An Interview between Scout Toronto and Colour the Trails founder Judy Milay

by Jess K February 23, 2021

Photo of BIPOC and allied hikers in a picturesque winter mountainscape; photo copyright Pavel Boiko, Instagram @neverbadtimeforchanges

Founded in 2017 on the unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and Sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, Colour the Trails is the brainchild of Vancouver-based activist Judy Milay.

I know her more intimately as Ju, my oldest sister. Growing up, her sense of self felt unwavering and ever-present. However, the gift of time is that it allows your perspective to transform in a way that often deepens your understanding of those around you and the nuances of their path. Looking back, I recognize her courage as the fruit of many hardships faced and evidence of her resilience. She is deliberate in how she chooses to use her voice and productive when she thinks of the future. Her approach to life reminds me of a farmer, someone concerned with the health of the soil. This is fitting as Ju is someone who is unafraid of getting her hands dirty, digging them into the Earth to pull at the root of an issue. Her work in the outdoors scene embodies this process. Over the past few years, she has amassed over 18,000 followers on Instagram and is building Colour the Trails to be a sustainable, community-focused organization for and by marginalized communities such as Black, Indigenous and People of Colour. It was an honour to speak with her for this article, especially during a time of feeling distant from our loved ones. I called from my candlelit bedroom in Toronto and she answered from Vancouver so that we could discuss her mission of encouraging folks to find a sense of belonging in the natural world as a doorway to collective environmental activism.

Judy Milay takes on the trails on a mountain bike amongst a forested backdrop on Canada's west coast

Photo copyright Pavel Boiko (@neverbadtimeforchanges) 

Jessica: What is Colours the Trails?

Judy: Colour The Trails is an organization that works on advocating and supporting Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) who are seeking access to the outdoors. Through facilitating and organizing hikes, bikes, kayaking and other outdoor activities, we aim to create a community space for those who are curious but intimidated by the outdoors and barriers that they may face in entering this world. It is a safer space for them to learn these activities and then gain the confidence to continue their outdoor journey on their own.

Jessica: For those who may be unfamiliar with the experience of facing challenges when pursuing the outdoors, can you share examples of the barriers a Black, Indigenous or Person of Colour may face in this scene?

Judy: One of the biggest barriers is the lack of representation. For example, when you think about the marketing of outdoor activities such as camping or hiking, white people are centered which has sparked the misconception that these activities are not for marginalized communities. Representation reminds us that the outdoor space is available for everyone. Another barrier is cost. To get a proper hiking boot, you might be sending at least $200.00 for quality gear. Knowledge is also an important tool – knowing and understanding the trails for your own safety. For people of colour, the safety element is critical. In the wilderness, you are far away from urban settings which means that there are less witnesses and resources when contemplating if you are safe in space. Representation, economics, safety and finding community – these are huge barriers for those who are interested but may not be pursuing this space because they do not see other folks who reflect their experience. That’s why Colour the Trails exists. We are a network that aims to connect people and give them the resources to feel confident on their own.

Three BIPOC hikers stand smiling in front of a wintery mountainscape on Canada's west coast

Photo copyright Pavel Boiko (@neverbadtimeforchanges)

Jessica: I love that your mission begins with visibility and challenges misconceptions about the importance of identity. Spaces committed to marginalized communities matter for us all. The work you are doing begins on the surface but is really about deepening our bonds to one another and to the land. On that note, I am curious about where your passion comes from. What factors of your personal experience, especially with displacement as you’ve moved from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Canada (DRC), have informed your work?

Judy: Coming from the immigrant experience, our family has moved around a lot. There are so many stress triggers when adjusting to the urban space, and maintaining your mental health is so important. Knowing where to access nature is beneficial. When I lived in Hamilton, Ontario, I remember taking walks to the waterfalls nearby. Being near the waters and trees made such a difference.

For me, this work relates to intersectional environmentalism. We know, for example, that Black and Indigenous communities suffer the most when it comes to environmental issues. On a global scale, developing countries have less carbon emissions but pay the ultimate price when it comes to climate change even when the West is producing these emissions. We need BIPOC voices when it comes to caring about and conserving our environment so that our experiences can inform our advocacy. By connecting my community with nature, I hope to invite folks to be aware of this topic. When we have an intimate understanding of our ecosystems, we can engage in discussions about how to protect them. The narrative is that these topics are “white people topics” but when we form our own deep connections, we can talk about the importance of clean air, water, and green spaces. This advocacy is a stepping stone for the next generation. I want young folks to be comfortable in this space and work in this space. For example, we need BIPOC biologists and we need to learn and honour Indigenous ways of engaging with land. I’ve noticed a disconnect where marginalized folks don’t feel like they can have a voice in these spaces and I want to help change that.

Group of BIPOC persons and allies stand with mountain bikes at the start of a forested trail ride

Photo copyright Pavel Boiko (@neverbadtimeforchanges)

Jessica: Something we talk about in our own conversations is alienation or the consequences of lacking a sense of belonging. It is beautiful that you are encouraging marginalized folks, especially in urban settings, to find that sense of belonging in the natural world and the community that comes with that. The micro relationships we form to nature are stepping stones to missions that exist on a macro level when we think of environmental issues that disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous communities. Taking a micro lens to your own experiences, do you have any nature-related memories from growing up in the DRC that have stuck with you and how have those experiences influenced your journey?

Judy: Growing up, we were raised in nature. We farmed our own food and picked oranges and mangos in our gardens. As we moved around into more urban settings, we were more distanced from these experiences. The jobs are in the city and the necessary supports, especially for immigrants, so when I moved out to British Columbia for school, I felt a need to return to nature. My love for it was definitely learned from childhood.

Jessica: Shifting gears, I know that you’ve had experiences trying to facilitate thoughtful call-out’s, or rather call-in’s, to those with power in the outdoor scene. You carry so much weight as a Black woman spearheading this business. How do you encourage folks, especially corporations, to meaningfully engage with your work?

Judy: Stray away from tokenization. Let’s have a conversation and work on projects that support the community. There are opportunities to sponsor events if the financial capacity is there but most importantly, I ask folks to begin by showing up. Circulate the work that we are doing and be in community with folks of diverse identities to challenge your own perspective. Going beyond a black square that you post on Instagram in support of #BlackLivesMatter, the question is: how do you use your platform to bring and share other experiences?

The Colour the Trails organization leads a skateboarding class

Photo copyright Pavel Boiko (@neverbadtimeforchanges)

Jessica: What are your dreams for Colour the Trails? What does the future look like for this organization?

Judy: With COVID-19 and the recent awakening to racial issues, Colour the Trails has been in the spotlight. Colour the Trails is a socially-driven business with the community as priority. Our events, such as mountain-biking or kayaking, are subsidized. I hope to continue to increase accessibility and address economic barriers.

My vision is to start producing more media representation for us, by us. We hope to create more film and photography campaigns so that we can showcase diverse identities who are also in this work and share their stories. In British Columbia, large social gatherings are restricted but we’ve organized an online film festival and found films that share the Black experience to maintain community. It is allowing people to let go of a single narrative that centres white voices.

Jessica: The film festival that you are working on, Black Like Me, is an example of the work that you are doing to deepen representation. The work of going to the root of the issue by sharing voices and stories that represent experiences outside of the single narrative that often centers whiteness as you said. Can you tell us more about this festival? What can we expect?

Judy: At the end of the month, to celebrate the film series, we will be hosting a panel with folks who have intimate experiences in the outdoors. They have advocated, researched, supported and ultimately transformed these spaces. For example, we have Jacqueline L. Scott who is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto studying Blackness in the backcountry and what that looks like. There’s James Edward Mills from the U.S. who wrote an amazing book called The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors that questions the outdoor community, the lack of representation and asks why? using a historical lens. There’s Chelsea Murphy of She Colors Nature who is a Black mother doing incredible work, advocating for families and children to get out into nature. And Canadian figure skater Elladj Baldé who does amazing work and showcases his talents on social media. The theme is writing our own histories. We are in the process of writing history, the conversation that you and I are having is an example of writing history. Instead of viewing it as a tool of the past, how can history-making be viewed as a tool of the present? We are fighting to write ourselves into it everyday. This panel conversation is an opportunity to learn and see people in the field. We want to honour their work, value their work and listen.

BIPOC hikers and allies stand smiling in front of a wintery mountainscape while on a hike exploring with Colour the Trails

Photo copyright Pavel Boiko (@neverbadtimeforchanges)

Jessica: Is there anything that you’d like to leave readers with?

Judy: I know that the outdoor scene can be intimidating, especially when it comes to trying something new but I encourage you to come out. Hike more. Try different activities and seek new experiences. Don’t buy into the stereotype that being in nature is a “white people thing” – it is for all of us and we need to recognize this. By design, we all benefit from nature and there are studies to prove this. Let us do research, find people in the community who are working in these spaces and show up for them and each other. I really encourage BIPOC folks to show up. To tackle the issue of representation, we need your voice and presence.

For $15, you can access the 8 films showcased by “Black Like Me – Outdoor Edition” a series committed to celebrating Black excellence in the outdoors. On February 26th at 7:30 p.m. (EST), you are invited to join the panel discussion with Demiesha (@browngirloutdoorworld) to show support and learn from folks working in the field. More details can be found here.

You can learn more about Colour the Trails online at www.colourthetrails.com, or follow Judy at @jujumil on Instagram to keep up with her journey.


Jess K
Jess K

Author

Jess is a pug-loving Toronto based writer, currently studying English literature. She joined the Scout team last August and enjoys spending time learning about how different artists and makers express themselves through their unique crafts.

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