Danielle Williams is the founder of blogging platform Melanin Base Camp and the co-founder of Team Blackstar Skydivers. Both organizations promote diversity in outdoor adventure sports and highlight adventure athletes of color. She's also a disabled skydiver with over 600 jumps. Danielle graduated from Harvard in 2008 and has spent the last ten years in the U.S. Army with combat deployments in Iraq and the Philippines. The Army threw her out of her first plane in 2006 and she's been in love with adventure sports ever since. Since its founding in 2014 Team Blackstar has grown from six African American parachutists to a diverse group of 270 skydivers in six countries. Danielle recently partnered with Brown Girls Climb on Project Diversify: the first ever video collaboration showcasing Women of Color in adventure sports. On the weekends you can find her indulging her favorite outdoor therapy: barefoot skydiving or pushing her walker around the bonfire with a little help from her friends. Blue skies!
Name: Danielle Williams
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
How long have you been skydiving? I jumped out of my first plane in 2006 while I was still in college. The Army sent me to jump school at Ft. Benning, Georgia where I learned static-line parachuting. In 2011, I was living in Kentucky and I went for a tandem skydive on my birthday. Three months later I learned how to skydive while visiting my sister for a week in North Carolina. That summer was magic. I moved to Alabama and jumped all over the south in Georgia, Mississippi, Florida, Virginia and South Carolina. Every weekend was a different drop-zone and new friends. I kept my tent in my trunk but I slept in stranger’s cabins, campers, in lofts and on saggy couches in the hangar with old, half blind DZ dogs for company. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
Is it dangerous? Yes and no. Skydiving is dangerous just not as dangerous as its portrayed on television and in the movies. You don’t have to be a Navy Seal or a professional stuntwoman to do it. My youngest friend in the sport was 19 when he started and my oldest is in his late eighties. We all have different levels of fitness. To quote Miranda Lambert, it takes all kinds of kinds. There are a lot of military operators in the community but we also have retirees, grandpas, soccer moms, teachers, lawyers, college kids and everything in between.
What do you like most about the sport? The adrenaline rush is what drew me to skydiving but it’s not what made me stay. I stayed for the community, for the traditions and the sense of camaraderie. My favorite part of every weekend at the drop-zone is landing my canopy after sunset load and sitting around on the picnic tables drinking a cold beer with friends. That’s only topped by the shared sense of accomplishment when you sink into your assigned slot on a 25 way dive and spin pieces like clockwork 13,000ft in the air. The community is full of a lot of good people.
I also really love celebrating skydiving traditions. I moved around a lot when I first started so I didn’t get to celebrate many of my own. Now I make an extra effort to celebrate them with others. That means pieing your friends when they reach their 100th and 1,000th jump and making sure the beer fridge gets restocked every time anyone does something for the “first time.” Not every drop zone is the same. I’ve always gravitated towards drop-zones where experienced jumpers and staff are family and we all help out. My home drop zone, Emerald Coast Skydiving Center, really embodied the things I love most about this sport.
What made you want to start Melanin Base Camp? In 2016, I got back from another deployment and I just started getting curious about other people of color who were active in adventure sports. I knew what my community looked like: at the time I was managing Team Blackstar Skydivers which has over 240 skydivers in six countries. However, I wanted to know what it was like for people of color who kayaked, surfed, climbed or mountain-biked. So I started spending a lot of time on Instagram searching for Black surfers and Asian climbers, Latinx and Muslimah hikers. Yeah, it’s a little strange but that’s what I did. And I started meeting people, slowly but surely. I wasn’t finding them on the big brand name feeds or even the bigger non-profit pages. But I was definitely finding this underground community and at the same time dispensing with some of my pre-conceived notions. Like, there are entire scenes that I had no idea existed: like the Wilmot surfing family in Jamaica, or how popular kite-surfing is in Cape Verde. The first time I watched Paloma Galvao cross a slackline suspended hundreds of feet in the air my mouth dropped open. I didn’t know Black women did that. I didn’t know that we were 3xBrazilian kiteboarding champions either until I started following Dioneia Vieira. I was spending so much time on this one app but my world was expanding! That was the genesis of Melanin Base Camp. Originally my goal was to increase POC participation in adventure sports. But that changed. Now our goal is to increase representation. Because we’re already out here sending, crushing, shredding and accomplishing incredible things. Now we want to be heard. We want to be seen because we know the power an image has to inspire others, to inspire our own communities, to shape our sense of self. We want to tell our stories because they’re not being told elsewhere. By doing that, my hope is that Melanin Base Camp helps move us one step closer to the goal of #everyonesoutdoors.
What is the #diversifyoutdoors movement? My favorite question! We’re a consortium of organizations and non-profits with the shared goal of diversifying access to the outdoors, increasing marginalized communities’ participation in outdoor recreation and increasing representation by telling our own stories. It includes groups like Jenny Bruso’s Unlikely Hikers, Pretty Good 4 a Girl, The Black Outdoors, Brown People Camping, Natives Outdoors, Latinx Hikers, Indigenous Women Climb and the Great Outchea. Just check out the #diversifyoutdoors hashtag on Instagram!