Outdoor Retailer Magazine / April 2022
Chad Brown is a busy man. He’s working in multiple directions on multiple projects at once—but they all have one focus: making the outdoors feel safe for everyone. He calls me when he has service way up in Inupiat lands in northern Alaska. The founder of Soul River, a nonprofit that connects inner city youth and veterans through fly angling, Brown is often in Alaska fishing and exploring but he is here now working on a film about Siqiniq, a Inupiaq Indigenous woman who finds herself at the intersection of environment and Native concerns in the Alaskan tundra. Raised away from the Inupiat tribe and with a white father who works in the oil industry, she has come under fire as an environmental activist by the tribe, which benefits from oil money and views her as an outsider. “We are making sure we are with her because she has been threatened,” Brown tells me.
Brown’s film will explore the space of both belonging in nature and feeling like a cultural outsider. It’s one of three film projects he is currently working on, all of which approach nature from a BIPOC perspective—but the most important work he’s currently engaged in is an initiative to make the outdoors safe for people who have been marginalized. And he hopes to bolster that with federal legislation. Called Stalwarts of Safety (SOS), the program will push for the passage of Oregon SB 289, which would help protect people of color in outdoor spaces by keeping those convicted of certain racially biased crimes off state lands. SOS is pushing for national legislation on these lines, and working for an end goal of simply making historically marginalized people feel safe in the outdoors and creating a compassionate dialogue about safe spaces.
Raised in Austin, Texas, and a graduate of New York City’s Pratt Institute, Brown served in the US Navy during the first Gulf War and on missions to war zones including Somalia. That experience left him with PTSD—but he found solace in wild places, in fishing, in the far north, and through the companionship of his faithful service dog, Ax. He started Soul River inspired by the positive experiences he had as a child in the Big Brothers program in Texas. Soul River puts urban youth out on “deployments” in the wild, where they discover the powerful connections, self-awareness, and sense of self-worth that comes through adventure and contemplation in nature. The program has earned Brown numerous accolades, including a Breaking Barriers Award from Orvis and the Bending Toward Justice Award from Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley.
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Wading in the Soul RivER
Veteran, filmmaker, advocate, and fly angler, Chad Brown is one of the busiest men in the outdoor industry–and he's leading the way when it comes to real inclusion.
By Doug Schnitzspahn
“Love is King began as recognition, response, and acknowledgement that equality and equity doesn’t exist for people of color,” Brown says.
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New York Times
Down Turn: Suppliers like Downlite are working to produce more in the U.S., but China still controls the global down market.
Stuck in the Middle: Small American brands like Krimson Klover felt the sting of Trump's tariffs.
Photo by lauren danilek
courtesy Krimson klover
Photo by james edward mills
This film encompasses the power of five Black men whose paths have been challenged with loss, defeat, fear, and pain by life’s ups and downs as well as the social injustice and challenges Black men and boys face every day. They have become an “endangered species,” only surviving day-to-day. Through surviving life’s trials, each man has found grace and success in the outdoors, healed and mended by nature's medicine for the soul, embracing the art of fly fishing and building brotherhood. Black Waters is an expedition of a journey, adventure, a vision quest, and a fly fishing adventure that surpasses the color of their own skin, connecting to the fundamentals of nature, the poetry of life, and prosperous joy. Like Indigenous communities, these men find self-fulfillment in being outdoors. They find their own representation, and hold space for everyone—and most importantly inspirie young Black boys. It's a dual survival between Black boys who can not make the connection to a Black man in the outdoors due to lack of representation and Black men finding representation in wild spaces to call their own. Hopefully, these youths can see themselves, and be inspired to embark on their own journeys into the outdoors. This is a story in dialogue and adventure, with emphasis on dismantling fear for BIPOC, inspiring BIPOC to pursue their journey in the outdoors, and uplift Black boys’ lives in green spaces.
While Soul River has been effective and created real change, Brown also wanted to do something to make people of color, people like him, feel safe in outdoor spaces that are for the most part white-dominated. So in 2020, he founded Love Is King, an initiative aimed at uniting people who love the outdoors to make a more equitable society. “Love is King began as recognition, response, and acknowledgement that equality and equity doesn’t exist for people of color,” he says. “Love is King sees a world where nature’s lessons, beauty, nourishment, healing power, and strength are accessible to all people. Love is King is committed to providing equal opportunity to ensure equitable and safe access to the outdoors for children, families, and communities of people of color as a way to improve the physical, mental, and spiritual health of the most vulnerable among us.”
To achieve that goal, Brown is seeking Love Is King “Guardians,” a movement of people of “all ages, shades, and creeds” who love the outdoors and want to take action to make the outdoors truly accessible to all. White allies pledge to speak up for people of color, listen, and change the dominant paradigm in the outdoors and beyond that supports systemic racism.
The SOS program takes Love Is King a step further. It includes an SOS badge, that lets people who feel threatened in the outdoors know they have allies around them. Brown plans to partner with local urban parks, small businesses, outdoor brands, state parks, national parks, governments, and nonprofits to develop and define the SOS standards, practices, and training.
“The badge represents courage, and it will become a powerful symbol of urgency and inclusion. It’s a personal declaration that expresses support. It’s a symbol that creates a community. The person wearing this symbol is easily identified as a Champion of Safety. Our movement is built on these conversations of safety, empathy, and justice.”
The future Brown envsions is one where racial justice can be achieved though powerful compassion, that easy strength he embodies in all his work.
Chad Brown talks about his upcoming films that explore how BIPOC outdoorists seek solace and safety in outdoor spaces.
The film follows Siqiniq, an Inupiaq Indigenous woman, crossing the treacherous winter tundra. This hike through the tundra provides the backdrop of her struggles as a modern-day warrior fighting corporate greed. What sets her story apart from other Indigenous social and environmental justice advocates is the internal conflict she is also faced with: Her father being white has provided her a different lens to look through. The rest of the Inupiat tribe doesn’t fully accept her and her views as she is not considered full-blooded Indigenous and, although she grew up with the culture, she did not grow up on the traditional lands of her people. She also finds herself at the crossroads of the ancient traditions and the modern world. The film allows us to witness the multiple layers of both internal and external conflicts that have made her a complex, unique, and unforgettable warrior.
Most of us have a fear of the unknown. In certain situations, this fear intensifies. For a lot of people of color, pursuing recreation in the wilderness means coping with uncertainty and the fear that comes with that can be paralyzing.
In the outdoors, the fear of the unknown gets tangled with legends and myths that results in wilderness presenting itself as a red flag for many humans, especially BIPOC, who will not allow themselves to experience being connected to the outdoors and exercising the freedom to roam and the freedom to just be in a wild space comfortably.
The backdrop of this film is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Minnesota, where five BIPOC leaders dog sled into a wonderland. They explore Boundary Waters, from learning about wolves and their habitat to facing and dismantling fear head-on individually, spiritually, and physically. These five BIPOC leaders will step into a world of wild wonder where the sky falls into an abyss of darkness and the land is full of challenges. The leaders will learn to lean into the connection with dogs—the ancient predecessor of man’s best friend and companion—and learn their behavior, proper handling, and management. This new knowledge will tie into their leadership growth and will launch them into a dog sledding team adventure. They will travel through the Boundary Waters across frozen lakes and will learn winter survival skills. These leaders will come into their own, all while creating personal moments with their dogs and learn the reasons from their own grand personal experiences why the Boundary Waters need to be protected.