When you see imagery of outdoor enthusiasts climbing a mountain, camping at Yellowstone National Park, or even hiking down a forest path, what do they look like? What is the color of their skin? Are they in wheelchairs? Is diversity represented there? What about inclusivity? These are simple questions, but until recently, they were fraught with fear, uncertainty, and a feeling of exclusivity.
The outdoors has not always felt welcoming to everyone. In Black Women in the Wilderness, Evelyn C. White writes, “I wanted to sit outside and listen to the roar of the ocean, but I was afraid. I wanted to walk through the redwoods, but I was afraid. I wanted to glide in a kayak and feel the cool water splash in my face, but I was afraid.” She’s not the only one.
My fear was different. I remember being afraid when I was camping with my dad, and we heard a bear making noise outside. Even then, I was with my dad, and I was pretty sure I would be ok. After all, my dad’s career paths always seemed to alternate between being a teacher and working for the Forest Service most of my life. We were always outside, which is probably why I’m such a big believer in making the Great Outdoors accessible and inclusive for everyone.
About 78% of the visitors to federal parks are White. Latinos, African Americans, women, and members of the LGBTQ community report that fear that White mentioned. When they think about “outdoor spaces,” they report feeling unsafe and unwelcome.
Lise Aangeenbrug, Executive Director of Outdoor Industry Association, says, “We can continue to pretend that parks are for all, or we can acknowledge and change the reality that to be Black or Brown outdoors might not be safe and could cost you your life. We must demand of ourselves to do something different.”
It’s not that there are absolutely no people of color, women, or members of the LGBTQ community who spend time outside. They’re out there, and many of the most vocal outdoor aficionados are why we can recognize that there’s more that we can do. Collectively, we can make a difference in how the outdoors are perceived, but also in being more welcoming to those brave individuals who are beginning to push past the barriers and experience nature for the first time.
Inclusivity Is A Message Too & Representation Matters
It matters whether we see ourselves being represented in the media. I remember when my son was four. When he was still recovering from his chemo and wearing his little mask, we went to the park so he could play in the sun. It was a beautiful day, but he encountered a little boy who screeched at him about his surgical mask. His mom came over and started ranting at me about the gall of me, bringing my masked son to the park like that.
I could explain everything until I was blue in the face, and I tried; but nothing can quite take back that outsider feeling. Of course, my son’s experience with a bully at the park is nothing compared to the level of vitriol hatred and even full-on assault experienced by those individuals who are just trying to enjoy nature.
“To be blunt,” Chelsea Batten says, “that’s really shitty. Time in nature is a human right and impinging on someone else’s freedom to enjoy nature ought to outrage every like-minded outdoor lover.” Nature has the power to restore and heal, but it also inspires us to become our better selves in our personal and professional lives. It should be open and accessible to all.
It’s time to build a truly inclusive outdoors, writes Corina Newsome (@hood_naturalist), who helped organize last year’s #BlackBirdersWeek. “The birding community must show that it is not neutral.” https://t.co/KE9vF3anK3
— Nicolas Gonzalez 🪶 (@NicoSGonzalez) June 3, 2021
How Can We Do Better?
The first step in creating change is to recognize where there are areas of opportunity for improvement. A Sports England survey found that Black and Asian people are not as likely to be active. There is a failure in representation. Phil Young, Founder of Mighty Mighty, says, “If you don’t see yourself represented in that space, you don’t see yourself belonging there.”
A new BBC series, Outsiders, is shedding light on the new generation of pioneers while exploring access, diversity, and inclusion. It features Amira, founder of a hiking group, The Wanderlust Women. She says, “We are here to engage and encourage Muslim women to get outdoors.” She’s found that a lot of women want to do this, but they feel intimidated.
This is an outdoor social movement that’s pushing the boundaries of representation and belonging, with a hefty side-dose of inspiration and hope. When my son was going through chemo, he met a boy named Kyle Stepp, who was going through cancer treatment at the same time. They used to play Nerf guns in the hallways of the hospital, and now Kyle’s all grown up, graduated from college, and he lost his leg last year in a biking accident.
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What Are Brands Doing To Make The Outdoors More Inclusive?
While not everyone can possibly experience the outdoors like Kyle does, we can and should see more explorers and outdoor enthusiasts who represent diversity and inclusivity. Amanda Calder-McLaren, Brand and Communications Director for The North Face EMEA, says, “It would be beautiful if we had a tapestry of explorers everywhere.”
Alex Bennett-Grant, Founder and CEO We Are Pi, says, “Excellence in the outdoors is usually depicted as a white man conquering a mountain.” He says, “It comes from this idea of conquest and discovery, being the first to climb this mountain or swim this river.”
To challenge the “white man conquering a mountain” imagery, brands like Schwinn are taking this opportunity to address the diversity elephant in the room, with their “I Am a Cyclist” campaign. Lisa VanderMause, Vice President of Marketing and Consumer Experience at Pacific Cycle (Schwinn’s parent company), says, “The easiest and most impactful thing we can do as an industry is represent everybody, so that they feel like this is an activity they can participate in.”
As brands and outdoor news hubs continue to ramp up the conversation on diversity in the outdoors, there’s still a notable lack of body diversity represented. https://t.co/JuIQFODK9o
— Outside (@outsidemagazine) August 11, 2020
It just makes sense to include everyone. Brands are able to broaden their target audience and create greater opportunities for success in this challenging economic climate. Darren Josey, the North American Marketing Manager at Polartec and a person of color himself, says, “We want more customers who look to us for gear.” He says, “I want more people of different backgrounds participating in the sports that I love. Otherwise, these sports and wild places will disappear.”
Making a change in the inclusivity of the Outdoors industry is more than just about representation, imagery, and participation. It’s also about perception. For those who are afraid, brands are also working to address that fear. As Josey says, “I want to break down the ‘I’m not invited’ mental block in people.” Everyone is and should be invited.
Polartec has taken that inclusive “You’re Invited” stance a step further by sponsoring the Big City Mountaineers since 2011. It’s a way to get the word out about inclusivity by introducing underserved urban youth to outdoor education and the wilderness experience via this Denver-based wilderness mentorship program.
Similar programs, like The Telluride Academy and Denali Outdoor, were similarly founded with the belief that, as Amy Parulis, Community Relations and Events Manager at Denali Outdoor, says, “If you get them hooked while they are young, they’ll keep coming back.” It’s a way to foster and encourage more welcoming and inclusive environments for generations to come.
Patagonia, Columbia, and REI have all supported the work of the Greening Youth Foundation (GYF), a nonprofit organization that’s dedicated to underserved and underrepresented youths. They focus on outdoor careers and recreation to build new environmental stewards. It’s now more important than ever.
Angelou Ezeilo, GYF CEO, says: “In order to stay relevant, brands and national parks need to embrace this inclusion. We have to be intentional about sustainable diversity. That’s the only way these wild spaces and industry will survive.”
The Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge connects leading outdoor brands with inclusion advocates to advance representation for people of color across the industry. Learn more and take the pledge:https://t.co/2UUfec0bqt pic.twitter.com/Dp2dZQJbVZ
— Children & Nature (@ChildrenNature) June 17, 2020
What are your thoughts on inclusivity and diversity in The Great Outdoors? Are brands doing enough? I’d love to hear your thoughts below.
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