“Access for All” is a blog series welcoming diverse perspectives that create an inclusive modern outdoors for everyone. Meet travel blogger Karen Akpan, founder of the blogs The Mom Trotter and Black Kids Do Travel, who’s leading a community for families of color to connect and share knowledge. Words by Karen Akpan. Photos by The Mom Trotter and Black Kids Do Travel.
My biggest motto has always been, “If you leave your house, you’ve traveled. I don’t care if you take a bus or you take a train. It doesn’t matter how you get there, as long as you experience something new.”
Children change you so much. I looked at my son Aiden and I said, “I really just want him to be different. I want him to respect other cultures. I want him to learn about other people. I want him to see the world through another lens.” Having him was the fuel to the fire [for traveling]. We’ve been traveling since then.
CREATING OUR OWN SPACE
We’ve been traveling for a while and meeting other Black families on the road. I’m on a lot of Facebook travel groups online and one time I asked a question about the safety of traveling somewhere. Everybody [in the group] dismissed my concerns. I was like, “You guys don’t get it. Being Black is having to do research on a place before you travel. Because you don’t know how you’re going to be welcomed there. You don’t know how people are gonna treat you.” That made me realize how important we, people of color, needed our own space.
Black Kids Do Travel is a group where you can have those safe conversations. It really means a lot when people can understand you. The idea came about because my son asked, “how come we don’t see anybody like us when we travel?” Now we have almost 24,000 families in the private Facebook group. It’s blossomed to be something I didn’t even realize how much we needed until it was here.
There’s definitely been a change [in how we travel since COVID-19]. We usually travel internationally, which isn’t happening anytime soon.
Being in the RV has given us an advantage that a lot of people don’t realize: exploring the USA. When we traveled before, we went to tourist sites like museums. We were out in cities. Now what we’re doing is outdoor stuff. We’re going hiking, we’re visiting waterfalls, we’re just out in nature. Right now, we’re parked in the middle of a forest in Idaho. We’re just taking it slow, taking in nature and realizing how beautiful America is. There’s so much around and you don’t have to go far to see beauty. That’s right here.
“You can dress them up and dress them down. We’ve worn Teva sandals for a day out and if we want to take pictures that look nice. I like the versatility about them.”
My son really loves learning about animals, but now he’s picked up an interest in nature and conservation. I feel like just being out in nature, he’s got an affinity to conservation, recycling, nature, trees, plants and animals. Kids can watch it on TV, but when you’re right there, that’s a whole different ball game.
The outdoor places and national parks that we’ve been to haven’t been very crowded. People have been really good about social distancing. If we go to a place where we feel like there are a lot of people on the path, we’ll wear a mask.
You can plan an RV trip right now and not come in contact with anybody. You have your kitchen right there, you have your room, your bathroom, you have everything right there. I feel like right now is the best time for camping, outdoor stuff, and getting kids in tune with nature. You can safely do that without meeting people or avoiding people if you wanted to.
RAISING WORLD CITIZENS
[Some of the lessons that I’ve seen my son, nieces, and nephews learn through seeing different cultures while traveling are:] Number one, they’re more respectful of other people. When you learn that people do things differently and that’s okay, you tend to respect people more; you respect their culture more.
Number two is patience. Traveling with delays, long flights, being in different places and running on different time zones, they learned to be very patient and how to deal with things. [Number three is] adapting to new situations. They’re super flexible—it doesn’t matter what you throw ‘em. They’ll just fit right in. Like we just sold our home and [are now living in an RV to travel full time]. My son, if you meet him, you think that he’s been RVing his whole life. He’s just adapted so well to the change. Adults have such a hard time dealing with change, and you see somebody who’s so little just handling it.
WHY REPRESENTATION MATTERS
I’ve had to have the conversation with my son very early, even though it’s something I don’t want to have with my five-year-old. At an RV park, a kid comes up to him and asks, “Why is your skin so black?” Immediately, this is what my son responds, “We all have the same blood, don’t we?” The other kid was like, “huh, we do, it’s red, right?” And my son goes, “We all have the same blood. It’s red.” And then the boy smiles and then goes to play.
This is one of the biggest reasons why I always encourage parents: You’ve got to read diverse books to your kids. You have to let your kids watch diverse programming. There’s no reason why another kid should ask such a question. It’s not because they’re not curious. I feel like the kid had no idea because their parents had not taken the time to teach them.
If I have to teach my son every single day—remind him that his color is beautiful, and that he’s not dirty and that his skin doesn’t wipe off; if I have to teach him how to handle questions like this, I feel that it would be so much easier if other parents did the same with their children. If other parents exposed their children to other cultures, read diverse books and watched diverse movies with their kids. If other parents talked to their kids about race—a question like that wouldn’t have to come up because kids would already know those things.
Aiden wears the Kids Ember Moc in True Red.
There’s one question that my son asked me, “Mom, do Black people eat this food?” And I said, “Wait, what do you mean by that?” And he said, “I’m looking at all the pictures of people eating and there’s not a there’s not anybody that looks like us who’s eating it.” And I said, “Wow, I didn’t even notice that.”
Can you imagine how important it is for kids to see other kids traveling and say, “Oh, I can do that too.” Versus not seeing anybody like you and doubting yourself like, “Can I do that? Do people who look like me do that?” I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m so passionate about diversity in travel and just diversity in general. Because it makes such a big difference and such a big impact.
There’s some places we’ve been to and I’m just like, all eyes are staring at us like we’re like aliens or something. So, [diverse representation] makes a huge difference. That I can see myself somewhere and feel welcome there. My son can look at the poster and say, “Hey, I’m welcome here. They care about me. They care about people who look like me.”
[What’s next for Black Kids Do Travel is] just continuing to do what I have been doing and hoping that more people take notice. It can be exhausting sometimes having to constantly share these things, write about them, and make people aware of it. I’m so passionate about diverse representation everywhere— and especially travel—that it’s something I want to keep fighting for.
When you can look at a picture, it allows you to dream. One time I took my nieces and nephews to the Kennedy Space Center and they were dressed up like astronauts. I’m telling you, the confidence level was like a million. They told everybody, “We’ve been to space, we’re astronauts.” When we first got to the Space Center, and were walking around, you didn’t see any Black astronauts. There was a picture of one towards the end of the museum.
At the end of the day, making them feel more confident and being able to see someone that looks like them there, wearing those astronaut costumes and feeling like they could be astronauts—it makes a huge, huge difference. And that’s why I shared those images of them with their astronaut suits on because when other kids see it, they can dream those dreams for themselves. They can dream that for their kids. I believe that dreams come true.