Local Hero: Chevon Powell

Posted on: April 8, 2021

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 73, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 73 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Chevon Powell, organizer of the Refuge Outdoor Festival. [Photo] Earica BrownChevon Powell, organizer of the Refuge Outdoor Festival. [Photo] Earica Brown

In 2015 thirty-two-year-old Chevon Powell was driving in Vermont on her way to start a two-week solo backpacking trip. Originally from Houston, she'd attended college in New England, and she was ecstatic to be back among the changing colors of a Northeast autumn. Overhead, the leaves of sugar maples created the dazzling hues of red, orange and yellow iconic of the state. Fluttering in the breeze, the trembling aspen seemed to hint at the winter ice to come. Then Powell noticed a police car was following her.


WHEN POWELL REACHED THE HOTEL where she planned to spend the first night, before heading into the mountains, the officer confronted her and demanded to know what she was doing in the area. As she explained her purpose, he declared, "That's unbelievable." The officer called for backup. He kept insisting that the situation was "unbelievable" to the policeman who arrived, but the second officer let Powell go. She proceeded to hike along a section of the Appalachian Trail, and in the years that followed, she has continued to advocate for a broader picture of who recreates outside.

In many of her public interviews, Powell tells this story as part of what inspired her to establish the Refuge Outdoor Festival. She organizes the festival through her long-standing company, Golden Bricks Events, as a "three-day camping experience geared toward people of color." Since the inaugural year of 2018 at Tolt-Macdonald Park in Carnation, Washington, Powell knew she was meeting a deep need for herself and for members of her community to feel safe while enjoying the outdoors. Some participants said this was the first time they'd seen "Black people hugging and smiling" at an outdoor festival, feeling that "This is our space," as she told me in the autumn of 2020.

The philosophy behind Refuge doesn't assume what recreating should look like to different people—the event is diverse by design. Want to go for a hike or learn about survival skills? Great! Want to gather in a circle and create music outdoors? That's equally valid. Bethany Lebewitz, a climber and one of the founders of Color the Crag festival, offers insight into why spaces such as Refuge are helpful in bringing people from varied backgrounds together: "The way our society is structured, there are lines and compartments everywhere that...have divided a lot of us—in reality it's all connected." And while Powell is not a climber herself, she supports efforts to diversify the narrative around the pursuit.

Not everybody takes up climbing to crush hard grades—the appeal can lie in simply being outdoors, connecting with nature, with a community and with one's own body and mind.

When the pandemic arrived in 2020, Powell moved the festival online, offering workshops on conservation, disability justice, gardening, somatic healing and much more. She still avoids imposing any particular iteration of "being outdoorsy" onto attendees—so that each of them can decide for themselves. Narratives of mountaineering and outdoor adventure often remain dominated by colonial ideas of exploration and conquest. "But that's not how all people of color experience the outdoors," Powell says. She designs Refuge with a broader scope: "My core belief is the outdoors is for everyone and there will be something about Refuge or something else that I'm doing that resonates with a person that might get them into something they've never experienced before."

With the rise of a "second wave of Black Lives Matter," Powell observes, "more people are starting to acknowledge the systemic racism in the outdoors, and even in climbing culture." Today, for example, there's a grassroots-led push to replace bigoted route names at many crags. Powell doesn't expect advocacy work to become any "easier," she says, but she's now hopeful that more people will understand its necessity. "For us as people of color to be connected to nature, or to be more connected to each other," she continues, "those are the things that keep me sane and keep me wanting to create Refuge and other opportunities. So that we can live freer...and actually have real change on individuals' lives and on the world." In a time when we are all facing high anxiety, Powell reminds us that everyone deserves to find healing and belonging in outdoor communities and in nature. Everyone deserves to take refuge.

The author, Anaheed Saatchi. [Photo] Courtesy Anaheed SaatchiThe author, Anaheed Saatchi. [Photo] Courtesy Anaheed Saatchi

[This story originally appeared in Alpinist 73, which is now available on some newsstands and in our online store. Only a small fraction of our many long-form stories from the print edition are ever uploaded to Alpinist.com. Be sure to pick up Alpinist 73 for all the goodness!—Ed.]

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.


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2021-09-01 14:42:11
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