The outdoors has always been an absolute in my life. As long as I can remember, I have loved hiking, camping and exploring. When I grew up in Richmond, California, I felt drawn to the beauty of the area, from the giant redwoods that towered over me, to the waterfalls that were created by winter rains, the naturally formed caves that appeared in some of the hills and the noises that formed around me: crickets, birds, coyotes, horses and flowing creeks. I never paid much attention to the color of the faces I saw when I was outside. But I started looking at our wild places in a different light when I reached adulthood. I still held in awe the beautiful landscapes, but I saw that these areas were becoming abused and taken for granted. Redwoods were being chopped down, rivers were dammed–and open spaces that were once public were taken over by land developers and replaced with new home developments.
Then I started noticing that, all too often, I was the only person of color in the wild places that I visited. This realization sparked my journey into the work of diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. The more people fighting for the environment, the better–not to mention that non-whites will be the majority in this country in mere decades, and therefore will represent important decision-makers on issues such as climate change. As Carolyn Finney wrote in Outside, when we can see images of people from all backgrounds in the outdoors, “with their histories, memories, and their possibilities–our story about the parks, and environment in general, can more fully embrace the complexity of the human experience.”
At times, this work is more than frustrating. I cannot tell you how often I’m told that diversity and inclusion are important to outdoor organizations, brands and publications. And yet, even though new outdoor groups of color pop up daily, non-white faces remain mostly absent from the covers, storylines and social media sites.
In 2017, the only constant change I’m seeing is coming from people of color themselves. Non-whites–along with members of other marginalized groups–are increasingly getting outdoors and bringing attention to the issue simply by doing what they have found a passion for, whether it’s hiking, skiing, climbing, biking, surfing or camping. And it’s beautiful to see. Native Americans, Asian Americans, African Americans, Latinx Americans, Fat Girls Hiking (the name of a new hiking club), and the LGBTQ community are banding together in new outdoor and environmental organizations.
What has prompted such a huge surge of new activists? I asked several members of those affinity groups to share their stories and answer the question: Why now? Here is what some of them had to say:
Q&A with Danielle Williams from Melanin Base Camp
What is the purpose of your group and why did you feel the need to create it?
The purpose of Melanin Base Camp is to represent adventure athletes of color and to promote diversity in outdoor adventure sports. I founded MBC in 2016 after helping create our sister organization, Team Blackstar Skydivers in 2014. TBS promotes skydiving in the African Diaspora and in communities of color. My heart and passion is definitely in the outdoors and in reclaiming outdoor spaces for communities of Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous and LGBTQIA populations. The outdoors is for everyone and yet, of course, it hasn’t always been that way and it isn’t necessarily that way now. Advertising, the media, the stories we tell about ourselves create this meta narrative about the American outdoor experience and we’re just not there. We’re left out of the conversation and our goal is to change that.
What message would you send to the outdoor industry as a whole, as it relates to diversity and inclusion?
I’ve definitely seen some positive changes with recent campaigns by REI and others. My message would be to do better. Don’t make diversity a box to check. Hire people of color, engage with grassroots organizations, come to conferences like SHIFT in Jackson Hole and see what ideas are percolating. That being said, I am super stoked about all of the #diversifyoutdoors grassroots events popping up around the country like Color the Crag, organized by Brothers of Climbing and Brown Girls Climb. It’s the third weekend in October and they have scholarships available. Just check out ColortheCrag.com.
What will progress look like for you in this work of diversity and inclusion?
Intersectional, inclusive and situationally aware. In the short two years since I created MBC, I’ve learned so much from other grassroots and national organizations like Unlikely Hikers, Brown People Camping, Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors and Natives Outdoors. My hope is that as we continue to keep the focus on People of Color and marginalized communities in the outdoors we will be a driving force for change. The great thing about social media is that we are able to get our stories and images out there, build connections and plan events on a smart phone. It doesn’t take much. The tools for change are a lot more egalitarian and much more accessible than perhaps 10 years ago.
Another positive aspect of social media is that among the grassroots #diversifyoutdoors organizations we all know each other! And we’re building new connections every day. When I first started MBC my inspiration was Veronica Garnett, the founder of Black Adventuristas as well as the African American mountaineering team from [the film] An American Ascent. And of course, I read The Adventure Gap by James Edward Mills. No one does any sort of advocacy work in a vacuum. We’re working together, learning from each other and building a network that will allow us to take on issues of representation together.
Q&A with Tramond Baisden and Ezedube Eze from The Black Outdoors
What prompted you to create your group?
The Black Outdoors was created on a whim. I (Tramond) spent a lot of time on the computer/social media indulging in content created by other folks, and I always wanted to take a stab at it myself. I had brainstormed ideas for travel blogs, but never really took the steps to make it happen. Then, one day, Eze (our co-founder) posted a picture of himself and friends hiking in Arizona. He had just moved there and was excited about new opportunities to get outdoors. I sent him a message saying “let’s start an outdoors blog,” and we took it from there. We started TBO to help increase awareness and exposure to outdoor recreational activities for people of color. In our experiences, it was rare to come across another black person while out exploring. We both feel that it is a huge missed opportunity and wanted to do something to help other people get motivated to get outdoors. We especially target younger crowds (i.e. millennials), who have already shown an increased interest in travel and recreation. By highlighting people of color (POC) participating in different outdoor recreational activities, we might spark someone’s interest and entice them to try something different on their next outing or trip.
What impact do you hope to create through your group and what support do you need to push your mission forward?
Ultimately, our goal is to increase the number of POC who participate in outdoor activities by showing that it’s for anybody, not just what we’ve seen previously represented. The outdoors is limitless–there are thousands of places to go and things to do that allow you to take advantage of Mother Nature and what she provides. By highlighting these activities, we hope to motivate others to ’embrace the escape’ through hiking, biking, climbing, surfing, skiing, etc. The push to diversify outdoors is grassroots in every sense of the word, and we believe it should remain that way. We would like to see larger corporations and more established outdoors groups embrace the grassroots campaign and allow for our message to be heard and included into their mission and goals. There has already been wonderful work done, but we think the movement could use support to broaden the audience beyond folks who already have some knowledge/interest in the outdoors.
Q&A with Len Necefer from Natives Outdoors
Why did you feel the need to create your group?
Largely this came out of me increasing my participation in outdoor recreation, learning about the histories of Native peoples and public lands, and my intense interest in changing things. Our people have been systemically erased from the outdoors, however I saw an opportunity to change this.
What are your main goals for your group?
We are currently incorporated as an LLC and we are developing a brand of outdoor gear designed and modeled by Native people for sale to the broader public. A portion of the profits will go to support the Native designers and also Native organizations that support outdoor recreation opportunities on tribal lands. Nike does something similar to this model with Nike N7. The goal of this brand will be to partner with larger brands and companies on specific products or product lines in order to increase the visibility of Native people in the outdoors and open up more sources of funding for Native communities.
One objective is to increase the presence and visibility of Indigenous people in the outdoors and outdoor industry:
Outdoor recreation occurs on lands that were stewarded by Indigenous people for thousands of years. It is because of these management practices that we can now recreate on them freely. This is a narrative that is not a part of the outdoor industry’s viewpoint. However moving forward, tribes are some of the most influential and politically powerful allies that the outdoor industry can cultivate to protect public lands. Tribal consultation is often required by law for large changes to public lands and environmental policy.
I believe that, despite some cultural differences, the values that most of the outdoor industry has about respecting the environment are shared by Native peoples. However, to get to the point of collaboration, groups and organizations such as Natives Outdoors will continue to claim space in the outdoor industry and to build alliances and partnerships with brands, companies and individuals who share this vision. The pages under the “about” section of the Natives Outdoors website give some more insight into this work.
Another objective is to work with tribes to assist in their visions of culturally appropriate outdoor recreation and connect them with the resources of the outdoor industry.
Here are three figures I like to cite:
The outdoor industry represents around $887 billion in consumer spending.
Ninety percent of national parks are within 100 miles of an Indian Reservation.
According to a 2014 Pew Research report, the poverty rate of American Indians/Alaskan Natives as a whole was 29.1 percent in 2012. In some tribes, it’s near 50 percent.
Outdoor recreation and the outdoor industry could provide a viable pathway for sustainable economic development for many tribes. However, the way in which this occurs needs to work within the constraints of the unique cultures and histories of each tribe in order to be successful in the long term. We are beginning to work with some tribes on projects to realize this. Many of our communities lack the resources to participate in outdoor recreation on our ancestral lands, largely the result of historical policies, however the outdoor industry can provide resources to ensure we have equal access as well.
Do you feel the outdoor industry has ignored Native American contributions to the outdoors?
Unaware, yes, but willfully ignorant, no. There’s a larger history at play of Native people being erased from the history and land of this country. The concept of “wilderness” intentionally left out Native people and the creation of our first parks were predicated on removal of Indigenous people. In many ways the current state of the outdoor industry’s relationship with Native people is also a product of the history of our public lands. I have found that many folks in the outdoor industry are receptive to the history of Native people and our viewpoints; however, they don’t know where to start to find this information.
Q&A with Ana Beatriz Cholo from Latino Outdoors
Through your work with Latino Outdoors, do you feel you are making an impact on the outdoor industry?
Yes, as committed volunteers to the cause of outdoor diversification, we are all changemakers, but is it enough? Probably not. I won’t be satisfied until we have more representation in the outdoor industry. That ranges from focusing on making an effort to diversify jobs in the outdoors, such as cultivating guides who are of color, to showcasing people of color in ads and in social media, to seeing more materials that are critical to promoting public safety in the outdoors translated into Spanish. We all have our roles and talents within LO. Mine, I think, is to try to create opportunities with interested organizations and to cultivate relationships with our allies so members of our Latinx community, for example, can learn how to rock climb, get introduced to mountaineering or simply acquire hiking and backpacking skills so they can get outside and be safe. I just got back from organizing a six-day introduction to mountaineering course on Mt. Baker in Washington that included four Latinx aspiring climbers, including myself. One of the female participants, also an LO volunteer, is now thinking of becoming a guide. There are only a handful of guides in the US who are POC, including the two guides from the American Alpine Institute who led our trip. How awesome is it that she just made this connection to two potential role models and mentors? How neat would it be for a young girl or young boy to see a young Latinx guide being a total badass and confidently doing her thing? Sure, it’s small-scale progress, but you have to start somewhere. As a journalist and military veteran, I also want to be able to use my voice to share not only my story to hopefully inspire others but the many stories that are out there waiting to be told.
Why is it important to show people of color in the outdoors?
I don’t think people of color need to be shown the outdoors. Culturally speaking, we’ve been outdoors for centuries. I think we have just inhabited this space differently than white people have. We have worked this land and we tend to this land. We also love being outside with our families and if you go to any park in the Los Angeles metro area on any given weekend, you will see tons of families barbecuing. But if you are referring to outdoor recreational activities like the ones I’m most interested in–for example, rock climbing, backpacking, mountaineering and kayaking–there is a real lack of diversity within those spaces. Part of it has to do with lack of access and familiarity with these activities and the cost of buying the equipment required. This stuff is expensive! Sometimes there is also this perception within our community that these are things that “white people do.” Those barriers need to be broken down. We need to see more POC climbing a crag or summiting a mountain so kids growing up today can feel perfectly at ease telling themselves, “Hey, I can do that, too.” These are all fun and therapeutic activities so why shouldn’t POC benefit from participating and being introduced to these sports?
Q&A with Grace Anderson, climber/outdoor enthusiast
What message would you send to the outdoor industry to encourage their efforts around diversity and inclusion?
Hire differently. I think outdoor companies have to step up and radically shift the demographics of people they are hiring. When they step out of the circles they have traditionally recruited from, the lens from which they were looking from–in terms of marketing, ambassador programs, style, etc.–broadens and more diverse perspectives are included. Companies have to start focusing hiring efforts on recruiting more people from communities that aren’t visible in mainstream outdoor outlets–people of color, trans* folks, queer folks, people with different physical abilities, etc.–because we all make up the outdoors.
Do you feel any progress has been made over the past 5 years by mainstream outdoor publications, as it relates to diversity and inclusion, specifically sharing images of POC in the outdoors?
I think any progress made has been so insignificant, that’s why I think we are seeing the uptake in social media campaigns like Brown Girls Climb, Brothers of Climbing, Melanin Base Camp, and Unlikely Hikers–because a lot of communities with diverse backgrounds go to mainstream publications and do not see themselves reflected in the photos or stories. These movements have been created to give a platform for folks who are not included in mainstream narratives.
Q&A with Elyse Rylander, founder of OUT There Adventures
What message would you send to the outdoor industry as a whole, regarding their attention or lack thereof, to the LGBTQ community. Or do you feel addressing matters of diversity and inclusion is sufficient enough in covering the concerns of the LGBTQ community?
I do not feel that the industry overall is well representing the LGBTQ community and/or its unique barriers to affirming outdoor access. This occurs for a number of reasons, all of which are rooted in larger issues around LGBTQ cultural and social acceptance. We–as in the general we–still do not possess a language that fully encompasses the myriad of identities and nuances that are included underneath the LGBTQ/Queer umbrella. Sure, we have gay marriage now…but that does nothing to combat the overrepresentation of Queer youth in the youth homeless population of our country. It does not inhibit violence committed against members of the LGBTQ community and especially against Trans Women of Color. And laws providing employment protections regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression are still limited. People are still incredibly uncomfortable not only talking about sexualities that run counter to our social norms, but also about gender identities and expressions. Bringing it back to the industry specifically, there are only two sponsored adventure sport athletes I can think of who have talked openly in the media about being gay (Gus Kenworthy and Madaleine Sorkin). Because we struggle even to have these conversations as a larger culture, of course we are struggling within the industry. But that doesn’t mean a larger effort shouldn’t be made. As you said, Teresa, at the Women’s Outdoor Summit for Empowerment, “not knowing what to do is not an excuse to do nothing.” All these companies have to do is reach out to those of us doing this work and we’d be more than happy to show them the way.
What can we as do as a collective, to advance our message of diversity and inclusion, into actionable items by the outdoor industry?
Because of the structure of the industry, its grant-making processes, the way in which it shines a spotlight on certain folks and not others, etc., there seems to be a scarcity mentality among those of us “doing” this equity and social justice work. It often feels like one has to choose which part of an identity to advocate for and then stick to only that. And if we venture away from advocating for our own causes to be a visible supporter of other communities it can seem as though this is at the detriment to the other equity work we are conducting. These problems are all symptoms of larger social and structural issues in not only the industry, but our society. If the goal is collective liberation, then we must not be afraid to work collectively. This means using our platforms to step up and then step back for others. It means advocating for communities we are a part of and also not a part of. It means asking why only certain folks are in the room/article/etc. and not others. My hunch is that together communities of color, the LGBTQ community, Indigenous communities, the working class, those with different emotional and physical abilities, veterans and more, make up a much, MUCH larger group than the white, male, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, upper-middle class people who are currently the stereotypical image of an “outdoorsy person.” If we can work together to form coalitions, create spaces and draw attention, we will be successful in progress that is not limited. Divided we will be overtaken, if not by those who oppose us, then by ourselves. In these terrifying times, let us demonstrate true solidarity and not replicate the mistakes of social movements in the past.
Final thoughts from the author
These answers send a clear message to the outdoor industry as a whole: we are in these precious outdoor spaces, we are re-establishing relationships with the land, taking on issues that affect our public spaces we are climbing those mountains, skiing those slopes, hitting trails and we are doing it our way. For years we have reached across the table to work with mainstream outdoor organizations, we have shown ourselves in amazing feats in the outdoors, yet we continue to be absent from most of your magazine covers, your marketing campaigns, your boards, your staff–and for the most part, absent from the images shown of people working for environmental protection.
We will all be impacted positively or negatively based on your actions or inactions: by coming together to create a more inclusive industry, we can better guard against the threats to the environment that affect not only outdoor recreation, but our communities as a whole. Your customer base is shifting, a new face is emerging, yet your marketing strategies are the same. There will never be a perfect time for change–change is scary, you will make mistakes, risk is required–but progress demands we change course at times, and that time is upon us now.