Like many who read this blog, I spend plenty of time in the outdoors, personally and professionally, and my mother frequently expresses concerns for my safety.
I always assumed my mom was referring to the inherent risks involved with outdoor activities when she mentioned my safety — until recently. During one of our conversations, she referenced my identity as a person of color working & recreating in rural areas of America and said, “Be careful, [. . . there are] lots of gun owners.”
Pause to think about that: My mother, who does not count outdoor pursuits among her interests, receives enough information from society-at-large to hold these types of concerns regarding the outdoors, even if they seem irrational to some of us. My mother is not alone; many folks historically underrepresented in the outdoors write about their discomfort navigating a field that has traditionally been white, heterosexual, and middle/upper class.
Experiences from the trail, rock wall, and bird-watching are only part of what creates an outdoors culture that isn’t inclusive. The cost of many activities (climbing, skiing, paddling, or even backpacking) prohibits folks from engaging in these outdoor pursuits. Mainstream environmentalism often ignores the plights of traditional blue collar communities, or negative environmental effects in urban communities of color, and its history is unfortunately marred by racism, exclusion, and displacement of native communities.
It’s clear a combination of factors including history, culture, cost, and biases create different barriers to the outdoors for different communities. Last September, we were fortunate to feature Avarna’s blog post, which offered tangible steps we can take as outdoor leaders to start work in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). Implementing such practices in our organizations is crucial. At the same time, I recognize, from both personal experience and conversations with peers, that incorporating DEI principles into our day-to-day work can feel vague, and consequently, difficult.
With that in mind, here are some next steps to consider on – and off – the “trail” to leverage our knowledge, resources and passion in implementing a robust approach to diversity, equity and inclusion:
The mentorship gap discussed in this linked article pertains to the climbing community. However, a similar issue occurs in other outdoor activities: Youth, who have few opportunities to participate in the outdoors, often have no clear pathway to develop their skills and build a community in which to grow & thrive. As outdoor practitioners and leaders, we can commit to safely leading youth and young adults on excursions, and make an extra effort to share our knowledge, if they express curiosity regarding activities or skills.
The AMC program I work for, the Youth Opportunities Program (YOP), focuses on training and supporting teachers and other youth development professionals working with historically underserved youth. The long term goal is independence so these individuals can create their own outdoor adventures. Many of our partner organizations across New England strive to address similar gaps. For example, Waypoint Adventure brings differently-abled people to the outdoors, while Emerald Necklace Conservancy trains youth from underserved urban communities in conservation and outdoor stewardship skills. Other organizations, such as The Venture Out Project and Latino Outdoors, all have regional presences and serve underrepresented communities as their mission. Many of these groups and organizations are small nonprofits who might benefit from donations, financially or in people (aka volunteer!) hours. Put in some time to do this research, find an organization or two to support in some way, and you’ll have helped create change. You may also identify possible mentoring relationships.
While several environmental organizations are beginning to implement DEI-related trainings for employees and changing business practices, that number is still incredibly low. Reflect on the organizations to which you belong. Advocating for these organizations to make similar changes is one of the most impactful ways to demonstrate we value inclusion in our field. Write or call the organization. If you can commit the time and energy, consider joining an advisory committee or board. Perhaps most importantly, talk to your fellow members and staff.
As folks who have the privilege of frequently enjoying and sharing the outdoors with others, our responsibilities are not limited to the groups we lead, but also include calling in the outdoor community to engage in work that welcomes all people. Just as we think through scenarios of risk management, we can also practice our approaches to incidents which make the outdoors unwelcoming. What are the steps to address a slur used in a group you’re leading? Group norms can set the tone for the folks you are leading, but how do you plan on dealing with other folks on the trail? How can we respond to careless or even disparaging remarks made by other leaders in a way that makes them understand the impact of their words without putting them on the defensive? Spending time mentally preparing for such conversations and seeking out guidance on these topics is an important part of our growth as leaders in our communities.
As outdoor leaders and educators, developing and exercising our ability to adapt and empathize with others is an integral part of continued leadership development. We are the tone-setters, the enthusiasm-providers, the facilitators and debriefers. Without a doubt, we have the critical skills to be some of the strongest advocates for inclusion in the outdoor community. Let’s make sure we put those skills to use.
Tim Chen is an outdoor educator currently working for the AMC’s Youth Opportunities Program (YOP). He has a background in community organizing and environmental justice, and is passionate about expanding access to the outdoors.