Danielle Williams is the founder of DiversifyOutdoors.com, a coalition of 29 outdoor digital media influencers and the home of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge; she’s also the founder and senior editor of blogging platform MelaninBaseCamp.com. Williams has been a strong advocate for diversity in outdoor adventure sports since 2014 when she co-founded Team Blackstar Skydivers. Since January 2018, she has been busy building a network of organizations, advocates and influencers around the hashtag #DiversifyOutdoors which has since been used over 33k times on Instagram. As a disabled African American skydiver with over 600 jumps, she's happiest while expanding traditional narratives of who is active in the outdoors. Her love of adventure sports began in 2006 when the Army threw her out of her first plane. Williams graduated from Harvard in 2008 and spent the next 10.5 years in the U.S. Army with deployments to Iraq and the Philippines. During that time, she was influential in growing Team Blackstar Skydivers from six African American parachutists to a diverse, international group of 270 skydivers of color. She’s been featured in Vice, Outside Magazine, SELF, Backpacker, and The Globe and Mail. 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! For media inquiries, consulting or for more information contact her at email@example.com
Name: Danielle Williams
Hometown: Raleigh, NC
Occupation: Retired Military
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 DZ dogs for company. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It was so incredibly different from my experience as a military officer and former Army Brat! The radical hospitality and alternative culture you find in the skydiving community really appeal to me.
Is it dangerous? Yes and no. Skydiving can be dangerous—just not as dangerous as it is sometimes portrayed on television and in the movies. As others have said, it’s a “dangerous sport that can be done safely.” 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 and varying level of ability. There are a lot of military operators in the community but we also have retirees, grandpas, soccer moms, teachers, lawyers, college kids and everyone in between. To quote Miranda Lambert, it takes all kinds of kinds.
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 is skydiving with a disability like? Living with a disability is challenging—especially in a society that is not designed for people who use mobility aids. I spend less time outdoors than I did before I got sick in 2015; and I really miss a lot of things like running and hiking in the back-country. But I do feel grateful for the time I spend outside. Yes, I still skydive but I no longer spend entire weekends jumping. I schedule in a lot of time for rest, medication and treatment; I don’t jump during flares or when I’m in a lot of pain; I pay for packers in order to conserve energy—that sort of thing. Honestly, the most challenging part of jumping now is the amount of walking that is required, due to nerve damage and weakness in my legs. I recently had ankle reconstruction surgery and I’m excited about testing out my new ankle. But I’m also more cautious; living with a long term disability has definitely changed the way I evaluate risk. Overall, I sleep a lot more and walk a lot less! But I still love to skydive. It completely changes my mindset from what I can’t do to what I can do! It’s a confidence builder and even helps with managing chronic pain. It makes me more physically and emotionally resilient! Skydiving is a privilege; I know it’s not a very accessible sport—even for able-bodied folks—due to high cost of equipment, training and other factors. I feel grateful to have the opportunity to jump.
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 270 skydivers in six countries. However, I wanted to know what it was like for outdoor people of color outside of the skydiving community. So I started spending a lot of time on social media searching for people who looked like me—Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous, queer, straight, cis, trans, visibly Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, plus-sized, straight sized and all kinds of abilities—the goal was to connect with other People of Color who love spending time outdoors. Here’s the catch: finding other outdoor people of color was really difficult. You couldn’t find us on the big brand name feeds or even on the outdoor non-profit pages. I was searching for a community of POC adventure athletes that didn’t actually exist yet. Over time, I gradually began to connect with people.
Social media challenged me to throw away a lot of my pre-conceived notions. It also left me in awe at entire communities that I had no idea existed: like the Wilmot surfing family in Jamaica and the professional kite-surfing scene in Cape Verde. The first time I watched pro slackliner Paloma Galvao cross a high-line suspended hundreds of feet in the air my mouth dropped open. I didn’t know Black women did that! I didn’t realize we were 3 x Brazilian kiteboarding champions either until I started following Dioneia Vieira. Can I be honest with y’all? Instagram changed my life. It allowed me to throw out old stereotypes about how People of Color spend time in the outdoors. Hint: The answer is any way we want and any way we can. We grow community gardens, visit state parks and barbeque at the beach. We spend time with family, climb mountains with friends, and solo hike thousands of miles. And sometimes we even jump out of perfectly good airplanes.That was the genesis of Melanin Base Camp. Our goal is to increase representation: that means we want you to be able to scroll through our site and see someone who looks like you accomplishing goals—big and small—that perhaps you never considered to be an option. We want you to feel at home because the outdoors is all about family and friends. We want you to feel heard and seen—because we know the power an image has to inspire others, to inspire our own communities, to shape our sense of self.
What is the #diversifyoutdoors movement? I founded DiversifyOutdoors.com in January 2018. We’re a coalition of outdoor digital media influencers 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, Hey Flash Foxy, Brown Girls Climb, OUT There Adventures, Brown People Camping, Natives Outdoors, Brothers of Climbing, The Black Outdoors and The Great Outchea. Just check out the #diversifyoutdoors hashtag—its been used over 40k times on Instagram. You can also find resources and links to your favorite outdoor diversity and inclusion organizations at DiversifyOutdoors.com.