Belonging: A Conversation with Greg Smith and Mercy M’fon Shammah from Wild Diversity

Since 2017, Wild Diversity has worked to decolonize outdoor spaces by creating a welcoming environment and sense of belonging in the outdoors for Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) and LGBTQ+ communities through outdoor adventures, education and community workshops.

Bird Alliance of Oregon has been grateful to partner with Wild Diversity for the last year and a half, with staff naturalists leading bird walks or community science outings. Today, we’re sharing an interview with Wild Diversity founder and Executive Director Mercy M’fon Shammah and Bird Alliance of Oregon Naturalist and Wildlife Biologist Greg Smith. The two talk about Wild Diversity, outdoor gear and recreation, inclusivity in the outdoors, and how organizations need to step up if they truly want to be allies. This interview has been edited down from a more than an hour long conversation.

A photo of a group of multi-racial people smiling at the camera in the woods.
Participants on a Wild Diversity outing.

Greg: Birders talk about what spark bird awakened them to this hobby. Wondering if you had an experience in your life where the outdoors clicked for you?

Mercy: I always talk about this memory I have of this one place where my parents used to go on vacation, and it was this outdoor resorty place in the 80s, and it’s still here. It’s this forested area where you can buy land and see everyone’s different cabins that they built on their own plots. The Illinois River ran through there and it was really gorgeous. My dad was like, this is the plot of land that I bought for us. My parents did not appear like the outdoor type at all. My mom was in the medical field and my dad was a chemist, kind of nerdy folks. I remember exploring and I walked away from my family and I was just walking in the woods by myself. The feeling of disorientation was more exciting than it was scary. I can still feel the feeling of excitement. 

Greg: Is there anything in the outdoors that you’re particularly keen on doing when you’re out there? 

Mercy: I consider myself a leisurely outdoorist. A lot of people go to the outdoors to workout, do something competitive, really vigorous. It’s always a challenge. My Black ass does not need any more challenges. So when I go to the outdoors, I’m always like, let’s relax. I want to backpack to a really beautiful location, somewhere where there is a river, a lake, or creek, and just hang out. 

I think people should know that there are so many ways to go outside. I think birding is so cool because it changes the face of a simple hike into something that you can experience, something really unique. Same thing with plant ID. It’s almost like seeing in black and white when you’re just doing a regular hike or even a competitive hike. But when you can add more to your hike like looking at flowers, identifying plants, identifying birds, listening to sounds, then you’re starting to hike in more of a full color. I think there are so many ways to just enjoy the outdoors. I feel like first-time people just have to know that there’s a million things to do and if you didn’t like that one thing in the outdoors, it just means you didn’t like that one thing. It doesn’t mean the outdoors isn’t a place for you.

Greg: Is there any skill you gained while doing Wild Diversity that has changed the way you camp or enjoy the outdoors?

Mercy: Before Wild Diversity, I did not hammock camp. Being a curvier person, trying sleeping on these mats that are less than an inch deep, you just wake up super exhausted and uncomfortable and your body aches. If you can get your setup in a hammock in a way that is comfortable, you just wake up and get to stare at the trees. And that’s the way your morning starts and it’s just so beautiful. 

Greg: There is a narrative that there isn’t interest from BIPOC in outdoor spaces or in birding, and from my experience, it’s just not the case.

Mercy: It’s a lie. There are Environmental Professionals of Color, which is a big group out here, and there are so many other groups. So when they are like, “We can’t find any” and they use that excuse, you’re like, “You’re just not trying and also you probably haven’t created a welcoming space for them to come.” Maybe they don’t feel comfortable. Maybe they don’t feel safe being tokenized if you aren’t recognizing that there are Black biologists or Black conservationists. If you’re not realizing that, that’s part of why people don’t want to come into your arena who have diverse backgrounds.

Greg: Yep. If I had a bell or some sort of buzzer to hit, I would continue to hit it over and over again. I agree with every word of that. It’s a false narrative. It’s a narrative of laziness and inaction.

Mercy: They’re not reaching out to these communities and saying, “Hey, we want you, not to tokenize you but you’re welcome here. And here is what we’re doing to ensure safety and comfort for people. This is what we’re doing to dismantle racism.” They’re not saying that. They’re not doing that. They’re just like, “No one applied, so no one is out there.”

Greg: I wanted to talk about the difference between fitting in and belonging. I think people talked about diversity and then we realized that’s not actually it. Then we talked about equity and realized, that’s kind of it. But in simple terms, it’s about belonging.

Mercy: I would say that because people think that if they just invite a black person to a thing, that they have created diversity. And I’ve definitely been tokenized at a lot of these conventions and conferences as their little diversity person that they brought in so they can feel good. But I don’t feel good being in those spaces. You go after hearing, “We’re centering this conference around diversity” but I’m the only brown person here essentially, and it’s really uncomfortable. 

I’ve gone to events where the only people of color were the speakers and no one else. So the idea of inviting someone into your unsafe place, a place where you are just doing these performative moves to look like you have diversity is really not diversity at all. 

Feeling of belonging is you don’t have to explain your existence. You don’t have to tell them why the outdoors should be a diverse place. You don’t have to code switch. You don’t have to talk or speak, act differently, behave any differently. You can be yourself and that’s welcomed and celebrated. To me, that’s what belonging looks like. You don’t have to explain all the things about being a black person. You aren’t tokenized. You’re not asked to represent the whole Black community. You get to be yourself fully and you don’t have all these racial expectations laid at your feet. And I think that would be the biggest difference in belonging versus fitting in. There’s not a lot of places where I can say checked off all those boxes that I just said.

Greg: Can you tell us about the gear library?

Mercy: We utilize the gear library to support participants on our trips. So you don’t have to come with a copious amount of gear. You need to bring your own underpants, but we’ve got your socks. As far as clothing goes, we don’t have every size but if you have some stuff we can help supplement it with other clothing. In terms of gear, we have your tent, we have your sleeping pads, we’re going to bring all the kitchen ware, we’re going to bring all the food. We even have shoes, waterproof hiking boots that we can lend you. We really want people to come and explore the outdoors. It can be pretty pricey just getting that Essential 10 together.

We do a wide variety of ventures, so we’ll go canoeing, kayaking, we have our bird walks, wildflower walks, hikes, backpacking trips. We even have multi-day water trips, canoe and kayaking. We’ll go to the beach, we’ll do mushroom foraging, we’ll do rock climbing. We do this because we just want to get people outside and we know there is something that we do that you would  love. So we want people to come try it. Don’t buy your gear. Come out, have an adventure with us and see if you like it before you start investing.

Greg: What are your needs as an organization right now?

Mercy: You can follow us on Instagram at @wilddiversity or on We are still doing the final things to figure out what we want to do for the summer. COVID definitely through us for a loop. And it was going to be the most amazing summer, our third summer as an organization and it was going to be badass, but now it’s going to be bad ass adjacent. We’re still going to do adventures. People have different needs right now. Some people are like, I’m not leaving my house until they come up with that vaccine. So we are going to try and do stuff where people can do stuff at home, people can do stuff solo, people can do stuff in town, and for those who are ready can go out in the back country or on the water with us. We do want to try and do an array of things this summer still. We hope to be able to reach out to our community and create spaces including doing some BIPOC and black retreats for youth and adults this summer. Just to have a little bit of time together in the outdoors.