WHY I WEAR JORDANS IN THE GREAT OUTDOORS: A Natural Leader Builds Bridges Between Worlds

About the Author

CJ Goulding is Lead Organizer of C&NNs Natural Leaders Network and Legacy Camps. CJ has worked with Washington's North Cascades Institute introducing teens to backpacking and canoe camping trips, and has also served with the Student Conservation Association as a Community Crew Leader working with high school students in the city parks and green spaces of Seattle and Edmonds. CJ has also worked with the Youth Programs office of the National Park Service in Washington DC.

I am an African American Natural Leader. That phrase is not an oxymoron, but it’s also not something that you normally see in the environmental world.

In the few years that I have been involved in environmental education and connecting people with outdoor spaces, there have been numerous occasions where I am the only person of color in the prog  ram, or the only African American leader. Growing up, there was no one from my neighborhood traveling, hiking, canoeing, or spending time outdoors unless it was a part of a regimented program.

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But do not misunderstand the meaning behind that statement, do not miss my point.

I write, neither to complain that the outdoor world is an elitist one, nor to lament the disconnect between the world I grew up in and the natural world where I now lay roots. I write to celebrate the amazing opportunity available for me (and others like myself) to be a bridge between the two worlds.

On my feet as I write are Jordan Bred 11’s, the only pair of Michael Jordan’s sneakers I have ever owned in my life. Jordan sneakers are a status symbol in the neighborhood I grew up in, a memento of importance and significance. Unfortunately, for some people, they hold higher value than food, books, rent, and in some extreme cases, even the life and well-being of another individual.

So it makes sense that while facilitating an outdoor youth summit this June at Harpers Ferry National Park (Virginia), an African-American teenage boy stopped me to ask why I was wearing these Bred 11s outdoors. I laughed, because that same question and all the underlying ones that accompanied it had been asked of me multiple times that week, and my introspective journey in figuring out that answer led me to write this post.

In response, I asked him if he had ever seen someone from the “outdoor world” wearing Jordans. His answer was no. I asked him if he had seen anyone who would wear Jordans exploring the outdoors like we were, and again he said no.

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The disconnect between the two circles was evident, and as we looked around, we could see that even there, we were in the minority.

And with that same mindset, I used to believe that I stood on a decrepit bridge between two worlds…

I have heard the rallying cry echo through the trees, affirming that the outdoors are for people of all creeds, countries and colors. I have been a part of programs that aim to introduce these natural spaces to kids from the inner city who don’t have the awareness, opportunity or means to go camping or hiking every weekend.

I have heard the questions posed every time I prepare to travel to a wild place away from home, and seen the confusion that arises when my family attempts to describe what I do.

But two summers ago, in the infancy of my outdoor career, while serving as a trip leader for the North Cascades Institute, the seed of connection between two seemingly mutually exclusive circles was planted. I was the only male African American leader, and quickly learned the importance of setting an example. During that time, I had many conversations with the teenagers on my trips about where I came from, what I was doing living out in nature, and why I chose to do it.

That summer, as I learned the nuances of nature and the outdoors right alongside my kids, nature taught us both struggles and pain, knots and the power of perseverance. And although I took notice of the difference between where I was at that moment and where I grew up, without any intentional nurturing from me, the seed of connection between the two worlds took root and grew.

Eventually it came to my conscious attention through one of the teenagers on my trip, who on our last day, as we were preparing to separate, said “he enjoyed being outdoors in the nature because CJ did.” And I realized the tremendous impact that I could have.

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I no longer saw the singularity of my skin tone among my peers as a problem, but instead as a megaphone to give weight to the message that as people of color, people from different ethnic backgrounds, the outdoor world is ours to explore as well. And for those who have grown up connected to and educated in the outdoors, they now have the chance to connect to new cultures, to see flora and fauna through the eyes of city kids.

Along this journey, I have met several other natural leaders of different ethnicities doing similar and amazing work, both in the inner city and out in parks and natural spaces around the country. I had the opportunity to attend the 2013 Natural Leaders Legacy Camp, where I connected with fifty other leaders with similar mindsets, strengthening my resolve, knowing I am not the only one out there.

My Jordans are falling apart, worn from adventures in places like the Grand Tetons and the Grand Canyon. This goes directly against how people “should” wear them and what people “should” wear outdoors. But I wear them wherever I go to remind me of the fact that though there are two worlds, I am a bridge.

In our current society, where youth as a whole do not spend significant time outdoors, I am encouraged by that realization as I have continued to work in outdoor and conservation related fields, and I am constantly reassured of its validity when I see yet another kid from the inner city follow the footprints of my Bred 11s into the woods.

More Reading and Resources

C&NN’S Natural Leaders Network


TEN GREEN JOB RESOURCES I Wish I Had Known About Ten Years Ago



  1. Thanks for this wonderful post, CJ. I’ve been concerned for some time about how to get beyond “preachin’ to the choir” on the benefits of getting kids (or anyone) outdoors. You represent where the rubber meets the road on addressing that concern — I applaud you!
    It would seem to me that, for these kids locked for so long in an environment and culture devoid of Nature, the outings you lead not only introduce them to new worlds of discovery and camaraderie, but, importantly, put those young people, perhaps for the first time, on a level playing field with other kids their age.
    Getting to Nature may still involve some privilege, but once they’re there, she plays no favorites.

    • “Culture devoid of nature” is an inaccurate and uninformed assumption.

  2. My sentiments exactly. Thanks. For posting this and for what you’re doing.

  3. Love the use of your shoes as a symbol and a conversation starter. Well written post, and keep up the good work!

  4. Hooray! Huzzah! Three cheers! Woo-hoo! There are not accolades enough to describe the joy I felt reading this article. Thank you, CJ, for being a leader and not only taking on outdoor education, but also taking the time to write about it and the connections you can make/have made. As a white woman in environmental education (for over 20 years), I find that I am unable to make the same connection…no matter how hard I try. I think we grossly under-estimate the power of seeing “people like us” doing things – if we don’t see it, then it can’t be true. I have tried to live as though color didn’t matter – because to me it doesn’t, but the reality is, for good or ill, it does make a difference, even if the message is subliminal. Keep up the good work!!!

  5. CJ Goulding

    Thank you all for the encouraging comments!

    I am glad that I can share part of my journey through my writings. I’m learning that everyone has the power to connect (Ellen and Jeffrey), and being a leader is about valuing that connection and then supporting those who can connect in ways where we fall short. There are many natural leaders around the country (some look like me, some don’t, but we’re all leaders) who are doing great work! Find and support them as well!

    And Jon, I got my sneakers for $4.25. I’m a big bargain hunter!

  6. Fantastic post, CJ! Thank you for sharing, and for reflecting on the important role and opportunity you have as a leader to be a “bridge between worlds.” You have had a wonderful journey, inspiring many young people along the way. It was a privilege to work with you on some of those first trips on Ross Lake. Keep it up!

  7. Great story CJ, you have some skills in the writing department. We miss you in the North Cascades and love that you are still pursuing and strengthening your passion. Come for a visit!

  8. Cheers to CJ for a fantastic post! Coming from the perspective of a former NGO environmental attorney, it is so tiring to constantly have the conversation about “how to make the environmental community more diverse.” And this on the heals of Dorceta Taylor’s latest report, “The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations” (which doesn’t paint a pretty picture), with uneducated critics perpetuating the horrible myth that people of color “don’t care,” “don’t understand” or “can’t afford to care.”

    People of color certainly do care, do understand, and do participate. I applaud you for finding your own center, for doing it with your own cultural flair, and sharing it with others. Youth leadership is critical, and you are a great roll model for all of up. Please keep doing what you’re doing.

    Should you like to write a guest post, I’ve love to have you on my blog as well. Please check it out:

  9. I love this connection! Such a simple gesture that invites and welcomes a much larger community to feel comfort in the outdoors. Thank you for sharing as great connector for POC! I’m inspired to tell my friends to wear their favorite Jordans outdoors too.


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