Thrive Outside Profile Series: Kristen Ragain

January 25, 2021

Q&A: Kristen Ragain, manager of philanthropy and community partnerships for REI Co-op

REI Co-op has donated $1 million to the Thrive Outside initiative in hopes of helping kids in urban centers around the U.S. have repeating outdoor experiences in slices of nature close to home. As manager of REI Co-op’s philanthropy and community partnerships programs, Kristen Ragain works to support programming that ensures that every person can benefit from time outdoors. We asked her why it’s so important to support this, and how she thinks the average American’s outdoor experience could change once life begins to return to normal.

Why is it important to REI to support Thrive Outside?
As one of the leaders in the outdoor industry, we knew it was important for REI to support this effort from the very beginning. The average American spends 95 percent of their life inside and this contributes to so many different challenges our society faces. At the co-op, we want to help reverse this trend. Connecting youth and families to the outdoors is one critical way to help do that. The 2019 Outdoor Participation Report shows people are connecting to the outdoors less and less [Editor’s note: Americans took one billion fewer outdoor outings in 2018 compared to 2008] so we appreciated that Thrive Outside supported the idea of repeating and reinforcing outdoor experiences. Having a progression plan in place and a sense of reinforcement allows for a community to grow and connect. It will be really exciting for all of us in the outdoor industry, and others, to start seeing the results of Thrive Outside so we can all learn from it and use that information for our philanthropic and community engagement work.

What are your hopes for what some of those outcomes may be?
My hope is that participants in the program see the outdoors as a daily/regular part of their lives and spend time in close to home nature which can improve overall health and wellbeing.

During the Covid-19 crisis we are seeing that more people than ever before are seeking refuge,solace and wellbeing in close-to-home nature. Hiking and biking on local trails and parks, paddling, and walks in natural areas have been supportive and healing for many. the Outdoor Foundation, with Thrive Outside, and also the broader industry, has a huge opportunity here to come through COVID and help people reimagine that daily connection to the outdoors and how important it is for our health and wellbeing both as individuals and as a collective community and society.

Do you think we might see a bigger shift toward those close-to-home spaces?
I think we’re going to be seeing people looking to recreate in nearby outdoor places, especially in the next 18 months or so. Maybe someone who was really into backcountry trips is now taking up local trail running, or maybe someone who used to do a lot of indoor yoga and fitness is now doing those things outdoors. I think across the board there are going to be more people spending time in local parks, trails, and waterways. It’s an interesting time for the organizations that are stewarding these places, because they’re seeing an increase in participation and usage, and obviously a decrease in funding. Outdoor places need to be maintained and experiences for connecting youth outdoors need to be cultivated and supported. Hopefully, this is an opportunity to raise awareness that we can’t take these things for granted and we need to increase support for the organizations that are doing what they can to create equitable access to the outdoors for all people.

What do you think, an equitable outdoors looks like?
It is important to work towards the Trust for Public Lands’s goal that everyone should be within a 10-minute walk to a great place to get outside. But, many also know that just because access to the outdoors is available, not everyone feels safe in the outdoors or a sense of belonging in nature. This is a significant barrier. So, equitable access to the outdoors needs to be about ensuring access and working towards a reality where everyone can feel safe being themselves and find their place in the outdoors.

What drives your passion for this work?
As a child, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, assuming that everyone was able to experience the outdoors as my family did through hiking, camping, climbing, biking, etc. As I grew up, I realized this was not the case and was inspired to work for environmental nonprofits and, now, REI, which works to connect all people to the outdoors. The outdoors is good for us. What could our planet be like if nearby access to nature and the outdoors was a basic human right for all? This idea, this question, is what gets me out of bed every day ready to support, advocate and work for equitable access to the outdoors no matter one’s race, orientation or economics.