Marcus Shoffner started the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition to address disparities in urban recreation. Photo courtesy of the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition.

People come to Pittsburgh for its three rivers, parks and outdoor recreation — it’s part of what makes Pittsburgh one of the nation’s most livable cities. But the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition wants the region’s recreational amenities to be more accessible, inclusive and useful to all.

Originally from Asheville, North Carolina, Marcus Shoffner grew up camping and spending time on the water. After moving to Pittsburgh, and working for Venture Outdoors, Shoffner saw disparities in park spaces and the ability of people of color to use them. 

“From our regional parks like Frick, Schenley, Highland and Riverview to our local parks that are in Black and Brown neighborhoods like McKinley Park to the Hazelwood Greenway —  there’s such a disparity between how these parks are being invested in,” Shoffner says.

In the 100 most populated cities in the U.S., the majority of nonwhite neighborhoods have about 44% less park acreage than the majority of white neighborhoods, according to a 2021 study from the Trust for Public Land

In 2019, Shoffner started the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition to address disparities in urban recreation.

“There’s such a gap in experiential opportunities,” Shoffner adds. “Here in Pittsburgh, we have a ton of amenities but there are few collective efforts to activate an urban populous in those spaces. The coalition has the ability to use its collective voice to serve underrepresented populations — creating those spaces and feeling welcomed in those spaces, as well as feeling ownership of these spaces.”

North Park. Photo by Tyler Woodfill.

The Outdoor Inclusion Coalition has worked with recreationists, and with for-profit, nonprofit and governmental agencies, to advocate for greater participation in outdoor recreation. The coalition garners community participation and provides a space for people to voice their opinions on projects like park master plans.

The coalition also has created toolkits to help other organizations understand the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion support systems during hiring, onboarding and beyond. 

Shoffner served for the past two years as director of diversity, equity and inclusion for Venture Outdoors. Hosted by Venture Outdoors since 2021, the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition is now becoming its own organization under a new fiscal sponsor — New Sun Rising. The Millvale-based organization supports nonprofits, social enterprises, collaboratives and philanthropic partners to help build a more equitable and inclusive society.

“Marcus has been a passionate and valuable partner in his time with us and we have been honored to work alongside of him hosting the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition,” says Valerie Beichner, president and CEO of Venture Outdoors. “This transition is an inevitability we had planned from the start and know the Outdoor Inclusion Coalition will only grow exponentially in the coming years.”

The Outdoor Inclusion Coalition also works to improve accessibility to and within parks, including accessible transportation to parks as well as amenities in parks, such as sidewalks and hiking trails that are accessible to all people, and multilingual park signage. 

Although encouraging inclusivity is important, the coalition also wants to address incidents when people in outdoor recreational spaces have been targeted or verbally attacked based on their identity. To that end, the coalition has created the Inclusionary Incident Report to track incidents, report them and even mediate them.  

Shoffner says that becoming a 501(c)(3) organization will help the coalition create more collaborative programs among existing and future partners.

“We now have a space to gather all of those industries and to work collectively,” Shoffner says. “It’s always going to be a space for developing not just Pittsburgh but the state of Pennsylvania to be more equitable when it comes to recreation.”

This story is part of the new Outdoor Guide series for NEXTpittsburgh focusing on outdoor recreation within a roughly three-hour drive from Pittsburgh.

Ethan Woodfill

A Pittsburgh native, Ethan is a freelance journalist interested in telling the stories of people doing great things to build community and sustainability. Ethan served as Editor-in-Chief of Allegheny College's newspaper, The Campus.