Kimberly Woodford didn’t set out to become an entrepreneur when she started Journey On Yonder in 2018. The business, which provides consulting and activity programming services to parks, nonprofit organizations and others seeking to get more people of color involved in outdoor activities, grew out of her many efforts to get more Black people involved in nature.

“This is more than a side hustle,” she said. “It’s the fulfillment of my passion. Journey on Yonder is about inspiring people of color to have healthy experiences in nature.”

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“Go out yonder and play”

As a Black woman, Woodford was concerned that she rarely saw other people of color when she was hiking, camping, kayaking or enjoying other outdoor activities. She sought to change this by leading outdoor activities for people of color aimed at not only introducing them to nature, but also getting them to embrace it.

When Woodford began her journey to get more people of color out in nature, she knew that it was more than a lack of exposure that kept people from participating. It was often an inherited fear shaped decades earlier in a time of legal segregation. For generations, many public parks, campsites and other outdoor spaces were legally off limits to Black people or their access to them was greatly restricted. Even decades after such barriers fell, many people of color still have aversions. They’ve heard the stories of Black visitors being the targets of slights or even violence.  Such stories have often been passed down by family or they have become part of the collective memory of a local Black community.

Kimberly Woodford, Journey on Yonder

Day Job: Commercial sales and project manager

Side Hustle: Consulting and training to make parks more welcoming for people of color.

Favorite Quote: “This is more than a side hustle. It’s the fulfillment of my passion.”

Many of these factors shaped Woodford’s view of nature until two decades ago when she decided to venture off the beaten (asphalt) path.

Growing up in Painesville, Woodford’s parents, migrants from Mississippi, would tell her to “go out yonder and play.” She loved frolicking in the local park, around the ball field or in other open spaces. Years later she would move to Cleveland and discover Euclid Creek Reservation, not far from where she then lived.

At first Woodford would stay on the asphalt path near the road. The wooded areas were inviting, but also scary. She feared encountering wildlife or people who would harm her. One day about 20 years ago, Woodford ventured onto a wooded path at the park. It wasn’t that far from the road, but offered a totally different experience. The creek sounded like a babbling brook to her. She couldn’t hear the whiz of cars or smell of their exhausts. She had no idea so much green space lay just beyond the road. 

“I enjoyed it once I overcame my insecurities,” she said. “It made me feel amazing.”

A few years later, she would meet her husband Kelvin Woodford, an avid hiker and camper, who took her on outdoor activities. Now, she was a full-fledged nature lover.   

Helping parks attract Black visitors 

Before long, friends and others were asking Woodford to lead them in outdoor activities. She did this informally for many years, then later as a local leader with  Outdoor Afro, a national group focused on getting Black people out in nature. Her volunteer efforts soon morphed into a business, fueled partly by officials from parks and environmental organizations seeking her advice on how to attract more people of color.

Among them are those associated with Cuyahoga Valley National Park, which runs through parts of Summit and Cuyahoga counties. Woodford is one of the consultants who have been working with the Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park to increase the percentage of visitors of color. The nonprofit is responsible for providing programming for the park and fostering community connections.

Every 10 years the park does a survey that includes collecting demographic information about visitors, said Conservancy President and CEO Deb Yandala. The last one, done in 2015, showed that about 5% of visitors were people of color. She said the survey found that people of color comprised 37% of the population in surrounding counties.

“We had to ask the hard question,” she said. “‘What were we doing wrong?’ In my opinion, it was a matter of finding out, ‘What are we doing that isn’t creating a welcoming space for people?’”

The woods were not necessarily a safe place historically in this country for many Black people.

Deb Yandala, Conservancy for Cuyahoga Valley National Park

Yandala said officials had had “a bit of a build it, and they will come” attitude in attracting visitors. Officials were perplexed as to why the approach, which worked with white visitors, wasn’t working with people of color.

“She has talked to us a lot about emotional safety in the woods and how the woods were not necessarily a safe place historically in this country for many Black people,” Yandala said of Woodford.

Sometimes concerns about safety are based on more current factors. Woodford said she went hiking a few years ago at Hocking Hills State Park in southeastern Ohio with a group of Black women. A white male hiker passing them on the trail yelled, “Make America Great Again!” For Woodford, his comment suggested that the hiker wanted to turn back time, perhaps even to the time of legal segregation.

“It set me back a bit in terms of feeling safe,” she said. “I told myself, ‘I just can’t let that stop me.’” 

Woodford was too far into her journey of getting more people of color to love nature to turn back. Woodford is always seeking to learn more about nature, even becoming an Ohio certified volunteer naturalist, which has deepened the experiences she can give visitors.

 “I love, love, love that she brings people here for first-time experiences in nature,”  Yandala said. “She’s a real people person; and she so loves nature. People just capture her energy and her excitement: kind of this childlike wonder about being out in nature.”

Others fall for nature

Woodford’s goals include having participants see outside spaces near them in new ways, whether it is reimaging a vacant lot as green space or having deeper encounters with  nature in nearby parks.

Woodford created a nature component for a program at the Cleveland Learning Centers, which provides digital skills and entrepreneurship training to young people and adults. Participants learned computer coding at the centers. Woodford then would take them to Garfield Park Reservation. Not only for a break from screens, but to also see how nature, like numbers, operates with detail and precision.

“It’s very calm and peaceful,” he said of being in the woods. “You can just be with your own thoughts sometimes.”

Micah Pettus-Brooks, Richmond Heights resident

Micah Pettus-Brooks, 10, of Richmond Heights, had visited several Cleveland Metroparks and spent time along Lake Erie, but he said the program with Woodford offered a more meaningful nature experience.

“It was different because we got to learn about different things that I’ve never learned about before, like things about trees,” he said. “Did you know that trees help purify the air?”

Micah is already predicting that he will become a lifelong nature lover.

“It’s very calm and peaceful,” he said of being in the woods. “You can just be with your own thoughts sometimes.”

Jamese Spikes of Euclid, Micah’s godmother who attended the program with him, said that while she had spent time in some of the Metroparks, going to Garfield Park with Woodford was different. She learned the names of various species of trees. She observed the symmetry of leaves. Spikes liked being out in nature so much that she signed up for a full moon hike with another group.

“That’s definitely not something that I would have done before,” she said. “I kept battling with the idea of how am I going to make it in the night with no cellphone and no flashlight?”

As Spikes’ eyes adjusted to the dark, she felt a connection with her ancestors.

“I thought about how many slaves escaped to freedom at night,” she said.

Hearing how newbies delight in nature is what keeps Woodford doing her work. So do the lessons from nature that are applicable to everyday life. One day in Garfield Park with Cleveland Learning Centers participants, she pointed out the differences among trees, plants and animals, explaining that such variety in nature maintains balance and supports life continuing. 

Active in environmental justice

Woodford is active in several organizations focused on getting more people of color involved in nature.  She is vice chairman of the board of the Southern Appalachian Wilderness Stewards, a conservation nonprofit and recently joined the Ohio Advisory Board of the Trust for Public Land, which states that  “everyone should have access to the outdoors.” She is active in Black Environmental Leaders, and was among its first members.

 Experiences with these and other organizations has led Woodford to push for people of color to get involved in such issues as environmental stewardship and equitable green space, which focuses on urban areas. She’s also concerned with environmental justice, a movement seeking  to ensure that people of color and other marginalized communities don’t bear a disproportionate share of negative environmental consequences, such as pollution from commercial operations. 

Woodford admits, especially early on, that she hesitated to become a leader. She treasured inspiring Black people to love the great outdoors, but she didn’t know if she was ready to become a changemaker.

“I was willing to step outside of my comfort zone and become an influencer after I learned that people would trust me to take them on journeys,” she said. “I was willing to evolve, just like they were evolving in letting go of some of their apprehensions and expanding their engagement in outdoor spaces.”

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Olivera Perkins, Economics Reporter

Economics Reporter (she/her)
Olivera, an award-winning journalist, covered labor, employment and workforce issues for several years at The Plain Dealer. She broke the story in 2013 of a food drive held for Walmart workers who made too little to afford Thanksgiving dinner. Olivera has received state and national awards for her coverage, including those from the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW). She was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Olivera believes the sweet spot of high-impact journalism is combining strong storytelling with data analysis.