Inspirational Stories: The Rise Of Steppers
Steppers UK is a community interest company promoting diversity within the outdoors. They support Black, Asian and Ethnic minority communities to explore the outdoors and build positive relationships with nature through a variety of outdoor activities. Here, we speak to founding member Cherelle Harding about what inspired her to start the group and her aims for the future.
When and why was Steppers UK formed?
Steppers was born in the summer of 2020, when the world was in lockdown and the Black Lives Matter movement was becoming more prominent. For me, this put a renewed focus on structural racism, injustice, and the lack of representation in a lot of industries. I was having so many conversations about the underrepresentation of black and ethnic minority groups that it inspired me to create a space where people who looked just like me could enjoy the outdoors – judgement free.
While the idea of creating a ‘walking group’ for people of colour had crossed my mind several times over the years, it was through lockdown that I realised the world was in a place where what people needed most was nature.
But, I felt there needed to be more of an equity approach for people of colour. A place where our needs were centralised and prioritised so I made it happen.
What are your aims?
As a group we aim to:
- Promote diversity within outdoor spaces and improve/increase access for those lacking ability, representation, or opportunity
- Increase the physical and mental well-being of our participants
- Normalise the visibility of black and brown faces within outdoor activities
- Support participants to eradicate their fears and any stigma associated with the outdoors
- Provide fun and therapeutic experiences in nature
- Create communities of outdoor enthusiasts and equip them with the skills and knowledge they need to make recreational outdoor activities a part of their lives
How do you think you can help people reconnect with the outdoors?
Representation is a key to our organisation, but we also put a big focus on joy and fun. Often you can be exposed to racism, prejudice and negativity, so it was important for me to be able to provide a space where people of colour could just have fun. A word we often forget about as adults. Nature can bring so much joy and healing. Unfortunately, due to the many barriers that exist for people of colour, a connection to nature is lost, or there is a disconnect.
As a Black Caribbean woman, my experience goes back to my grandparents coming to England from the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, they lived on a land abundant in nature, and their daily life centred around the natural world and the outdoors. Whether that was walking to school through lush green spaces, growing and picking fruit in their gardens or just being surrounded by palm trees, sand and sea. A connection to nature was just always there.
Fast forward to a move to the most central part of the United Kingdom, surrounded by city life and built-up areas, and the connection was lost. Add a lack of financial resources and a hostile environment, and you can see how their priorities shifted like so many others in their situation. Visiting the countryside and hiking as a black person was just not something many did. As a result, my mother didn’t grow up knowing much about the outdoors and consequently when I was born in 1989, neither did I. Things such as camping, and hiking were always seen as ‘things white people do.’
For me, school opportunities changed that, and I’m grateful for residential trips and one-off experiences that opened my eyes to outdoor activities. At the time, I often viewed them just as rewards and not something that I, a 12-year-old black girl, could actually do for work or even more unimaginable – just for fun!
It wasn’t until my early twenties, through my love of reggae music and inspiration from Rastafarianism and my heritage, that I was able to build a stronger connection to the outdoors, growing my food and getting closer to Mother Nature.
I could feel the benefits reconnecting with nature had on me, and I had to make it my mission for others to have this experience too.
What are the benefits of being outdoors for you and your community?
Being outdoors allows you to detach from the fast pace, technology-driven lives we live. When I’m out exploring nature, I don’t really care about what’s happening on social media. Time away from our phones is needed, and nature allows that – usually because the countryside has no signal, so that helps!
Many of the walkers in our group live in built-up cities, so it’s healthy to have time away from noise and pollution.
Steppers has built such a wonderful community. It sometimes gets me emotional watching everyone talk and seeing ‘big belly laughs’ on our walks. A benefit for many has been connecting, meeting new people, and making friends.
The outdoors is therapy! It allows you to step out of your comfort zone, have new experiences and it improves our physical and mental wellbeing.
How does creativity help you encourage people outdoors?
Over the two years that I’ve been running Steppers, I’ve always tried to come up with creative ways to get more of my community to enjoy the outdoors. Sadly, due to how the outdoors was marketed to many of us, it was always seen as boring and not for people of colour. I’d like to think we’re contributing to changing that narrative.
So far, we’ve done several walks ‘with a twist’. These have included; wellbeing sessions, music walks, kite flying and step and paint (outdoor hiking and painting sessions).
Having this approach is important as it leaves a lasting memory in people’s heads. I think the word fun often gets forgotten about by adults, but it's essential for a happy life. I like to ensure that people always enjoy themselves on our walks.
What have been the highlights so far?
In September, 25 of us summited Snowdon with a ‘Rep your country’ theme. We all wore colours and flags that represented our countries and heritage. Participants proudly flew flags representing countries such as Jamaica, India, Ghana, Tanzania, Africa, and Malawi. It was such an amazing experience to be part of.
At Steppers, we use a phrase ‘ Steppin & Reppin’ and ‘Good views, Good vibes’ this walk was exactly that. It’s probably one of my proudest moments of Steppers so far.
Another highlight has to be the night walk we did last year at Christmas. We walked through a forest in the dark and finished off with an outdoor light trail, which was a different way for us all to enjoy the outdoors.
And lastly, just the general growth of the community is definitely a highlight, and I’m excited about the future.
What are your ambitions for Steppers UK in the future?
At Steppers, we’re aiming to visit all 46 areas of outstanding natural beauty across the UK. We've visited five so far, the Mendip hills, Malvern Hills, Shropshire hills, Cannock chase & Wye valley. For me, this challenge is important as it will allow the group to explore the different landscapes and diversity of nature we have here in the UK.
As well as walking, we’ll also be exploring other outdoor activities such as watersports, climbing and bike riding as well as putting on outdoor skills development sessions to upskill our participants.
In the near future, we hope to start working with schools & young people, building their experiences outdoors and encouraging younger people from black and minority ethnic groups to reconnect with nature too.
We also plan to develop specific programmes supporting refugees and migrants to provide outdoor experiences that they may never have had before.
How can people help or get involved?
Funding is currently our biggest barrier. Having access to more funds allows us to continue the work we are doing and gives us the opportunity to grow, expand and do all the things I have mentioned above.
We’re always looking to grow the group, so anyone interested in getting involved can get in touch via @steppers_uk across all social media platforms.
Hear from members
Cherelle’s passion for the outdoors shines through, and it’s this positive approach and creativity that has seen the group grow from strength to strength. Below some of the participants tell us more about their experience with Steppers:
“I can honestly say being involved in Steppers has really ignited my passion for being outdoors. During my walk, I recalled so many pieces of knowledge I already had about outdoor safety and awareness of nature. I’m excited to go on my next group walk. I was always outside as a child, and this experience has given me a refreshed sense of youthful energy that I didn't think was possible.”
- Samaro, 35, Steppers Participant
“Joining Steppers was the highlight of my lockdown experience. I was so pleased when Cherelle mentioned that she wanted to create a way for ethnic minority groups to have more access to the outdoors and the UK countryside. It’s a great initiative and a much-needed one. It’s a rarity to see other Asian people walking in the countryside.
Steppers inspired me to create my own Instagram page @Jungleejoggers and share my outdoor experiences. Since then, I have connected with many other people and hijabi sisters around the UK interested in the outdoors.
For us, it’s quite daunting going out alone, as we’re often scared of facing racism. With Steppers, I feel comfortable exploring the outdoors with a group of like-minded people.
Walking with Steppers is always fun, full of love and laughter. Good views and good vibes! I love how at the end of each walk, we always reflect, we take a few moments to talk about our learnings... it goes like...”so what have you learnt today?” “Hmm...I love the outdoors more than I did before, I’ve learnt not to be loud in a field full of horses, and I’ve learnt I need better boots!” There’s always something new to learn on these walks!”
- Tayyibah, 25, Steppers Participant
“I started attending hikes with Steppers UK when Cherelle was first started the walking group. The walks are always well-organised and enjoyable. Through attending these walks with Steppers UK, I learned about so many local walking areas that I never even knew existed. I inspired me as a black female who loves the outdoors to want to learn to lead hikes myself, resulting in me taking part in a recent Lowland Leader course provided by Plas Y Brenin as part of the Mountain Training organisation. I love everything that Steppers UK stands for and look forward to continuing to attend walks with them and exploring more of the countryside!”
– Nicole, 34, Steppers Participant
“I first began walking/hiking with Steppers in May 2021 after wanting to be part of a walking group with others that 'looked' like me. After my retirement in 2021 and the eventual lifting of the Covid lockdown my passion for walking in nature increased. Whilst researching, I came across Steppers UK. My experience to date, has been nothing short of a positive, enjoyable one. I totally enjoy exploring the countryside on foot and breathing fresh air. Most of all, I find walking the best form of exercise. Steppers has allowed me to connect with others who have the same passionas me, and it’s been a great space for meeting and forming friendships.
Cherelle, our hike co-ordinator, is a natural leader and always makes our walks fun with plenty of jokes along the way! I have found many benefits of walking. As well as being a great way to exercise it can also bring your mind body and spirit into balance. It’s a great stress reliever and helps me feel more positive about the world around me. I get a natural high from walking and always look forward to challenging myself on the next walk.”
– Susan, Steppers Participant
“Steppers has really helped me connect with the outdoors and like-minded people. It's one of the ways that has helped clear my mental health, and it's like a safe space for you to enjoy the outdoors and see a difference scenery that you wouldn't normally see in the city.”
– Ruby, 25, Steppers Participant
Adventure doesn’t wait for the weather, and the rain shouldn’t stop you from getting outside to do what you love. Embracing the rain and heading out on a walk brings a number of unique joys – but the right kit is absolutely essential. Dressing for the weather and having the right things with you will make sure your walk is enjoyable and safe, too, so here’s our kit list for a rainy-day walk (a waterproof jacket goes without saying!):
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