervous because everyone in the camping group was white. After inviting a Black friend join, Johnson discovered how camping could be fun for her, ‘We camped very differently than how they camped … we were in the tent and I was wrapping my hair up at night and they were just lying in the grass… but because I had a friend there it meant I was able to be around nature in the way it was supposed to be for someone like me.’

That weekend, Johnson’s positive feelings towards nature grew, and in the morning when she woke up and looked over the mountains she saw herself in a new perspective, ‘I felt how small I was in comparison to the whole world. Even in terrible places, like in Tennessee, [a place] with so much trauma, so many terrible things have happened there, and it can still be beautiful… I just wanted to have that experience in England, to feel that way about my home the way I felt about a place I didn’t have a connection to.’ Camping helped Johnson’s anxiety ease throughout her time in Tennessee but when she returned to London, something changed. ‘I came back in the UK and I felt that all that depression and anxiety stuff was done because I felt so much better having come home. Yet, throughout the year it just progressively got worse...’

Thinking that camping would help her mental health in the UK as it had in America, Johnson was determined to try it again. Unfortunately, it was not so easy to convince her friends to take part in this experience, Johnson remembers most of her friends were hesitant, and shared the same doubts about camping being as she initally did in America, ‘everyone was like no, we’re not doing that, like that’s the whitest shit I’ve heard in my life… it’s too cold, it’s too rainy, it’s too unpredictable… we’re going to get killed.’ Though Johnson understood their worries, she couldn’t find anyone to go camping with and her depression gradually began to worsen that year. It reached its peak after finishing university when Johnson remembers spending her summer mostly indoors and on Twitter. Yet, during the summer where her depression had taken a turn for the worst, connecting with others on Twitter helped her find people who felt the same as she did. After a couple of months on Twitter, Johnson decided to reach out to her followers, after all none of her friends wanted to go camping, but maybe they did, ‘I decided to ask my followers if any of them want to come camping with me, by the next day, hundreds of people were like yeah, let’s go.’

“As Black women
we’re part of Black communities but we’re also part of women’s communities. To have that niche where it’s just us…it gives us something special and it’s a very intense feeling.”

Tianna Johnson

Johnson decided to set things in motion and started crowdfunding to finance the group camping trip. In mere days, the project had raised eight hundred pounds, but Johnson still wasn’t sure what the outcome was going to be at the campsite. She laughs, remembering her initial fears that no one would show up, ‘I went with my friend and when were in the car together she was like are you alright? I thought we are going to get there, and no one is going to be there…. but people were already waiting on the grass.’

Johnson wasn’t expecting a successful turnout so quickly, but it became clear to her that the camping trip was about more than just connecting with the outdoors, ‘as Black women we’re part of Black communities but we’re also part of women’s communities. To have that niche where it’s just us…it gives us something special and it’s a very intense feeling.’ Encouraging Black women to feel safe and enjoy nature became the organisation’s mission, and before long Johnson decided to make it official, launching a website and Instagram for Black women and non-binary people who want to camp but don’t know where to start.

The need for organisations that encourage and create safe spaces for Black communities to enjoy nature highlights the disparity of safe nature access in the UK. A higher percentage of Black Britons live in urban environments such as cities and towns and especially in London, despite its variety of green areas, accessibility to parks and nature-rich areas is not always easy for all demographics, a fact which is a consequence of racial inequalities and class barriers. In a survey conducted by Natural England in May of this year, surveyors found that Black Britons were nearly four times less likely than white people to have outdoor space at home. Across England, the data further found that only 63% of Black British people have access to outdoor areas, a sharp contrast to the some 90% of white people in England.

Yet, even if parks are public and freely accessible, that does not always mean they are safe. Johnson admits that for her, the first barrier to camping concerned her fear of how Black people are racially targeted in nature. Throughout 2020, there have been numerous incidents that have shown us how Black people are treated in nature. In March of last year, there was an incident with a birdwatcher, Christian Cooper being threatened by a woman calling the police in Central Park after he asked her to put her dog on a leash. Though the situation was de-escalated, other incidents have been extremely fatal, showing that not everyone is treated equally within nature.

Johnson feels like situations like these explain why we often see a disproportionate amount of white people with nature-based hobbies such as bird watching, hiking or just enjoying nature. ‘For [Black people], going through life, we are seen as a threat no matter where we are. When you’re always seen as a threat in those isolated places with no phone service and nobody around, people are even more threatened by you, they think you’re going to hurt them.’ Johnson points out, ‘Boris Johnson himself said that if he’s out in a park and he sees a group of black teenagers his hair curls and he is scared and why is that? Because they’re [Black teenagers], they’re not worried about you, they’re not looking at you… but something about us just doing our own thing and being unbothered is so threatening to other people.’ For such reasons, Johnson understands why other Black people feel hesitant when it comes to enjoying nature, camping or sitting in a park. ‘Nature shouldn’t be a white space it should be a space for all of us, but at the same time I know how we are seen just being outside.’

Understanding that in a country where even public land isn’t always safe for People of Colour is a fact Johnson has already come to terms with. She highlights that with the camping trips she isn’t trying to reclaim UK land but re-work it. ‘British land has never felt like my own,’ Johnson says, ‘but Black Girls Camping Trip is about pushing the boundaries and carving out a space.. The land as it exists isn’t for me but what I can do is use the space that is there to create something for my community, which is what we all need.’

By organising camping trips, Johnson also wants to encourage these women to take a break from the chaos and responsibility tied to city life and allow them to join a supportive community of likeminded people enjoying a therapeutic experience together. A participant in the last camping trip who won a free ticket in a raffle reached out to Johnson and thanked her for the experience, ‘they said to me that they were unemployed and it had given them time away from the difficulties that come looking for a job… she told me that she really needed time away from work and from sitting in front of the computer… to just be outside and be quiet and still. And I know that feeling because that’s how it makes me feel too.’

Though the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic meant some of the trips had to be cancelled, Johnson hopes that going forward, Black Girls Camping Trip will only further expand. ‘I hope that its able to cater to hundreds of us at once,’ Johnson says, ‘[creating] a full blown wellness festival for Black women and non-binary people.’ In the meantime, we need to work on making nature a more welcoming space. For Johnson, encouraging nature equality in the UK starts with re-checking privilege and stereotypes we unconsciously carry, ‘[It’s about] realising you are always a student and willing to make yourself uncomfortable. Ask yourself: why did those Black teenagers in the park make me scared? Let me interrogate it because it’s not okay.’ Johnson states, ‘and really, stop calling the police because it is violent, I don’t think there is anything that scares me more than a police officer coming to me and asking questions when I know I haven’t done anything wrong. And that happens too often.’

Text has been slightly edited and formatted for clarity. Images taken from Black Girls Camping Trip events, courtesy of Tianna Johnson. If you would like more updates on how to join a future camping trip, head to BGCT’s website, Instagram or Twitter

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