Nature Champs: CLIF® Athlete Venus Williams, Outdoor Afro

Consider Virginia Key Beach as the response to white-only swimming pools and water recreation. In the middle of the 20th century, this Miami vacation destination for Black people granted access to boating, fishing, surfing, swimming, and beachside lounging. A way of life for generations of Black nature enthusiasts and Black wealth to thrive – even while segregation tormented the country. Outdoor Afro revisited this historical landmark summer 2022 with partner CLIF BAR® and CLIF® Athlete Venus Williams to reflect on Black joy and healing in nature-rich places.

“What an honor to not only share the day with Venus but with our Founder and CEO Rue Mapp,” said Outdoor Afro volunteer leader Sierra Taliaferro with binoculars ready. “I wanted to do my best to provide a memorable experience in my backyard of Miami.” Joined by fellow volunteer leader Michele Nedrick, Taliaferro led Outdoor Afro community participants, Mapp, and the tennis star through the beach’s nature trails and cultural history. Taliaferro helped the group identify native flora and fauna in between genuine conversations to learn more about each other.

A Miami transplant, Taliaferro spends most weekends exploring area routes. Like the Outdoor Afro activities she hosts monthly, this partnership experience allowed both Taliaferro and Nedrick to introduce new CLIF BAR® and Outdoor Afro staff to local stories and species of the beach. Decades of it. “Virginia Key Beach is not only historically Black,” Taliaferro said, “but it’s monumental to our sometimes forgotten history.” The recreational site became a cherished safe space in the 1940s onward for Black beachgoers of the states to Black immigrants of South America, Cuba, and various Caribbean islands.

It wasn’t until 1982 that the city of Miami closed the beach because of “rising maintenance costs.” After a decades-long fight by the Virginia Key Beach Civil Rights Task Force, the beach landed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2002. It reopened to the public in February 2008. An ideal spot for Nedrick and Taliaferro to host Outdoor Afro network activities yearlong that naturally strengthen the neighborhood’s connection to its land, water, and wildlife. In rhythm with typical network hikes, Nedrick and Taliaferro started the day with Outdoor Afro’s signature opening circle of introductions. Then, their educational and transformative tour meandered through sandy tracks and prickly-ash plants.

Occasionally, migrating birds and zebra longwing butterflies fluttered by the group as insect sounds amplified the ambience of the tropical wilderness experience. A fervent birder, Taliaferro often used her “field glasses” to identify native feathered friends for the day’s company. Since the beach is right on the coast, water birds were the easiest to pinpoint: white ibises, double-crested cormorants, and black-crowned night herons. “I often emphasize to beginner birders that birding is unconventional,” said Taliaferro. “You literally can do it anywhere. Even from your backyard.”

What led to this moment of Outdoor Afro volunteer leaders – sharing their expertise about this place of purpose for Black people – and CLIF BAR® goes back nearly a decade ago. CLIF BAR® and Outdoor Afro have been partners since the network became a national not-for-profit organization in 2015. Continuing to grow the partnership, CLIF BAR® created CLIF CORPS. This initiative is CLIF’s employee-led community service program where CLIF® Athletes donate time and resources to support nonprofits that make the spaces they live and play in more accessible and inclusive.

Williams serves as a CLIF® Athlete and has been a fan of Outdoor Afro for some time now. The perfect recipe to have a Black joy (and Black history) moment in nature: “I am honored to be part of this new chapter of CLIF CORPS and to support Outdoor Afro’s work to show greater representation in the outdoor community,” said Williams. “Together we will make a meaningful impact to reconnect Black communities with the outdoors and sports through education, recreation, and conservation.” The CLIF CORPS partnership features a series of ongoing giving and service amplifications with community groups like the Women’s Sports Foundation and National Parks Service. The goal is to provide opportunities for people across the United States to participate in activities otherwise deemed inaccessible or unwelcoming for social, emotional, or economic reasons. 

Throughout this year, Outdoor Afro volunteer leaders will guide CLIF-supported outdoor experiences across its four regions: Midwest, Northeast, South, and West. Activities range from biking, kayaking, and hiking. “A recent study led by Penn State found that 1 in 5 Americans have taken on a new outdoor hobby since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, many Americans are unable to experience these benefits due to inequities in access to the outdoors and sports,” said Jodi Olson, Vice President of Brands at CLIF BAR®. “That’s why we are collaborating with Venus Williams and Outdoor Afro, two of our long-time partners, to enact change and break down systemic barriers, creating more diverse and inclusive activities for our communities.” 

Williams and Outdoor Afro took a beach walk. A few community participants showed off their driftwood tightroping abilities. When everyone made their way back to the initial opening circle location, the space created a new appreciation for Black contributions that developed the beach. The seaside stroll reinforced the everyday work Outdoor Afro does to celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature. Taliaferro wrapped up the evening by sharing that “nature allows us to see not only the surrounding beauty, but also the beauty in ourselves. Nature is truly a reflection of us.”

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