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We Are Idaho: Jessie Levin

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Jessie Levin
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Jessie Levin helped plan last summer’s vigil at the Idaho State Capitol to remember African Americans killed by police violence. After the gathering, the organizers founded Inclusive Idaho, a nonprofit promoting diversity, equity and inclusion in Idaho.

Levin is the group’s director of policy and education and helps plan its initiatives. One of those initiaves is Inclusive Outdoors, which aims to “increase the involvement of underrepresented groups in the Idaho outdoors.”

Levin says moving out West sparked her interest in teaching and the outdoors, and now she’s working to make natural spaces welcoming to all.

I think with outdoor spaces, it's kind of like a who-knows-who club and so it's kind of hard to break in.

We thought, how can we be as far reaching and make Idaho a place where every Idahoan, regardless of any identity that they have, can feel like this is a place for them; that they can be involved, invited, accepted in outdoor spaces.

My name is Jesse Levin, and I am the director of policy and education for Inclusive Idaho.

I grew up in Philadelphia and then after I graduated, I kind of bopped around between East Coast and West Coast.

I got approached by a friend who was going into education and I could just see the joy on his face. And as he was talking about it, I kind of thought like, I could do this, too. I really like to be active and like to move, and teaching is not sitting at a desk all day.

After I graduated, I looked into ways in which to become a teacher. And I got an opportunity to come to Idaho to teach. And I was really hesitant because I didn’t know anyone here. But I just felt when I visited, like it’s a calling, like there is a magnet. Something was attracting me to this place.

It wasn't until I had moved out West and I had seen the beauty that there was in the outdoors that I wanted to explore.

I think with outdoor spaces, it's kind of like a who knows who club. And so it's kind of hard to break in.

It's something that my parents didn't really do growing up. And it's a great way for my mental health to stay active. And I really like pushing myself.

You know, being in the outdoors, we have some places where prejudice is rampant and how do you work through that?

I've been in very White spaces, rural spaces where I have not felt welcome. You know, on one of my trips, the big out west trip, doing the Utah National Parks, I stayed at an Airbnb and the people were like “oh yeah, we really don't like Black people, but we like you.”

I have not had that overt racism in the state of Idaho. You know, N-word stuff. Now, I had that in California. I was leading a group of students in Yosemite and I had that. I mean, there's always the kind of side eye or the hidden racism or the belief that, you know, you're less capable, you don't know what you're talking about.

But I've also been super surprised where I've kind of found some pockets of really diverse outdoor adventure groups. In my experience, it hasn't been anything organized.

For example, I was climbing in Red Rock a couple of years ago and there were just some men who were climbing who were not White. And it was like the first time I had seen a group of like, not White guys climbing and I was just very, very curious. I was like, are you all a group? What is this?

And then they're just like, “we're just trying to have fun.” And I think that did it for me because it wasn’t anything special. It was just their normal. That's what I want with Inclusive Outdoors.

We want to make sure that ... folks from underrepresented identities such as BIPOC, LGBTQ, low income youth and folks who are differently abled ... feel like they have ownership of their own outdoor experiences and that they have equal access to every aspect of their life.

So Inclusive Idaho started in early June. We're the group who helped put on the vigil, the vigil on June 2 of 2020, to mourn and honor the African-American folks whose lives were lost due to police and community violence.

At the time, we were just individuals. We weren't a group, but then we realized we had a collective mission and came together to do a nonprofit around diversity, equity and inclusion work. And then after the vigil, they had said, you know, this is the time. This is the time.

So with our Inclusive Outdoors programming we have a couple pillars. One pillar is mentorship. Things are kind of on hold because of corona, but we do have a plan for our inclusive climbing program where we have mentors who have signed up through the Commons.

So climbing is the one that’s most fleshed out. Corona really put a wrench in our plans, but we are aiming in 2021 to go into river sports, backpacking and cycling, and then in the winter of next season winter sports.

We have some participants who have already started a small pilot program. But we are wanting to increase our number of participants. So folks from underrepresented identities such as BIPOC, LGBTQ, low-income youth and folks who are differently abled, we invite folks who or feel like they are otherwise not represented in mainstream climbing spaces to join this program once it’s relaunched.

Our mentors will provide training. And we have partnerships with different outdoor gear manufacturers, so that gear is covered, because gear is super expensive, and we have a framework in which to cover for memberships and day passes.

We have done a lot of informational events and educational events. I've hosted events in partnership with the Commons climbing gym, in partnership with Vertical View around outdoor identity and inclusion outdoor spaces.

We are having a lot of exploratory conversations. The point in the goal of these discussions is to think about who we are because we all have different aspects of our identity that change how people view us and how we operate in these outdoor spaces, thinking about what background knowledge we have and thinking about how we can affect change and invite others and really make it an inclusive space.

I mean, Boise is getting more diverse, the state of Idaho is getting more diverse.

We want to make sure that folks feel like they have ownership of their own outdoor experiences and that they have equal access to every aspect of their life.

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

We Are Idaho features Idahoans from all walks of life telling their stories of living here in their own words.