Social Equity

“We Live in a Vertically Biased World”

By: Stefanie Benjamin, PhD for Tourism RESET

HRT-410 students with Brett Heising at the Downtown Hilton Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee.

HRT-410 students with Brett Heising at the Downtown Hilton Hotel in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Late December, I was making my annual drive to Miami, Florida to visit my family over winter break. It was on this arduous, boring, flat drive through Florida that I decided to try to wake myself up and re-listen to The Evolution of Accessible Travel podcast produced by SKIFT. During this podcast, I realized that this could be an incredible collaboration and partnership with my HRT 410-Strategic Management of Hospitality & Tourism students at the University of Tennessee … the wheels were turning my friends!

As an Assistant Professor in Retail, Hospitality, and Tourism Management, this class serves as our senior capstone course unpacking marketing and managerial strategies of hospitality and tourism. With this specific course, I tend to focus on a student-driven project with some social equity or sustainability component drilled in. However, as any good professor sometimes does … may have waited a wee bit to organize and plan the official ‘final project.’ But, as Spiderman said …. with great procrastination comes great responsibility. He said that right? -  Accessibility Information on the Places You Want to Go - Accessibility Information on the Places You Want to Go

With Spiderman in mind, once back in Miami, I contacted brettapproved, a company founded by Brett Heising that helps people with disabilities (PWDs) travel more confidently through user generated data - think of Yelp but rating the accessibility and inclusivity of hospitality and tourism spaces for PWDs. Brett started the company in 2012 simply for wanting to shower on a business trip but not having access to a roll-in shower - even though it was promised by the hotel staff. His company disseminates information for PWDs to ‘travel more confidentially.’

I believe everyone regardless of any given disability or mobility challenge, deserves to travel — confidently
— Brett Heising

Fast forward to two months later on a rainy, cold, dreary February Sunday in eastern Tennessee. I got into my car excited, yet somewhat nervous, to meet Brett Heising at the Knoxville airport. As I was preparing my students for Brett’s visit, I realized that I was also anxious to meet Brett, as this was my first time interacting and escorting a person in a wheelchair for a sustained period of time. I was scared that I was going to screw up, say something offensive, or run into challenges with Knoxville’s hilly terrain or moderately accessible university campus … I didn’t know what to expect.

As I got closer to the terminal I texted, ‘out in front’ - as our Knoxville airport is quite small, I thought that this was no big deal. Not realizing my ignorance, Brett responded that he was picking up his luggage and kindly asked if I could come in and assist. This was my first aha moment … as Brett is someone who uses a wheelchair, the action of ‘meeting me outside’ with his luggage wasn’t as easy or accessible as for an able-bodied person. This first interaction was the beginning of understanding how PWDs potentially travel. After we successfully figured out how to load Brett’s wheelchair into my car, we were off to Adopo to discuss our working project for HRT-410 over pizza.

Over dinner, we shared similar popular culture references and our mutual love for The Big Lebowski abiding as The Dude does. His spirit and attitude was warm and inviting and our mutual passion for social equity was apparent - even though he identifies as a White, cisgendered, heterosexual man, the intersection of being a PWD shared similar biases and disadvantages as my identity as a woman in our society. We spoke about how PWDs earn 13.6% less than able-bodied people and are significantly more likely to lose a job, be unemployed, or refused the promotion or position. Compared with the Gender Pay Gap where women working full-time, year-round earn just 80 cents for every dollar that men earn - not to mention Women of Color earn less than White women. We shared our stories regarding discrimination and vowed to continue persisting as social equity fighters … even though it is challenging and filled with frustration, pain, depression, and disappointment.

Notice the person ... not the chair.
— Brett Heising

During Brett’s week in Knoxville, he visited our classroom and shared with the students his lived experiences, not specifically as a PWD, but as a human being wanting and deserving of respect and dignity - and access to a damn roll in shower! He focused on inspiring the students to put forth as much effort and passion as humanely possibly with everything they do and reiterated that, “we live in a vertically biased world.”

Brett Heising engaging with HRT-410 students on campus at The University of Tennessee.

Brett Heising engaging with HRT-410 students on campus at The University of Tennessee.

Brett’s visit was also coupled with a class site visit to his hotel at the Downtown Hilton to view what an accessible or ADA room looks like, how he views the property in terms of accessibility, and how we can be more aware of PWDs guests’ needs if our students will work in the industry. Part of this project is educating our students to become fully aware of PWDs expectations and needs when traveling so that they can share this knowledge with hotel front of house staff in Knoxville, our RHTM advisory board, and at the Greater Knoxville Hospitality Association (GHKA) monthly meeting in April. Additionally, our students will help generate reviews for Brett’s website, as part of their overall grade, consisting of tips to assist PWDs when visiting Knoxville. Hopefully, instilling the skills to be allies for PWDs can potentially encourage them to be advocates for social equity and seduce universal design within hospitality and tourism.

Myself, Brett, and Jill Thompson - Director of GHKA after Brett’s presentation to our Knoxville community.

Myself, Brett, and Jill Thompson - Director of GHKA after Brett’s presentation to our Knoxville community.

Brett’s visit to Knoxville ended appropriately … over a beer and margarita on a Wednesday evening on Gay Street. We breathed a sigh of relief as we successfully navigated the streets and curb cuts of Knoxville in the rain, facilitated great conversations with our students and community, and wrapped up any loose ends with the project and expectations we had for our students moving forward.

Brett’s visit to Knoxville taught me more than I was expecting … he mentioned early on during his visit for us to notice the person not the chair. Although he shared that the chair is essentially part of him … it isn’t only him. I teach my students that in order for us to move toward diversity and inclusion, we must actively and empathetically see and listen to people with different lived experiences. However, as my students continue to work on their presentations and projects, I wonder will this project have a lasting effect on them? Is this helping to foster change or an awareness around PWDs? Or is it just another project simply for a grade to graduate? Only time will tell …

BLACK TRAVEL. More than just a Movement. Community. Healing. Transformation. Coming back HOME.


Eight years ago, Nomadness Travel Tribe founder, Evita Robinson started something that has now become a globally recognized movement amongst Black travelers in America and around the world. Steeped in her film background, Evita co-executive produced ‘The NOMADNESS Project’ along with HBO Insecure’s Issa Rae, a show that documents the experiences of people of color living and traveling abroad. Early in 2011, Evita expanded the series platform into her now award winning travel lifestyle brand – NOMADNESS. However, it wasn’t until early 2015 that Black Travel, as a movement, started gaining momentum. What began as one woman’s vision to shape shift the landscape and representations of people of color in the travel industry, has grown exponentially and is now represented by numerous  organizations, bloggers and social influencers driving Black Travel as a Movement. As researchers dedicated to promoting social equity in the travel and tourism sphere, we wanted to understand the stories of the founders behind the movement and reveal how they are making a difference in each of the unique communities they serve.


WHY Black Travel, you may ask…why not ‘travel for everyone’?

The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guidebook for African-American road trippers published between 1936-1966.

The Negro Motorist Green Book was an annual guidebook for African-American road trippers published between 1936-1966.

A similar argument as the opposition to #blacklivesmatter, some may wonder why this movement is even necessary. However, in an industry that boasts itself the largest in the world, representation of marginalized travelers has been severely underserved for centuries. Danny Rivers-Mitchell, founder of Black Girls Travel Too, reflects on how the history of slavery in the United States continues to impact travel today:  

“This (the Black Travel Movement) is a result of slavery that has just trickled down. I mean think about it – when our ancestors were enslaved people, we were prevented to learn…[and] you have to understand that the result of that is catastrophic. It's still present today. Many of our parents didn’t travel, couldn’t travel. Although now we have the ability to travel and have access to knowledge, generational limits of beliefs still linger. You have to go back and correct all of what went wrong, and this is what the movement is doing for Black Travel. You have to get through all of that muck. And it's hard, really hard. It’s gonna take generations.” In fact, the over 30 year old Travel Channel, just premiered it’s second ever series featuring a Black female lead, Kellee Edwards, who leads her show – Mysterious Islands. However, Evita Robinson, CEO and creator of Nomadness Travel Tribe feels that the Black Travel Movement can’t be ignored any longer, “They can't ignore us [Black travelers] anymore. There's so many of us, and we've grown so big - our platforms are getting bigger and bigger. We have built tangible communities, that is power.”


Evita goes on to describe her view of the current media climate of the travel industry, “Mainstream media is still doing a poor job. They're starting to crack, but they’re still doing a poor job representing travelers of color. It's just like, they say they want a part of this, but nothing in your marketing is indicating that. Nothing.” In fact, recently, there has been a major uptake in the travel industry beginning to take notice that they need to do a better job at representing marginalized groups in their marketing material. Evita goes on to argue for the necessity of authentic marketing and storytelling:

Nomadness Travel Tribe travelers in India

Nomadness Travel Tribe travelers in India

“There's a couple of levels with it, but it starts with lack of representation and us needing to tell our own stories, us owning our own narratives, and social media became a level playing field of us to be able to do that. We kind of just took it and ran with it.”

Black Travel is COMMUNITY

Black Travel has grown to be more than just a new age representation of the traditional travel agent, they are a community of movers and shakers that believe in supporting each other. Groups are forming organically and provide support not only for travelers, but also for Black business owners and suppliers. Founder of Urban Events Global, Kevin Knight says:

“African-American businesses are able to be vendors at my events for free. I don't charge them to be a vendor at the event because I really want their business to grow and I want them to meet other people. The Black Travel Movement is more than just Black people traveling and taking cool pictures for Instagram. You're really building a stronger network of family, friends, and people that can actually go into business together and build relationships.”

NoirBnB founder Stefan Grant, reflects on his business blossoming out of sheer necessity for safer options for travelers of color, and how, in some ways, his platform has evolved as a sort of ‘Green Book 2.0.’ He shared hopes of his platform growing into a full-fledged community of like minded individuals in support of the Black community:

In a lot of ways NoirBnB is The Green Book part two. When we started, that really wasn’t something that we planned to do. However, after we started gaining traction, a lot of people came to us saying, ‘Hey, you guys are really like a new version of The Green Book.’ And then, the light immediately went off in my head and I was like, ‘Wow, we really are.’

He goes on to say, “Although it's a shame that something like our company is necessary right now, it's also a beautiful thing because it provides us an opportunity to serve our community. We want NoirBnB to be that central, global, Black community where not only travelers, but Black business owners, service providers, inventors, creatives and artists can have a home base where they feel safe and comfortable connecting and building genuine relationships.”

Black Travel is ADVENTURE

Within the Black Travel sphere, there are options for everyone, whether you fancy adventure, luxury, transformation or returning to your homeland – there is an organization for you.

CEO and founder of Bucket List Beasts, Sonjia Mackey seeks to shed light on opportunities for the adventurous traveler, and breaking down stereotypes about ‘who’ the quintessential adventure traveler is. Although the majority of her travelers are African-American women, she makes a point to clarify that her group is not just about Black Travel - “I think you have to be clear on what your mission is, what you stand for and what you're about. For me, it's always been about the adventure of getting people out of their comfort zones. It’s not just about Black travel. We live in a diverse world where we are all connected, whether we choose or want to be or not.”

Black Travel is LUXURY

Luxury travel is a niche market within the travel industry, that, traditionally, has been shrouded by a White upper-class face. Yacht week anyone? Founder of Up in the Air Life, Claire Soares has you covered. Claire reflects on the mission of her business:

Up in the Air Life Travelers participating in Yacht week.

Up in the Air Life Travelers participating in Yacht week.

“I wanted to create a space for people who appreciate the finer things in life, and want a more luxurious experience, that is how Up in the Air Life was born.”

Unfortunately, in the luxury space, stereotypes and accessibility present their own issues for Black travel groups. Claire shared that, “Yachting is a really great example where there's lots of reasons why we [Black travelers] are not exposed to certain things. For instance, it's not that renting a boat for a week is expensive, it’s that we don't have access, because our parents don't own boats. When we go sailing, you’ll typically see Caucasian families where the father has learned to sail from his father. They own their own boats and it is generational. They can afford to, and we could afford to take a yachting trip, but we don't know how to drive it. We don't know how to sail a boat. It's not even something that would even come up in conversation.”

In the luxury travel space at large, Claire has faced her fair share of push back, solidifying the continuous need for the Black Travel Movement, “The challenges we face is when we're reaching out to partners as a luxury company, that sometimes I think just because I'm black, they send me things that are not luxury, as if we can not afford it.”


Transformation through travel has long been a sought out experience. Two organizations focused on empowering Black female travelers are offering experiences specific to the modern day independent Black woman – Black Girls Travel Too and Black Girl Travel Movement.

Black Girls Travel Too voluntourism tours connect with the heart of the community where they work along side locals, to create sustainability.

Black Girls Travel Too voluntourism tours connect with the heart of the community where they work along side locals, to create sustainability.

Black Girls Travel Too’s founder Danny Rivers-Mitchell provides a unique experience for women to give back to communities while traveling, “Travel is one of my passions that led me to my purpose. I enjoy global humanitarian work. So because of Black Girls Travel Too I've just created a spin off, a philanthropic arm called Serving in Paradise Foundation. I believe that it's very imperative when you travel to destinations that you pour money back into the local community.”

On the other hand, Black Girl Travel Movement, founded by Shay Sane, provides the unique opportunity to travel with a life coach who will help you not only escape, but also face life’s very real struggles while experiencing a new destination. Black Girl Travel Movement takes you on an adventure into emotional healing:

“Through my own travels, I discovered that there's healing power in travel. While we’re traveling, we’re exploring the pores of who we are, and are open to receive new culture, we're also opening ourselves up to healing. So that's what the mission is for the Black Girl Travel Movement – to empower women to find healing through travel.”

Black Travel is HOME

People may not automatically associate politics with travel, but, they are closely related. In 2016, after Trump was elected President, International arrivals to the U.S. decreased 3.8% in 2017. At certain points, some countries even put out travel advisories for Black people traveling into the United States due to a reported uptick in police brutality against Black men. The Trump era of U.S. politics has been correlated with an increase in travel by African-Americans to African nations. Coupled with the popularity of DNA testing through companies like Ancestry and 23 and Me, more and more African-Americans are choosing to take their vacations and visit the homeland.

Traveling Black group in Durban, South Africa.

Traveling Black group in Durban, South Africa.

Founder of both I love being Black and Traveling Black, Kumi Rauf, focuses specifically on travel experiences connecting the African Diaspora around the globe. His focus on ‘Traveling Black’ is not only on the travelers, but also within the local communities as well.

“One of the things that we focus on specifically is that we are aiming at Black restaurants, Black guides, Black history, and Black culture when we travel. When we get there, our goal is to put our green dollars in somebody’s Black pocket. Sometimes, this is hard to do, even in Africa. For example, in South Africa, finding a Black safari guide was extremely hard to do in Kruger National Park. Something you might assume there is a plethora of, because it’s Africa, but, unfortunately, this is not the case.”

Wakanda for real anyone?

Some companies have even started advertising trips back to Africa in unison with the popular 2018 Marvel film, Black Panther, offering travelers a chance to experience ‘WAKANDA for real’. Lawrence McLean, founder of African American Travelers, reflects on the recent uptake for trips to Africa within his company.

“When we started to promote this Home for the Holidays trip, in order to drive people to register sooner rather than later, the coupon code for this particular trip was Wakanda For Real, because, I think people really started to realize that a real life version of Wakanda does exist. It’s certainly driving African-Americans back home, and will for some time to come.”

One thing these founders all had in common was their belief that through collaboration, partnerships and opportunities for more investment – it is only just the beginning for the Black Travel Movement.

A huge THANK YOU to each of the founders who took part in this research which is still ongoing!

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