LEADER SERIES: Vámanos Outside creator Zavier Borja

Zavier Borja’s capstone Image of Zavier Borja in expedition gearproject for OREI’s inaugural Leadership program didn’t just build on his already impressive leadership skills—it also helped school kids in Bend rebuild connections to the outdoors that had been lost in the COVID shutdown.

In this year of pandemic and social distancing, people have turned to outdoor recreation in record numbers. But the same trends that have allowed well-resourced tech workers to relocate to recreational gateway communities have left others without even the most basic access to greenspace. 

“You might look at Bend, Oregon, and think it’s all about outdoor recreation,” says Zavier Borja. “But that’s really just looking at one part of the community. A lot of people in the Latinx community don’t see a place for themselves in outdoor recreation, and even more just don’t have access to it. You see that especially with kids.” Zavier is speaking from experience here as the founder of the Bend chapter of Latino Outdoors and the Latinx Outdoor Engagement Coordinator for Vámanos Outside, a new program that he created in partnership with the Deschutes Land Trust, Bend Parks and Recreation, Oregon State Parks and the High Desert Educational Service District, among others. Vámanos Outside is dedicated to making outdoor recreation accessible, welcoming and enjoyable to central Oregon’s large and diverse Latinx community. 

Image of Zavier Borja wearing Latino Outdoors t-shirt

Image courtesy of Zavier Borja

“After seeing what happened in the spring, the ELL program director at SilverRail elementary was concerned that many of the kids from her school were missing out on the social-emotional part of their education without access to unstructured outdoors time,” he continues. “She started talking to her principal and the school board, and a school board member reached out to me. I was just getting Vámanos Outside up and running—we were still finalizing our funding at the time—but the need was there, so we said, okay, let’s make a plan.

“By that time, I was also starting the leadership program with OREI, so I was able to turn this into my capstone project. It really helped having the group there to bounce ideas off of. I especially appreciated my one-on-one conversations with [professional coach] Greer [Van Dyck], which allowed me to find new ways of looking at some of the challenges that come with starting a new program.”

Zavier created a “walking school bus” program with Camp Fire of Central Oregon, that launched this fall. Several times a week, he and Wesley Heredia walked kids from a Bend apartment complex to the park for a mix of play and outdoor education. Sounds simple enough, but getting it right was a huge lift. 

“To begin with, all of this was happening because of the pandemic, so we needed to be sure that we could keep everyone safe. That meant that every family needed to fill out COVID questionnaires and everyone needed masks and we needed to think about distancing, but that was just part of it. We knew that cost was an issue, so we wrote a proposal and secured grant funding to make sure the program was well run, and completely free for the families. The grant allowed me to hire an assistant to help, because organizing and running this was too much for one person. Together we figured out what kind of gear we would need, supplies, food, everything. Just as importantly, we needed to earn the trust of the families. We had the support of the ELL program director from the school, but there was no way to shortcut just putting in the time to personally connect with these families. Honestly, it was a huge lift, but it’s also been really successful. My challenge now is to build a structure that will allow us to keep growing while still being connected to this community.”

For Zavier, this ability to connect on a personal level is the key not just to helping a group of kids play outside, but to making outdoor recreation in all of its forms welcoming and accessible to everyone.

“I grew up in Central Oregon, but we never did things like go hiking or rock climbing. My parents and grandparents immigrated here from Mexico. They worked long hours, six days a week as laborers. For them, the outdoors felt like work. And then you look at the marketing around a lot of outdoor recreation activities: it’s all about conquering the outdoors. That just doesn’t resonate with my parents or my community. So, it’s easy to see why people from my community might look at the climbers at Smith Rock and say, ‘Oh, that’s not for us.’ But Smith Rock is beautiful. Central Oregon is beautiful. I’m trying to find ways to help my community connect with that and the emotional and other benefits of the outdoors in a way that makes sense for them culturally.”

That starts with being very thoughtful about the way he describes outdoor activities, removing any hierarchy around what counts as outdoor recreation and what doesn’t. “If we only have one image of what outdoor recreation looks like, we’re never going to be inclusive. You don’t have to climb a mountain or sleep on the hard ground to feel love and connection for the land. Having a picnic by the river with your family is wonderful. Maybe that’s the beginning and from there you want to go on solo wilderness treks, or maybe you just want to relax and float on your back on a beautiful day. People should feel welcome to enjoy the outdoors on their own terms. So that’s what I’m working on.”

It’s a big job, encompassing everything from meeting with anxious parents to hosting outdoor events and helping all the partner organizations, such as the U.S. Forest Service, to develop culturally appropriate communications, among other things. And while Zavier’s to-do list is pretty intimidating, he’s excited about being part of something bigger than himself.

“This is a lot of work, for sure, but I think we can get to a place where a position like mine isn’t needed anymore. My goal is to become obsolete.” 




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