It’s a calm day on the lake and the water looks like glass all around her. There are people paddle boarding, kayaking and enjoying the water — but something is off. “Why am I the only one out here?” thought Tanya Walker, a Black native Austinite, while she was kayaking in 2018. “Why is it so rare that I would see somebody of color out kayaking, paddle boarding or doing much of anything on the water?”
Walker has always had a love for the outdoors and even grew up riding her bike around the neighborhood every day. In the summer of 1995, her senior year of high school, Walker went to a camp where she was exposed to kayaking for the first time. “I became addicted to it,” Walker jokes.
Ever since then, Walker has been eager to try any and every outdoor activity she can, finding special joy in the challenge of a new skill mixed with the open air. But even so, kayaking still has a special place in her heart, especially in Austin. It’s also the activity that got her thinking about outreach.
“I would always go kayaking and do some of the extreme sports that I typically didn’t see anybody else of color doing,” Walker says. “But kayaking was the one that just set off a light bulb.”
Encouraged by her fiancé at the time, Walker created the Facebook group Black Women Who Kayak. Through this group, she wanted to host kayaking events and see who might come out and paddle with her.
In the beginning, there was only one woman, Twanda DeBorde, who would always attend. Since the group itself was still just a hobby for Walker, she was even thinking about closing it down due to a lack of community interest. She would have, too, but DeBorde gave her the encouragement she needed to keep going. So, Walker kept on inviting people — and slowly more and more started coming to her events.
“The ladies who would come were always just so excited and so enthusiastic about connecting with other women of color and also being able to do something with people who look like them,” Walker explains. “It was at that point that I realized that this could be more than just a hobby.”
Walker started looking at this group with the bigger picture in mind — thinking about all of the outdoor activities she didn’t typically see people of color participating in. That’s when the “+” was added to the name, and Black Women Who Kayak + expanded the mission and dream. First up was Whirlpool Cave.
At the time, Walker still wasn’t sure that anyone would show up since it was the first event that wasn’t kayaking, but everyone who signed up came. The event even became a favorite among members, including Kim Fields who joined BWWK+ about two years ago. Fields recalls how amazing it felt to get geared up with the helmets and lights.
“We all know there’s caves and caverns, but to actually crawl and explore and see the life — or lack of life — that was down there,” Fields says, “it was really neat, and it was a test to myself to push myself to do something like that.”
Fields loves that BWWK+ has given her not only the opportunity to experience new things, but it’s also given her a tribe of people to explore with. That tribe, she says, makes the intimidating aspects of taking on new challenges much easier to manage.
“We’re not all pros. We don’t know it all and, for a lot of us, this will be our first time as well,” Fields says. “So why not share this experience with both the amateurs and the pros?”
After how well the cave exploring event went, the door was now wide open for more events to come. Walker even began partnering with other businesses as an extension of the BWWK+ mission to not only empower Black women but to educate others. Walker also wanted to emphasize that the group is open and accessible for everyone to join. As long as you believe in their mission, they are ready to welcome you in.
“It’s breaking down those barriers that we have had for so long,” Walker says, “that there are only one-race sports or one-race activities.”
Now, the group has participated in all sorts of activities including swimming lessons, horseback riding, fishing, rock climbing, stand-up paddle boarding, rowing, cycling, sailing lessons and hiking. Walker has even organized a wake surfing event for the group, which quickly became another favorite.
That wake surfing event was also open to family, and member Rebecca Trulove, who joined BWWK+ in 2018, was able to bring her niece. She says that the additional perk of sharing the event with a younger family member made the event that much sweeter.
“That allowed me to share that experience with the next generation,” Trulove says. “I think that’s super important, to share that same philosophy that Black people — especially women — do get out. We do explore the outdoors, and we are in places that you might not see us all the time, but we want it to be as normal as any other ethnic group.”
Trulove, who is originally from the United Kingdom and first moved to Austin in 2018, also says that the group has allowed her to feel more comfortable here in Austin.
“Austin is now my home,” Trulove says. “Having a group like BWWK+ made this feel like, okay, I’m meant to be here now because I have my tribe.”
Similar to Trulove and Fields, many members of the group feel they have found a tribe of support that allows them to take on challenges they couldn’t have before. Walker even explains that many of her events actually start out as requests from members of the group.
“Half of the things that I’ve set up for the events come from ladies who have asked, ‘Have we done this yet?’” Walker says. “And it’s something that they’ve always wanted to do, but they didn’t have either the resources to do it or they didn’t want to do it alone.”
In addition to the Austin chapter, there are also new chapters in Houston and Kentucky. The idea behind these chapters is not only to grow the mission but to create an extension of that tribe.
“So, if you happen to be in another city or another state, there’s another community there of people that share similar interests,” Trulove says. “And for me, I think that’s incredible.”
This group has already touched so many lives and allowed so many women to experience things they never thought they would have the opportunity to try. Walker is excited to see what the future of the group holds and is excited for new members to come kayak and explore.
“When I see our group grow, I just see opportunity that’s going to be passed down from the mom who’s feeling confident to her kids,” Walker says. “I want [the members of my group] to experience every single thing that is out there. Nothing is left out of reach.”