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Danielle Williams has no quit. An army veteran and Harvard graduate, she has been an advocate for diversity in outdoor adventure sports since 2014, when she co-founded Team Blackstar Skydivers. An African-American skydiver living with a disability, Williams has over 600 jumps under her belt, and has also launched Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors.
Born in New York, a fourth-generation army veteran, Williams spent her childhood across the United States — “all up and down the Southeast,” she says. Georgia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee.
“I loved the idea that you could just pick up and move and start over,” says Williams. “It was always kind of this underlying assumption that we would join the military, because that’s what my dad did, and that’s what his dad did, and that’s what great-grandad did … I never really considered doing anything else.”
Williams found skydiving in 2011, after she’d returned from a deployment in Iraq. At the time, she’d been building roads and repairing culverts. She wanted something to ease the transition to civilian life.
“I thought I would check that box one time and then walk away, because I didn’t envision myself as a skydiver. I didn’t know any people who looked like me who were skydivers.” – Danielle Williams
“While you’re in a war zone, you have this sort of feeling, and when you get back to the States, a lot of people look for it in different avenues,” she says. “I thought I would check that box one time and then walk away, because I didn’t envision myself as a skydiver. I didn’t know any people who looked like me who were skydivers.”
She went to a drop zone in Kentucky and signed up for a tandem dive.
“They had a little Cessna 182, which is like a small four-seater plane,” she says.
On the plane with her, another diver was going up alone.
“That just blew my mind,” says Williams. “I didn’t know you could skydive without being attached to somebody.”
Soon enough, she was logging jumps at every opportunity — enjoying the hospitality of a culture that seemed to open its arms so readily. Dinner invitations. Offers of guest beds in camper vans.
“I remember jumping at this one drop zone in Mississippi, and I had just gotten there … and this eight-year-old girl approaches me. She’s like, ‘Hey, you’re new here! We have an extra bed in our camper. Do you want to stay with us?’” she laughs. “That’s just, like, how the culture is.”
“It’s really motivating to see people — especially women, especially women of colour — to see them just killing it and performing really well at professional levels.” – Danielle Williams
Still, Williams didn’t know many skydivers that looked like her. When she found a group one St. Patrick’s Day Weekend in Georgia, they decided to go for a record: how many African-American skydivers could they get together in one jump? They were six friends and one videographer in total.
“We just kind of ran with it,” she says. They called themselves Team Blackstar. “It’s been five years, and we’ve grown from that original group of seven people … to over 270 people in six different countries.”
Things seemed promising. Exciting. That first record-setting jump, says Williams, “was right before my life fell apart.”
In 2015, Williams was deployed to the Philippines for her next army stint. She got sick.
I didn’t think it was much of a big deal,” she says. “I came back to the U.S., and maybe two months later, really weird things started happening. And it took about a year to get diagnosed.”
Doctors told Williams she had rheumatic fever — a disease that can involve chest pain, joint pain, fatigue, and shortness of breath. Muscle movement can become involuntary.
“I was still trying to stay pretty active, but I was really sick,” she says. “I went from, like, trail-runner, skydiver, super athletic, overnight to [being] on a walker. And I was on that walker for three years.”
As she adjusted to her new circumstances, Williams found herself with time in front of a computer. She put it to use and started Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors.
“People like to say that nature’s colourblind. I’m sure nature’s colourblind, but nature is inhabited by people. And whatever issues we have in cities, or in the towns that we live in, guess what? We bring that into the outdoors.” – Danielle Williams
“When I started out [in skydiving],” she says, “I just wanted to fit in … I didn’t want to talk about [race].”
But what started with Team Blackstar lit a fire. Soon, Williams wanted to find more people of colour in outdoor adventure sports, and find a way to amplify their voices. In 2016, she started @melaninbasecamp on Instagram and launched a blog the next year.
“People like to say that nature’s colourblind,” she says. “I’m sure nature’s colourblind, but nature is inhabited by people. And whatever issues we have in cities, or in the towns that we live in, guess what? We bring that into the outdoors.”
With Diversify Outdoors, Williams and other athletes and activists formed a coalition to promote diversity and equity in the outdoor space — not just for African-Americans, but for any groups that have been historically underrepresented.
“I can still love this community and talk about ways that we need to improve,” she says. “I can still love this community and want it to be better.”