From its iconic beaches to mountains and deserts, San Diego County offers an array of diverse natural landscapes that make our region unique. People come from around the world to recreate in San Diego and yet many local communities face multiple barriers to accessing the outdoors.

San Diego Foundation’s 2020 Parks for Everyone report highlights equity barriers that hinder a person’s ability to access green space and parks. This includes physical barriers, such as street condition and walkability, and functional barriers, which considers other contextual factors like safety and cultural influences.

Communities that historically suffer from the greatest inequities are those with higher concentrations of lower-income households, as well as communities with greater racial and ethnic diversity.

Pan African Family Union (PAFU) is a local nonprofit, Thrive Outside network organization, and SDF Opening the Outdoors (OTO) grantee serving African refugee and immigrant communities that struggle uniquely with safety and cultural barriers to the outdoors.

Despite being a small organization, PAFU’s accomplishments are large. In 2021, PAFU’s African Women’s Health and Wellness Project was funded by OTO to reduce barriers and increase the mental and physical well-being of its community members through the transformative power of the outdoors.

Fitness Freedom

In July 2021, PAFU established a team of South Sudanese and Somali immigrants to discuss recruitment tactics, potential challenges and equity barriers influencing the local African refugee and immigrant communities in San Diego as they prepared to launch the African Women’s Health and Wellness Project.

The 2020 Parks for Everyone report underscores that groups of people are excluded from accessing the outdoors when considerations and services don’t factor in the cultural norms of diverse communities.

For example, Dep Tuany of PAFU explained that it is considered culturally improper for African women to walk in the park alone, and even with other men, and the established cultural norm is to wear full traditional clothing even when the weather is warm.

PAFU created programming and workshops that aim to address the cultural norms and religious sentiments impacting the women who had interest in and desire to get outside. An outreach worker for recruitment and program coordinator of activities was established alongside a volunteer team that provided culturally sensitive support to the program participants.

“This program is an excellent [one] especially for the people in my community,” emphasized participant Lucky Aden. “This program gives us a space to come together and work on our health while also having human contact with fellow members.”

Safe Spaces

In August 2021, PAFU hosted an informal kick-off meeting for 10 participants, most of who were mothers, to introduce the project and what participants could look forward to in the coming months. Women were encouraged to invite their spouses, which PAFU strategically used as an opportunity to help them understand the importance of creating a comfortable and supportive environment for immigrant and refugee women to experience freedom in the outdoors.

“We are so happy that [San Diego Foundation] has granted us this funding,” Dep declared. He added that this support has helped them explore culturally relevant opportunities for the communities they serve to safely engage in the outdoors.

PAFU program participants

The first official session took place in September 2021, where eight participants practiced yoga stretches and breathing exercises outdoors with an instructor. Subsequent workshops and sessions featured registered nurses from Sharp Healthcare who were on site to answer questions and discuss the importance of eating a balanced diet, frequent exercise and doctor visits. The nurses presented the information in a culturally sensitive way, offering tips for exercises that the women could do in their traditional garments.

It was important for PAFU that the women participating in the program were empowered to experience the outdoors and excercise when and where they wanted to. Doing so in a group setting allowed the women to build strength and confidence collectively, and increased safety for outdoor activities.

“The African Women’s Health and Wellness Project left a phenomenal impact on myself and the entire group of women that participated,” shared participant Nyayak Duot. “Being in a group setting makes it easier to be outdoors together and to exercise as a community of women who share so many commonalities.”

As the sessions continued, the PAFU team met frequently to discuss ways to improve programming, staying keenly aware of community needs as they arose. PAFU ordered FitBits for all participants for tracking their outdoor activities and offered training for usage.

Looking Ahead

One of PAFU’s long-term aspirations is to have a safe outdoor and indoor space for African women to exercise freely without fear of discrimination or mockery because of the unwanted attention their traditional clothing may bring.

Despite the community being heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic in December and January, participation has been strong since February as the project continues to increase outdoor access and overall health and well-being, with more sessions planned throughout the coming months.

Nyayak affirmed “this is a program I intend to stay consistent with and share with my other friends so that they, too, can feel the positive impact of being outdoors and being active.”

Pan African Family Union’s efforts are helping build resilient communities, a pillar of the San Diego Foundation’s Strategic Plan, by addressing cultural barriers to the outdoors and creating more inclusive and accessible outdoor experiences.

Learn more about our Strategic Plan and how you can contribute to PAFU’s efforts.

About Thrive Outside

Building upon the success of San Diego Foundation’s Opening the Outdoors program, in 2019 San Diego was selected as one of the Outdoor Foundation’s four inaugural Thrive Outside communities.

The vision for Thrive Outside is to build regional capacity through collective impact by bringing together multi-sector stakeholders for greater coordination across education, advocacy and programming. Pan African Family Union and other Thrive Outside partners are working to address environmental inequities across the region.

Learn more about Thrive Outside San Diego.