Ambreen Tariq saw a problem in the outdoor industry and set her mind to change it. The founder of Brown People Camping, Tariq shares her journey to diversify public lands and grow community through storytelling.
I first came across Ambreen Tariq’s work on Instagram. A few months prior, I had joined Outdoor Women’s Alliance seeking a cohort of women who would support and challenge me outdoors. Finding Tariq’s approach to community building left a deep impression on me. Her project, Brown People Camping (BPC), demonstrates how powerful storytelling can be in challenging dominant narratives about the outdoor experience.
Tariq talked with me about her process in growing BPC from an idea to a movement, one joined by thousands of people who want to expand the boundaries of what it means to be and belong in the great outdoors.
Olivia: You’ve said that camping changed your life. What was it about those experiences that lit a fire for you and made you want to begin this project?
Ambreen: I’ve always had an interest and connection to the environment that really came from my family and my faith. In a traditional Muslim family, we were raised to value nature and natural resources as a part of all the blessings that we were constantly reflecting on, and that includes the ability to actively enjoy these things.
My family and I had to move to the United States when I was a child. The social transition going into a country is very difficult, and bullying was real, so some of my fondest memories were when we ventured outside. We didn’t really know what we were doing; we didn’t have a reference for that culture, the knowledge of how to build a fire, how to set up a tent, and, what do you do when you’re actually at a campsite? Our outdoors discovery was running parallel with how we were learning to live in America, but it was devoid of all of the pain and baggage that came with the other side of my life. It was pure adventure and joy. Yes, we were the only people of color out there but I was too young and too new to this country to understand why that was a problem.
After I got married I decided to make outdoors a real part of our lifestyle. So, a few years ago, my husband and I used our wedding gift money to invest in a couple tents and some equipment. When we got out there it just struck me that … while so much had changed in my life, the outdoors still looked exactly the same as when I was eight years old, and still was predominantly white. While I loved rediscovering my relationship with nature and my outdoors lifestyle, I felt alone once again out there when I looked around the trail or campground and didn’t see folks who looked like me. That’s why it became really important to me to talk openly about the lack of diversity in the outdoors and work toward progress rather than continue to feel like an outsider in a place I loved.
When I started @BrownPeopleCamping on Instagram, I really had no grand plan for where this would end up. I had been struggling to find and connect with an outdoors community that I could really identify with, and that means diversity, because that’s the rest of my life. When I got outdoors all that [diversity] sort of fell away and it felt really isolating so my singular goal became that if I can’t find that community, I’m going to create one digitally.
So I started with a photo and a story and went from there. The more I shared about my life experiences a South Asian, Muslim-American, immigrant woman, the more I shared about my perspectives on equity, access and privilege, the more responses I got from real people who empathized with me and felt passionate about promoting diversity as well. That experience began to shape my need to think of this project as a growing community. It was a pretty instant realization: this was bigger than what I had planned and I needed to be very thoughtful in how I approach it, and grow through engagement and constant self-reflection on what’s best for our shared movement.
Are there any things that you’ve learned along the way that you feel are important for the success of building this community and creating this space?
I went into this looking for other people of color, other diverse communities to connect with and [I found] that the vast majority of my followers and supporters are white, and many are deeply saddened by the lack of diversity in the outdoors. So that was a major paradigm shift for me: What is allyship and what is membership in a mission that is trying to change culture and value? The more people began to share with me stories of their personal struggles and life experiences, the richer my connection became to this growing community I had never even imagined could exist.
The other big lesson that I learned is a little less positive: I honestly had no idea that there are people in [the U.S.] that are offended by the word “diversity.” Obviously there’s trolling online, but the backlash I received for promoting my diversity was so angry and so instant that I couldn’t dismiss it away as eccentric outliers in the comments section. The backlash was real and it was from people who felt that I was accusing them of being exclusionary simply by pointing out the lack of diversity. Others refused to believe that there is, in fact, racial disparities in the outdoors. Those folks rejected my assertions that getting outdoors takes time, money, and privilege and not everyone in this country has equal footing in overcoming those obstacles. I constantly see that rejection through statements like “If you want to get out there, you can get out there. No one is stopping you.”
What I’ve learned through this process, by reading every single comment I get, is that there are a lot of people in this country who are honestly unable to empathize with the experience of being a minority. But, they are also struggling in their own way, whether it’s economically, or lack of education, or exposure. Their struggles, combined with their inability to empathize with the minority experience, has possibly created a large group of people who get frustrated when we talk about these disparities because they feel like they’re being accused of being racist.
Many others also have opposed my mission because they feel that by getting more folks outdoors they’re being dispossessed of their land or special connection to outdoors traditions.
I haven’t simply learned these lessons overnight; it has taken me a lot of emotional energy to read curse words, racist hate speech, and personal attacks at my character that claim I am a liar and a race-baiter. When you see these comments literally hundreds of times, you can’t just walk away from it saying, “Oh, these are just crazy, ignorant people.” No. There’s something happening here; I have to keep telling my story and elaborating on evidence that pushes back against ignorance in order to start dismantling it.
We need to be vulnerable and open to hearing other people’s perspectives but not disregard someone’s truth. The fact is, this is my truth. I have been all over this country to hike and camp and every single time I am one of the few people of color outdoors. That is an objective truth: it’s not a theory, it’s a fact. And we need to acknowledge it and embrace it, so we can get to the root causes of these disparities. We have to work together to push for more equity so we can ultimately grow this community of people who have a genuine connection to the land and as a result of that connection, will love the land and defend its wellbeing in the future.
You help people see the places you visit as sites that have a deeper history and culture beyond the aesthetic value of the space. Is that part of your larger goal of building community and diversifying the outdoors?
I think maybe part of that passion comes from my immigrant experience. I’m really passionate about enjoying the environment for its social heritage. Every piece of public land has an imprint of cultural history. We just cannot enjoy a piece of land without acknowledging that many have suffered to have that [land] made available to the public, but also acknowledging the people who donate their time and energy and labor to have made that trail in the first place, and those who donate money to maintain these spaces. It’s important to me to be able to see our outdoor recreation as a part of our cultural experience.
It’s been about a year since you’ve started the BPC account. How do you want this project to evolve? What do you want it to become?
That’s something I struggle with a lot. I obviously have other responsibilities in life in addition to a full-time job, so I’ve been conservative in how I’ve grown this project. I think the strength of it is in the simplicity of it: a picture, a story, and an opening for dialogue.
I want to be responsible and do my best with the privileges I have for this project, but at the same time I don’t want to do so much that it is a disservice to my community and platform—and that can include me burning out.
I draw empowerment and inspiration from so many other people, organizations and social media influencers who are also advocating for equity and access to the outdoors. We are stronger together and it’s important for me to emphasize that I can’t just talk about what I’m doing in a vacuum. What I am doing is part of, and overlaps with, the efforts of a growing coalition of individuals of varied identities, economic experiences, and passions. We share our stories together and through this movement, we will make progress.
Are you interested in turning your passion for the outdoors into a career? Visit the Camber Outdoors Career Center.