I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, in a neighborhood called Brownsville. There were no mountains or campgrounds. The only grass could be found in overgrown vacant lots. When our parents directed us to “Go outside and play,” we flocked to chalk-covered concrete and asphalt playgrounds where we found adventure in rounds of Hopscotch and Skelly. If we were lucky enough to own a bike, the most important thing to remember was that you better not let anyone ride it or else you might not ever see it again.
Camping, skiing, snowboarding, and rock climbing were for people with money. Even if we did have access to those activities, to afford them when trying to pay bills and put food on the table was unheard of.
I often wondered why there weren’t more minorities in the outdoor industry. Sponsored athletes in most outdoor sports aren’t brown or from neighborhoods like the one I grew up in. I don’t believe that people from urban areas aren’t interested in skiing or snowboarding, but rather that growing up in an environment where you lack access to learn and practice those activities means they’re not on your radar. Because of this, inner-city children miss out on additional opportunities to build their confidence and experience environmental education.
The Clymb recently donated more than 300 packs, some Arc’teryx harnesses, and other items to a program called Hoods to Woods. Hoods to Woods promotes outdoor awareness to inner-city kids – right in my old neighborhood – through snowboarding, indoor rock climbing, camping, hiking, and more. When I learned that the organization’s founder, Brian Paupaw, was from Brownsville, black, and an avid snowboarder, I had to know more. As Paupaw prepares to give out the donated packs and other items to youth in Brownsville this Saturday, he was nice enough to spare a few moments to talk about the Hoods to Woods program and what it means to the children of Brooklyn.
TC: Tell us a little about your upbringing in Brooklyn. I know firsthand that there’s not much access to sports like snowboarding. How did you discover it?
BP: I discovered the outdoors while I attended Parson’s School of Design in 1996. My classmates were snowboarders and lived in rural areas in Vermont, California, and Washington state. I was very apprehensive at first. I always felt black people had no business with any of those activities at the time. While growing up in Bed-Stuy and Brownsville I wasn’t exposed to the outdoors. Just day-to-day survival was the main concern and going camping was the last thing on our minds. Also, I didn’t know anyone in my community that was involved with the outdoors. After being convinced several times in college, I finally gave snowboarding a shot and got hooked and fell in love with the outdoors.
TC: When did you get the idea for Hoods to Woods? How did it begin?
BP: The idea for Hoods to Woods Foundation started in 2001 when I quit my job to go snowboarding at Mt Baker ski area in Snoqualmie National Forest. I stayed with friends for 4 weeks in a log cabin beneath the snow line near Glaicer, Washington. It was a surreal moment for me. It was my first time visiting a national forest. I was blown away by the scenery and seeing the Mt Baker ski area for the first time made my jaw drop. It was a very emotional moment because right there is when I felt as if I was denied access and knowledge of amazing places like this while growjng up. When I came home back to Brooklyn, it was the same scene in the hood. The violence and poverty was still there. It bothered me that I was experiencing these moments and no one in my community was. That is when I wanted to figure out a way to share with my passion with the community. In 2009, I made a short film titled “Hoods to Woods” with all the footage I had lying around. I did a few screenings in New York City and that’s when people approached me after the film about volunteering to make Hoods to Woods a reality for Brooklyn.
BP: It’s important for children in urban areas to have these outdoor experiences for several reasons. One is to expose the lifestyle to them because of the physical and mental health benefits of the outdoors, and I’m living proof of that! The second is building environmental awareness in urban communities. It’s hard to be environmentally aware when you have never seen or become attached to the environments that need to be protected. These activities will teach them how to respect and preserve these environments, but also educate them on the career opportunities and entrepreneurship within the outdoor industry.
TC: What is the most common response from the teens when they start the program? Do you find they’re intimidated by the sport? Excited?
BP: The most common response is mixed from the teens we serve. At first, it’s a new environment to them and whatever stereotypes they have come up the first day of activities. Then after a few hours the fear settles and the laughter and joy begins! And after that they are hooked! The shy kids open up and the kids that think they will excel first day become humbled after they learn it takes time to master snowboarding or indoor rock climbing.
BP: The response from the outdoor industry has been amazing. Companies like The Clymb, Burton, Yes Snowboards, and Giro have been great supporters of Hoods to Woods and help us with providing apparel and equipment to our programs. We are willing to work with any company that wants to share the passion of the outdoors with inner city children.
TC: Any plans to bring this program to other cities/neighborhoods?
BP: We plan to bring Hoods to Woods to other urban centers in the future, but first we would like to make the program a success in Brooklyn before we venture out. We have limited resources and want to make sure each child has the best experience and success with our programing.
TC: Tell us a little about the event this Saturday, August 18th.
BP: The event Saturday is a registration drive with free book bags to the community of Brownsville Brooklyn. It’s part of the stop the violence block party in partnership with Mt. Ollie Baptist Church.
Programs to introduce inner-city teens to different experiences aren’t necessarily new. When I was 11, I was offered a chance to go to boarding school in Connecticut. I would have been skipped a grade — I later was anyway — and exposed to other cultures and educational opportunities. I refused out of fear. My neighborhood wasn’t great, but it was all I’d known. Thankfully, I managed to obtain a great education and eventually experience the world outside of my less-than-ideal beginnings. But I occasionally wonder what if. What if I’d taken that chance? What experiences did I miss out on? Hopefully the children affected by Brian Paupaw and Hoods to Woods will never have to ask those questions.