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Apr 30, 2024

Leader Spotlight: Alex Kim of Here Montana

At Headwaters Foundation, our commitment to ‘working side-by-side with Western Montanans to improve the health of our communities’ is the driving force behind everything we do. In pursuit of that mission, we are privileged to support and amplify the work of incredible leaders who are driving change across our region.

As we enter May, where Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and Mental Health Month intersect, we are proud to shine a spotlight on Alex Kim, Founder and Director of Here Montana. A first generation Korean American and passionate outdoor enthusiast, Alex founded Here Montana in 2018 to connect and empower Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in Montana by centering joy, education and community outdoors.

The gift of living in Western Montana lies not only in its beautiful landscapes, but also in its abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities. Studies show the positive effects of access to and time in nature on the physical and emotional wellbeing of young people. Yet, barriers such as limited access to information, gear, and community support, as well as a lack of representation in outdoor leadership and advocacy, have prevented people of color from participating in outdoor recreation.

Here Montana works to remove barriers by offering free and accessible recreation programs, from backpacking to ice fishing and beyond, to people of color (ages 14+) across Western Montana. Their programs cultivate inclusivity and build meaningful connections between individuals of color and Montana’s natural wonders.

We sat down with Alex to hear about what inspired him to start Here Montana, the importance of representation in outdoor pursuits, and the transformative power of community and nature in bolstering mental health.

What inspired you to start Here Montana?

The outdoors and the importance of representation in the outdoors have been important in my life, and I wanted to share that. When I first came here from the East Coast, a diverse place, I didn’t see myself in the outdoors – in marketing or in general. I started working at a nonprofit here that offered some hunting and fishing opportunities. When I went to school for photojournalism and combined that with outside sports, I recognized that from the people being photographed for marketing materials to the top, the outdoor industry is very homogeneous. I figured that with my experiences and abilities, I could start a little pilot program just to see if it would garner any interest. And here we are today, a full nonprofit, and it’s been an awesome ride.

Why is participating in outdoor activities with a group so powerful?

I think groups and communities foster a space where people can feel comfortable and safe, like they can express themselves. It’s been awesome to see people of different ages, with different abilities, languages, cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds, different genders coming together, interacting, seeing where their intersections are. They’re overcoming a fear and growing together, or just sharing a happy moment. There’s a lot of solidarity in community and in being able to share experiences with people that you can relate to.

How do you incorporate mental health into your programming, and cultivate belonging in the outdoors?

The outdoors is a committed and consistent place for us here in Missoula, and I think being able to connect our mental health with the outdoors is amazing. We include mindfulness activities in our backpacking trips, hoping to make that connection. For someone who doesn’t feel like they belonged, it creates this bond for them where they now feel comfortable. I’m Korean American and when I walk into a house, I always take my shoes off. It’s a sign of comfort and safety and being welcome. I try to practice that outside too; I kick my boots and socks off and walk around camp barefoot.

Can you discuss the importance of engaging teenagers of color in outdoor activities and how it can positively impact their personal growth?

Teenagers are at a part of their lives where they’re approaching a fork in the road, where they can decide to do things. I love being a part of opening that door for someone and seeing them do something — through community, support and instruction — that they previously thought they couldn’t. An example is a 14-year-old that had lived in Missoula their whole life but had never been on the river; their family just wasn’t in a position to access it. We got to share an experience on the Clark Fork with them, and it felt like having an opportunity to connect with that part of their environment really changed their life.

Thank you to Alex and the Here Montana team for the vital work they do! Here Montana is always accepting monetary donations, in-kind donations of gear, and outdoor industry connections to support their programming. To learn more and support, check out their website and follow them on Instagram!

Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.