Since childhood, Sophie Brown has held a deep connection with the natural world. In 2021, she decided to share her passion for walking in nature with other women of colour. We spoke to Sophie to hear the inspirational story of how she founded Steppin Sistas, the first walking group of its kind in Bristol.
© Sophie Brown
Sophie was born in Bath and grew up with rolling countryside on her doorstep.
She describes herself as a life-long child of nature.
Sophie recalls being nine years old and walking alone through fields of hay to watch frogs in a small pond near to where she lived.
She describes feeling happy and secure beside the pond.
In a world that posed challenges to a young black girl, the pond and the company of the frogs was a place without fear.
Walking alone in nature and spending time with wildlife has always been a sacred activity for Sophie.
She expresses a very special sense of relief and release, a personal tonic to the stresses of life.
And as for tree hugging, by all means, why not?
Embracing a tree is embracing life.
As idyllic as Sophie’s story may sound at this point, she faced and continues to face a significant issue.
In the main, people of colour are rarely seen out walking in the British countryside.
And as result, Sophie has faced suspicion, rejection and racism.
A place in the country?
Sophie tells us that she knows many women of colour in Bristol who do not consider the countryside as a place for them.
They believe it’s the preserve of "white, middle class farmers", and often don’t realise that public footpaths exist for walking the land.
With no experience, walking out in nature can feel totally alien and threatening.
Sophie could easily relate to why her friends would feel this way.
Experience has taught her that not all of their assumptions were unfounded.
But she also saw how these women were missing out on the abundance of mental, physical and social benefits that come with walking in nature.
As a member of the Ramblers, a trained walk leader, and with a career and degree in health and social care, Sophie took matters into her own hands.
Steppin out of line
In the spring of 2021, coronavirus restrictions were easing and it seemed like a great time to bring women together.
Lockdowns had only heightened isolation within the urban communities that Sophie spent time in.
She desperately wanted other women of colour who she knew to experience how wonderful walking in nature could make them feel.
Sophie began researching groups nationwide who were working on this cause and this led her to an important decision.
If she was going to form a group, it must be for women of colour, not just black women.
Sophie believes passionately that we must close the divisions between us.
Bristol is a multi-cultural city and any group founded by her would have to reflect that.
Furthermore, Sophie decided that she would never turn away any woman who wants to walk.
Her group would be founded for women of colour, but all women aged over 18, including white women, would be welcomed to walk.
And in that moment, Steppin Sistas was born.
© Sophie Brown
Sophie tentatively created the Steppin Sistas Facebook group.
She had no idea what sort of response she could expect, but secretly hoped for around 30 women to join.
Within one month, Sophie had nearly 500 women, all eager to take up her invitation for a fortnightly local walk.
Sophie began taking groups of 30 women at a time to natural beauty spots including:
Local TV and radio stations soon started talking about Steppin Sistas and interest continued to grow.
Sophie was on a steep learning curve and fast gaining an understanding of her group's needs.
The Facebook group evolved and quickly became a community where women of colour could socialise and support one another.
Sophie established an informal mentorship scheme, where women could offer to be a mentor or request to be connected with one.
Sophie told us how these connections were enabling women to share skills, whilst reducing isolation and loneliness amongst women in the group.
A breath of fresh air
We asked Sophie to describe the impact that her walks have on women in the group.
She recalls one of her walkers who had never been to the countryside:
"As she was walking along hedgerows, she was reaching out and touching everything.
"Every leaf and branch, absolutely fascinated by the different colours and textures.
"Seeing farm animals up close for the first time is also quite a big and exciting moment for some women."
Sophie educates and empowers her walkers, nurturing their confidence and independence.
She talks about how women are noticing tangible improvements to their fitness too.
"They’re walking further and faster, buying Fitbits, losing weight, engaging in their own health and setting personal goals."
But Sophie’s deepest joy is when women excitedly tell her that they’ve been out on their own walk.
This was the gift that Sophie always wanted to share.
Sophie wouldn’t say this about herself, but her kindness knows no bounds.
One of her women has social anxiety and couldn’t face a group walk.
So Sophie took her on her own to the top of Glastonbury Tor.
© Sophie Brown
"Where did THEY all come from?"
This was the comment that broke Sophie’s heart when leading Steppin Sistas across the Somerset Levels.
But sadly she wasn’t surprised.
Sophie knows that the reception her group receives can be very different to the one she experiences when out walking with white friends in the Ramblers Association.
For as long as she can remember, she’s felt that some people don’t believe that she has any place being in the countryside.
A pub also turned the Steppin Sistas away.
What Sophie heard was too upsetting for her to repeat. She tells us:
"I understand that people are intimidated by us, because they don’t often see people of colour in the countryside, but we have to build bridges.
"I tell my women that we just have to educate others and let them know that it’s ok for us to be here, eventually they’ll get used to seeing us.
"I make a point of stopping, saying hello and explaining to people who we are.
"We can’t let negative experiences stop us from getting out and doing what we love.
"Racism or other people’s fear of me don’t make me angry, I just keep going and trying to break down the barriers between us."
Sophie has created a special and much needed space for the women in her group to experience walking in nature.
We talked about what it means to be founded as a group for women of colour.
Sophie explains that when trying something new and out of your comfort zone, the last thing you need is to feel like an ambassador for all black women or women of colour.
"People don’t mean to spotlight you when you’re the only black person in a group.
"But at some point a question will usually lead you into having to talk about a collective black experience, rather than a personal one.
"Women of colour feel comfortable on my walks because they can just be themselves."
Sophie adds that having shared cultural references and experiences has created an immediate sense of belonging amongst the women.
"Some of my women feel drained by having to explain themselves in society.
"They don’t have to do that when they're with their Steppin Sistas."
By sharing her story, Sophie hopes that more women of colour will be inspired to get out and walk in nature. She adds:
"I also hope more people will make space for us in the countryside, so we can feel welcome all of the time, rather than just some of the time.
"With Steppin Sistas, we’ve made our own lane, but that’s only because we’re waiting for everyone else to be ready for us."
Sophie’s seeking trained walk leaders who are women of colour to join her, so that more women can get out in nature more often.
A future ambition is to take a coach party for a walking holiday in the Lake District.
And as a personal challenge, Sophie wants to walk from Bristol to Reading using the tow paths of the Kennet & Avon Canal.
To join Steppin Sistas, visit Sophie’s Facebook group.
To talk to about becoming a Steppin Sistas walk leader, email Sophie.
© Sophie Brown
If Sophie’s inspired you, read her 17 tips to get you on the move.
- Join an established walking group so you can observe the organisation and logistics that are required.
- Join some online walking communities so you can gain an understanding of what creates positive and negative experiences.
- Get training as a walk leader with the support of an organisation like the Ramblers Association.
- Learn how to undertake risk assessments to protect yourself and your walkers.
- Check how many first aiders you'll need within a group and once you've recruited them, take copies of their current certificates.
- Invest in some high visibility vests for you and your key group members such as marshals.
- Get walk leader insurance.
- Remind your walkers that they join you at their own risk and encourage them to take out their own personal insurance.
- Take a register with an emergency contact for each walker.
- Educate your walkers in The Countryside Code and enthuse about why it’s so important to follow it.
- With health and safety measures in place and you can relax and enjoy the experience.
- Share your passion for all that the outdoors means to you. It will create a richer experience for your group.
- Ensure you understand the expectations, physical abilities and fitness levels of all your walkers.
- Don’t forget to check if anyone suffers from vertigo, as bridges and cliff paths can be challenging.
- For less experienced walkers, remember to talk in terms of time rather than distance. For a beginner, it can be difficult to imagine miles or kilometres.
- Always be clear about your terrain and the clothing and equipment that will make it comfortable.
- Every experience is a lesson, it’s all about how you move forward.