Written in partnership with Irie to Aurora
Vanlife, it’s everywhere these days. You see it on social media, showcased in lifestyle magazines, even featured in mainstream media publications. But vanlife is more than some fly-by-night trend. For many people, vanlife provides a viable alternative to conventional living. It’s also the only option for a growing number of people who can’t afford the rising cost of living in most major cities.
Vanlife is often glamorized in the media, and while it may seem like an appealing, easy-living lifestyle, it’s still a major life decision for most people. You quit your job, sell your furniture, end your lease or sell your house, and choose to live in your vehicle. Often this decision to “step away” from society’s norms is met with pushback or downright animosity from friends and family. I know because my partner and I made the leap into vanlife almost four years ago, and we faced a lot of pushback from loved ones. But we pressed forward with our dream. Yes, the road called us and we answered the call to freedom. Or did we?
You see, the vanlife movement is in an interesting place at the moment. As the movement continues to grow, the lack of representation of people of color has created a gap in the vanlife community. The voices and stories of black, indigenous and other people of color are not being told. We are not represented because we don’t fit the mold. There is an undeniable aesthetic and demographic of conformity in the vanlife world. If you look up #vanlife on Instagram, you’ll see a never-ending collage of young, attractive, white, able-bodied, heterosexual couples with $50k+ van builds. And while this glamorous vision of vanlife has helped the movement to grow in popularity, it does not accurately represent the reality of all people living this lifestyle, and it sends a message about who is welcome in this community and who is not.
As a woman of color, I have spent a lot of energy navigating racial dynamics - from college to the workforce and now in vanlife. So I can say with certainty that I know how it feels to have my voice suppressed. But I was not prepared for that experience in a community that prides itself on being diverse and welcoming to all.
In 2019, my partner and I participated in a series of vanlife events across the country. Our goal was to travel from gathering to gathering, building community and seeking comradery and belonging - and we did, well kind of. The sad thing is, at every single gathering and campout I was one of, if not the only POC in a sea of white people.
You see, for me, being a woman of color in this community means paying it forward. There have been many occasions where I have felt extremely isolated as the only person of color represented in vanlife media and at social gatherings. My hope is to encourage more representation of POC and other marginalized individuals in our community. This is how the Diversify Vanlife movement was born. The movement is dedicated to bringing awareness to the lack of representation of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) in vanlife and to create a space for the suppressed voices to be heard through the use of #DiversifyVanlife and @diversify.vanlife.
I’ve learned a lot since the birth of the Diversify Vanlife movement. Through the process of speaking up and using my voice in this space, I’ve found strength and courage. I’ve also received a lot of pushback, animosity, aggression and flat-out denial of the obvious divide in the community. The thing is, if our actions do not match our words, then the statements we boldly proclaim tend to lose their credibility. Many individuals say that we are already diverse, that we already welcome everyone regardless of race, age, physical ability, sexual orientation, or economic status. Yet this is not reflected in our actions, at our social gatherings, nor in our self-created media. There are vanlifers with disabilities, all skin colors, genders, sexual orientation, and bodies of all shapes and sizes, who are totally invisible in our community’s social media presence.
According to statistics (see 2018 RVIA annual report) POC is the fastest growing demographic in outdoor recreation, including vanlife. Yet there are many black and brown humans living this lifestyle who are being ignored. For black people, feeling welcome and safe in the outdoors, in vanlife, and at vanlife gatherings and events isn’t a given. Everyone feels intimidated about trying something new, especially when none of your friends or family are doing it. And it’s even more intimidating when you don’t see anyone who looks like you doing it. Couple that with a long and ugly history of racial division in America and you have a barrier to entry that is extremely difficult to overcome.
There are many stigmas and stereotypes associated with POC in the outdoors. The most common is “black people don’t camp/ hike/ like the outdoors.” The fact that we are out here makes that statement untrue. In fact, black people enjoy nature as much as anyone else, and black people do indeed camp. The fact that black people are participating in outdoor recreation sends a strong message to black youth that they can do it too, that it is safe and accessible to them. So, you see, it would be more accurate to say that historically POC have not had access to the outdoors due to oppression, segregation and poverty.
The most recent baseless stereotype is “POC don’t do vanlife” which is far from the truth. Since the launch of the Diversify Vanlife movement, BIPOC vanlifers have been standing up and taking up space. With the support of many individuals in the community, we have been actively working to propel this very important conversation forward in hopes of shifting the narrative, a narrative that historically has not been told.
This lack of representation manifests itself, not only at vanlife events, but in the everyday experiences of people of color. In cities across America, black and brown vanlifers face police harassment simply for ‘vanlifing while black.’ Because vanlife is seen publicly as a white millennial trend, a black person living in a van is viewed as a criminal. The only way to counter this stigma is through representation.
In October 2019, my partner and I hosted the first ever New Orleans Vanlife Gathering. The intention of this gathering shifted significantly during our summer of touring different vanlife events. With the need to be more inclusive with our narrative, our friends at LifeStraw sponsored a Diversify Vanlife panel held on Saturday evening at the gathering. This panel, the first of it’s kind at any vanlife event, included six POC vanlifers at various intersections, and was facilitated by a professional from Tulane University who is a queer POC.
The Diversify Vanlife panel created a space where, for the first time in our community, POC had the mic. The conversations were open, honest, and powerful, addressing issues like exclusivity, fears, police violence, emotional trauma, and placing a focus on personal and collective healing. For most folks in attendance, this panel was the highlight of the New Orleans Vanlife Gathering.
Now, I cannot go without saying how fortunate I feel to have chosen this lifestyle and to be part of a community determined to buck the status quo and create a real cultural shift towards inclusivity for all. And I am extremely grateful for companies and brands like LifeStraw who are dedicated to changing the narrative around outdoor recreation, and intentionally putting DEI front and center.
Since the New Orleans Vanlife Gathering, Diversify.Vanlife has collaborated with the lovely ladies at LatinXHikers to host our first hike in New Orleans. If you haven’t heard of them, I encourage you to check them out. LatinXHikers is a community dedicated to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors through digital story-telling and community outreach.
The Diversify Vanlife movement is in its infancy, but I am proud to say that more and more POC are stepping up and into roles of leadership in the vanlife community. As my friend Karen @naturechola said, “A seat at the table does not equal power. Equity and Inclusion has to be on our terms.” And that’s what is happening now.
It’s been six months since the launch of the Diversify Vanlife movement, and there have been many pivotal moments that have shed light on what the future looks like for me as a WOC and entrepreneur in the outdoor industry and in vanlife. For me, it often feels like the fight to be included and create a space for POC in this community is an uphill battle. But this isn’t the first time I’ve fought to make my voice heard, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Our mission with the Diversify Vanlife movement is to create a space where BIPOC can share their unique stories and be heard. We have so much planned this year - to build connections, celebrate culture and history, and promote safe and welcoming experiences for BIPOC vanlifers through representation. By showing up, we are making it possible for more people to have a safe, welcoming, and meaningful experience on the road and in the outdoors.
As we continue to diversify vanlife, it’s important for the community and the world to expect and welcome POC vanlifers on the road. That isn’t to say that others aren’t welcome to join the movement, including white people and allies (in fact, we created a resource on How to be an Ally). But the purpose is to center the experiences of BIPOC at every intersection and create a safe space in vanlife that has never before existed on any broad scale.
The thing is, the vanlife movement is already a radical cultural shift. And people of color have just as much right to enjoy the freedom of this lifestyle as anyone else.
So the question is, no matter where or how you live, what are you doing to create a space for underrepresented voices in your community?Noami Grevemberg is the voice behind @irietoaurora and the founder of @diversify.vanlife. She is a digital nomad, eco-vanlifer, and social activist, who has been living on the road with her partner in their 1985 Volkswagen Westfalia for nearly 4 years.