02/27/2023 | by Liz Wolf
Outdoor Afro leadership training group photo
Outdoor Afro leadership training in 2022 at Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains. Photo by Tiffanie Page (@tiffaniepagecreative)

Sun Outdoors, a division of Sun Communities, Inc., (NYSE: SUI), is helping to remove barriers for communities that have historically been excluded from the nation’s parks and forests and may not feel a sense of belonging in the outdoors.

With over 170 resorts and campgrounds across the United States and Canada, Sun Outdoors’ goal is to make the outdoors an accessible, comfortable space for everyone and to appeal to a wider, more diverse group of campers.

“The great thing about Sun is that we have locations all over the country, and we're trying to expose the great outdoors to people who have traditionally been underrepresented,” Edwin Adside, Sun Outdoors’ director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, says.

Although people of color account for roughly 40% of the U.S. population, nearly 70% of people visiting national parks, national forests, and national wildlife refuges are white, according to the National Health Foundation. Black people are the most underrepresented group in these outdoor spaces, the foundation says.

“The reasons for a racial gap in the outdoors include cultural differences and a lack of resources,” Adside says. “Outdoor recreation can be expensive with the cost of gear and park fees, and parks can be located a good distance from the cities where many African Americans and other minorities live.”

New Brand, New Partners

As part of the company’s new, national branding in 2021, Sun Outdoors, previously Sun RV Resorts, set out to find select, long term partnerships that shared its passion for the outdoors, sustainability, and accessibility.

“When we created this brand, we set up our mission statement to be the unrivaled leader in outdoor hospitality, and we're trying to set the tone in all the right areas,” says Nick DiBella, senior vice president of operations for Sun Outdoors. “For us, it's always about leading the way.“ The key, he continues, “was finding a few integral partners to collaborate with to really help get more people to enjoy the outdoor space.”

The first logical partner was the National Park Foundation (NPF). Sun, which has many locations near national parks, created a partnership with NPF to support their Outdoor Exploration mission pillar. Launched within this pillar in 2021, the ParkVentures program funds projects that help people create life-long relationships with the outdoors, particularly among communities that have historically been excluded from parks and may not feel welcome on public lands.

To date, ParkVentures has funded 58 organizations by providing more than $1.2 million in grants. For example, with support from Sun Outdoors through ParkVentures, nonprofit organization Wilderness Inquiry is helping expand access to the outdoors by providing trip assistance for individuals with differing abilities.

As part of its “American Sign Language (ASL) Day on the River” in 2022, Wilderness Inquiry brought the deaf, deafblind, and hard of hearing community together for a guided canoe trip in the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. “We are really proud of the impact our support has on organizations like Wilderness Inquiry, among many others,” DiBella says.

And NPF welcomes Sun’s support too. “Sun Outdoors has been a tremendous partner through its generous support of ParkVentures,” says Chad Jones, senior vice president of corporate partnerships for the NPF. “The commitment that Sun Outdoors brings to ensuring everyone feels welcome and can see themselves represented in national parks is helping to inspire future generations of park stewards.”

Sun Teams up with Outdoor Afro

Through its NPF relationship, Sun was introduced to Outdoor Afro, a national not-for-profit organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. Outdoor Afro selects and trains more than 100 volunteer leaders across 60 U.S. cities who guide local community activities in the outdoors nationwide.

Each year, Outdoor Afro connects approximately 60,000 people to nature through camping, hiking, skiing, biking, kayaking, birdwatching, and other activities. The organization hosts its annual Outdoor Afro Leadership Training (OALT) to teach volunteer leaders how to lead their neighborhoods in nature safely and sustainably.

Outdoor Afro leadership training in 2022.
Outdoor Afro leadership training in 2022.

“Outdoor Afro’s mission is to celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature,” says Rue Map, the organization’s founder and CEO. “We welcome collaborations with partners like Sun Outdoors that align with this mission and our values. Because Sun Outdoors offers innovative experiences in nature, we’re able to share newer possibilities with others to connect to our lands, water, and wildlife nationwide."

DiBella says Outdoor Afro’s messaging perfectly aligns with Sun Outdoor’s mission . The Sun-Outdoor Afro partnership began in 2021 with Sun Outdoors supporting and promoting Outdoor Afro’s Juneteenth commemoration, which encourages people to spend time in nature and reflect on what it means to be free. When Sun Outdoors closes its offices on Juneteenth (it’s a paid company holiday), its door closure signs provide education about Juneteenth, Outdoor Afro, and how individuals can honor the day by participating in the event.

Official Kick-off

The official kick-off of the partnership was in April 2022 with the OALT, the network’s annual training for the newest class and returning volunteers of Outdoor Afro. This training is where outdoor enthusiasts gain firsthand experience in navigating and leading in nature. The 2022 training took place at Sun Outdoors Rocky Mountains in Granby, Colorado, a luxury RV camping site 15 minutes from the entrance of Rocky Mountain National Park.

Outdoor Afro's volunteer leaders, staff, and select partners gathered for the three-day leadership experience. One of the major components that Sun Outdoors brings to the partnership is the physical space and amenities to comfortably accommodate nature and community based organizations like Outdoor Afro to conduct their training, which is crucial for success.

“We have a big conference center on-site where we hosted their meetings,” DiBella says. “Plus, having access to the national park on top of all the things that we can provide at our resort, it was a perfect fit for the Outdoor Afro leadership training.” Outdoor Afro also included Sun Outdoors officials in the training and discussions, which was “amazing to be part of,” DiBella says. Since Sun Outdoors has resorts, vacation rentals, and RV, cabin, and tent camping sites throughout the U.S., the company can help bring together Outdoor Afro’s communities for year-round experiential activities.

Best is Yet to Come

For Sun Outdoors and Outdoor Afro, leadership training was just the beginning of a long-term partnership. The two continue to work together on initiatives, including future programming and ‘lunch and learns,’ that are open to all Sun Outdoors team members to learn about Outdoor Afro, the partnership, and ways they can become involved. “We really are looking to grow our engagement with Outdoor Afro year over year,” Adside says , including utilization of properties and joint outdoor adventures.

Additionally, Sun Outdoors shared job and career opportunities with Outdoor Afro’s network of volunteer leaders during the 2022 OALT and via direct email to showcase the company, properties, and positions. “We value and embrace diversity in our employee recruiting, hiring, and development practices,” DiBella says. “We believe we are a stronger organization when our workforce represents a diversity of ideas and experiences.”

Sun Outdoors’ diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) efforts are ongoing. “It’s not a one and done,” Adside says. “We need to be innovative to reach more audiences to both introduce them to the great outdoors and have them look to join our workforce.”

While Sun Outdoors has many strategies for the new brand, its DE&I initiatives are at the top of the list, DiBella notes. “We are just trying to break down barriers so people can enjoy the outdoors and all the health benefits,” he says. “I'm very proud of how far we've come, but I feel like it's just the beginning. Obviously, we have accomplished a lot in a few years, but I really think the best is yet to come.”