Reclaiming the Great Outdoors

Reclaiming the Great Outdoors

Cheris Hawkins wants everybody outside

Words by Grace Cope
Photos provided by Cherisa Hawkins

To celebrate turning 30 years old, Cherisa Hawkins made a decision that would end up impacting the rest of her life––she was going to hike the Grand Canyon. Little did she know that in doing so, she took her first step toward her future career: becoming a travel and outdoors influencer.

Her blog, SwitchbackShawty, is dedicated to her hiking expeditions, incredible photography, and educating the world about diversity in the outdoors—but before she was documenting her travels around the nation, her passion began as a child, spending every free moment she could outside.

“My dad was a big motivator for me when I was little. We would go camping at Lake Lanier in Georgia. He had a boat and we’d get on the water and go swimming, jet-skiing, water-skiing. We always camped as a family,” said Cherisa. “We weren’t allowed to watch TV, which I hated when I was younger, but me and my sister always played outside. We’d meet up with our cousins and we would go explore, hang out in the woods, and swim in the creek.”

This adoration for the outdoors inspired a hobby that she would end up turning into a career––photography. “My grandfather gave me my first camera when I was thirteen or fourteen, a little 35mm nighttime film camera that he used to use,” said Cherisa fondly. “My dad gave me another film camera in college, because I took photography classes—but it was very expensive to take photography as a student, and he complained about it. He would say, ‘This film is expensive, this paper is expensive, this camera is expensive.’ But he always bought me what I needed, because he knew it was my passion.”

Today, it is this passion that drives her career forward. Cherisa uses her photography skills to promote products, collaborate with brands, and make a living by traveling around the U.S. While the photos of mountainous terrain, vast canyons, and dense forests exhibit Cherisa’s talent, her goal for her blog is much broader than simply showcasing her photography. “After my Havasupai trip, I started sharing more about the struggle of hiking. I had people reach out to me asking how I feel comfortable hiking as a woman of color, how I feel comfortable by myself, or my recommendation on boots,” said Cherisa. “People were really looking for me to help them get started on the trail.”

Something Cherisa values is feeling comfortable while hiking. She explained how for beginners, it’s important to feel as at home as possible on the trails. This can mean packing fresh, family-style meals, reliable gear, and practical clothing. These are just a few of the topics that she discusses on her blog, all designed to help people feel encouraged to get outside. 

Cherisa also dedicates her blog to the important mission of educating the world about diversity and inclusion in the outdoors.“When you look at outdoor magazines, you usually see white males—muscular men climbing mountains and scaling walls without being tethered to the rock. I want to change that perspective, because I’ve met so many great outdoors-people who have different body types or different backgrounds, and I’ve had the most fun with those people,” said Cherisa. “Those people do get out there and hike—so I just want to change the concept of who goes outside by shooting campaigns and sharing them on my page.”

For content creators of color, their experience as influencers are often much different than their white counterparts––they must actively fight stereotypes that have been made about people of color and the outdoors. Cherisa is no stranger to this struggle.

“There is the typical stereotype people believe, they think ‘Oh, Black people don’t camp.’ I’ve gotten that from all kinds of people,” said Cherisa. “I think I first wanted to challenge that when I went to Burning Man. I got it from both sides there. People would say, ‘Oh, you’re here? Black people don’t camp!” My African-American friends thought it was weird that I was going. They couldn’t believe that I would be outside for an entire week, dirty and dusty.”

Cherisa explained how the stereotype likely originated from the fact that national parks used to be segregated. Because of this, Black Americans were denied the opportunity to camp and experience the outdoors the way white people could. “I think it’s just about sharing that history. You don’t realize how much you learn from your ancestors, or what is passed down through the generations and how that ties to experiencing the outdoors,” said Cherisa. “I don’t even think I would be into the outdoors if it weren’t for my dad really pushing us to be outside.”

Began initially as a dedication toward her father and the beginning of her thirties, SwitchbackShawty has evolved from a personal memento to a thriving business––with the singular goal of getting everyone, no matter their background, outside.