I remember the look on his face. He was one of several participants in a role play exercise I was facilitating at a Boston Chapter Leadership Training program. In this role play, an individual was critical of a fellow participant who was having trouble keeping up with the rest of the group during a day hike. The individual was told, as part of the role play, to make a snide comment about the slower hiker’s age (A participant in his 20s was playing the role of the slower hiker).
As the role play unfolded, the participant said something like, “These young people just don’t know their limits.” The person assigned the role of leader for this exercise politely intervened and said, “Everyone can have a bad day regardless of their age.” He then encouraged the rest of the group to slow down a bit so everyone could stay together and enjoy the day. It was a subtle and very effective intervention.
In the de-brief discussion following the role play, I asked the group if they felt the leader should have addressed the age-related comment. About half the group said yes. Others thought it was just a teasing comment and not really a problem. Then I asked if their view would be different if the slower hiker was older, and a younger participant said something like, “These old geezers should hike by themselves so they don’t slow down the rest of us.”
The group felt remarkably different about that interaction; everyone felt the comment should be addressed by the leader. That’s when I saw an “Aha!” look on the face of one of the group members – a slightly puzzled look followed by a knowing smile & understanding. I asked him to explain his insight. He said he, as an older participant, wasn’t initially troubled by the age-related comment as it pertained to young people. However, as our discussion progressed, he quickly realized that comment could be as painful to a younger person as the “old geezer” comment was to him.
Many people who enroll in the Boston Chapter Leadership Training program think they are going to learn “important” skills, such as how to read a map & compass, how to administer first aid, etc. We cover none of that stuff. Yet, rarely does someone leave the program disappointed. The things we do cover, interpersonal skills, such as communication, group dynamics and risk management, are core skills needed for outdoor leadership. We’re always looking to address new and emerging topics.
Our recent efforts have focused on integrating diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) concepts into the program via a two-step process.
Step 1: Increasing new leaders’ awareness of DEI issues
Leaders who struggle to identify there is a problem may say or do things that are not welcoming. They are also less able to recognize unwelcoming, or disparaging, words or actions by others. We’ve tried to increase general awareness of these issues by providing brief hypothetical scenarios designed to illustrate the problem (and prevalence) of unconscious biases and facilitating group discussion. We title the session Outdoors for Everyone. We ask folks to consider & talk about the meaning of the words: (a) outdoors and (b) everyone. We also ask them to consider whether everyone has the same access to the outdoors and if & why that matters. This session is usually about 30-45 minutes in length. Our objective is to get people to think about these issues differently and begin to identify unwelcoming behaviors.
Step 1 only gets us part way, because we also need to give leaders the tools, and help them develop the skills, to deal with problems when they arise.
Step 2: Role plays
Most AMC leadership training programs include role play scenarios involving situations such as someone with missing gear, a frightened hiker at a difficult stream crossing, or a disagreement about the trip plan. We have those, but we’ve layered “sub-plots” into those role plays, highlighting DEI issues. For example, we started this blog post talking about the slow hiker scenario. We ask one of the participants to make an insensitive, age-related comment and see how others respond. In another scenario, someone plays the role of a “gear snob” – a person who thinks you must have the most expensive gear to get outside. This person also thinks anyone with less expensive gear isn’t a “real” hiker and doesn’t belong on the trail. In each case, the objective is to see not only if there is a reaction(s), but the type of reaction those behaviors generate. During the debrief, we discuss if the situation was addressed, how it was addressed and other options for handling the situation. Participants usually come up with great ideas on their own, which is a lot more effective than having a facilitator provide answers.
The whole idea of role play scenarios is for new leaders to be able to practice managing difficult situations in a supportive environment. By establishing ground rules, and group norms, it’s possible to delve into challenging topics, esp. those involving DEI. Yet, we haven’t figured out how to introduce issues related to race or ethnicity in a way that doesn’t potentially offend some participants.
We all need to help make the AMC an even more welcoming, inclusive place, and it’s particularly important we enlist new leaders in this effort. In my view, the best way to make positive change within an organization such as the AMC is to help shape the culture through our new leaders. That’s a large part of why I’ve been so committed to leadership training. I’m convinced successfully introducing DEI concepts and training into our outdoor leadership program will pay huge dividends in the end.
Within the Boston Chapter, we are still feeling our way on this and making changes as we go. We would love to hear what other chapters within the AMC — or other organizations — are doing to incorporate DEI into outdoor leadership training and welcome suggestions. You can email those ideas to us via firstname.lastname@example.org.
To date, this work has been both challenging and rewarding. For me, seeing the look on the face of the participant in the role play scenario – when he finally “got it” by seeing that a small, seemingly teasing, comment could be the difference between someone getting more involved with the AMC versus leaving that trip and never coming back – meant we’d made another small step in the right direction. And the only way to journey for a thousand miles is to take one step at a time.
Stephen Conlin has organized leadership training programs for the Boston Chapter for many years, and also serves as an instructor for the Center for Outdoor Learning & Leadership (COLL). He is passionate about helping new leaders develop their outdoor leadership skills. Stephen is the current chair of the Boston Chapter’s Hiking and Backpacking Committee and likes to spend as much time on the trail as possible.