There’s a joke in the outdoor world about diversity: There isn’t any, unless you consider white male skiers different from white male kayakers from white male fly-fishermen from white male mountain bikers.
You get the picture. Recently here on AJ, Hansi Johnson addressed the issue of diversity in a high-profile piece called The Disturbing Bro-ification Of Outdoor Recreation, which questioned the exclusivity of the outdoor industry’s portrayal of itself and participants in the media and marketing. Hansi has a point. Besides Killian Jornet, who runs ridgelines in Chamonix? How many times has Conrad Anker been on the cover of an outdoor publication? And where are these supposed dirtbags getting the money for a $50,000 Sprinter van?
The industry is rife with imagery and content of white men using the raddest gear available getting more radical than you could ever hope to. At a glance, the outdoor industry can seem like an exclusive boys club–and a white-washed one at that. But there’s more to it than what appears in catalogs and magazines. Deeper examination reveals that the industry recognizes this issue, and there are a lot of people doing good things to actively change it.
In Carbondale, Colorado, the 5Point Film Fest promotes outdoor adventure stories focused on connection, outreach, and education. For Executive Director Sarah Wood, a good story is always the most captivating, but in recent years she has noticed a welcomed change in the subject matter of outdoor films.
“Stories are most inspiring when we can see a glimpse of ourselves in and relate to the characters,” says Wood. “Age, race, and gender are all ways we self identify, whether we like it or not. While I have definitely witnessed an uptick in the number of films supporting diverse characters, we still have ground to make up in this department…Programs that support minority or underserved populations in outdoor recreation inevitably will have a positive impact on the number of participants out on the trails. As a result, our storytelling community will have more stories to tell.”
Films screened at this year’s 5Point festival illustrated this broadening spectrum of inclusion in industry media. A group of native teenagers from a small village in Alaska compete for community pride and the state tournament basketball trophy in I Am Yupik. Far From Home follows Uganda-born Brolin Mowejje’s quest to represent his homeland in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Amber Shannon wants nothing more than to row a dory down the Grand Canyon–and while the message of In Current is not that the male-dominated world of river guiding needs more women behind the oars, the female perspective on a life outside is both refreshing and needed.
It’s not just the content generators and curators that are changing the omnipresent “white male on top of a mountain” imagery. Grace Anderson works with the Sierra Club’s Inspiring Connections Outdoors program, expanding the narrative of who is engaged in the outdoor industry and recreation fields.
“There are already many people of color connecting to the outdoors,” Anderson explains, “yet if you open an outdoor magazine or see a billboard, you would be fooled into thinking that only white males with beards are engaged with our public lands. The industry has the responsibility to seek out and represent the stories of people of color who are often left out of the visual storytelling that our industry does so well.”
It’s not for a lack of participation. Inspiring Connections Outdoors has 52 volunteer-led groups running 900 outdoor adventures nationally for 14,000 participants annually. By creating accessible outdoor opportunities, Anderson and the ICO are extending and expanding a welcoming “invitation to play” to people of color throughout the U.S.
Outdoor brands are also taking a hard look at outreach into diversified markets as a means to create a welcoming space that is representative of all communities. Darren Josey, the North American marketing manager at Polartec and a person of color himself, says he has both a business and personal motivation for broadening the marketplace.
“We want more customers who look to us for gear,” says Josey. “And I want more people of different backgrounds participating in the sports that I love. Otherwise, these sports and wild places will disappear.”
For Josey and Polartec, the objective is to market their gear differently than their competitors and, most important, introduce the passions behind the gear to new audiences. “We want to promote authentic ambassadors of different genders, races, and ability levels, including adaptive athletes, in order to inspire people to do these sports,” Josey says. “The industry is inclusive and welcoming. I want to break down the ‘I’m not invited’ mental block in people. That’s just not true. And we want to get the word out.” In order to spread the word, Polartec has sponsored Big City Mountaineers since 2011. BCM is a Denver-based wilderness mentorship program that focuses on introducing underserved urban youths to outdoor experiences. Children ages 13−18 are provided wilderness opportunities and outdoor education otherwise unavailable to them.
Similarly, The Telluride Academy, a nonprofit summer outdoor education program based in Telluride, Colorado, gives out more than $200,000 in scholarship funds annually to underserved children of the community and surrounding area. Many of the beneficiaries are children of color. Furthermore, TA has partnered with the Telluride Adaptive Sports Program and the National Inclusion Project in order to include children with cognitive, emotional, and physical disabilities.
Inspiring and introducing youth to outdoor exploration is not exclusive to the West. Denali Outdoor, a family of independent retail stores throughout southern New England, created The Denali Foundation, a nonprofit that develops, supports, and funds community outreach programs that promote youth and family engagement in the outdoors. Most recently, TDF has supported the Every Child Outside Program, which introduces outdoor recreation and education to inner city children in New Haven, Connecticut. “There are multiple parks in New Haven, but if the students never learn what to do when they get there or how to respect that land, it is just dead space to them,” says Amy Parulis, community relations and events manager at Denali Outdoor. “Children are still learning, growing, and developing so it’s a perfect time to get them engaged with the outdoors. If you get them hooked while they are young, they’ll keep coming back.”
The Greening Youth Foundation is committed to impacting this issue nationally. The GYF works with underserved and underrepresented youths across the U.S., exposing them to outdoor recreation and careers in an effort to build new environmental stewards. “Branding and marketing are so powerful,” says Greening Youth Foundation CEO Angelou Ezeilo. “Like Sally Ride said, ‘You’ve got to see it to be it.’ We are focused on showing this generation, and the ones to follow, that these wild spaces are afforded to everyone, not just rich white people. There are careers, stewardship, and recreation opportunities for everyone.”
The GYF has made critical impact on the industry. REI has embraced and supported the program, Patagonia has reached out for partnerships, and Columbia is a sponsor of its flagship program, the Historically Black College and Universities Initiative. The HBCUI is designed to link students and their communities to National Park Service sites. This year it received more than 2,000 applicants for it 45 internship positions. Seventeen of the selected applicants worked at the Grand Canyon for 10 weeks this summer. “In order to stay relevant, brands and national parks need to embrace this inclusion,” says Ezeilo. “We have to be intentional about sustainable diversity. That’s the only way these wild spaces and industry will survive.”
It’s getting started that can be most difficult. It’s true that outdoor, gear-based sports are expensive and can seem socioeconomically exclusive. But there are affordable avenues for outdoor recreation. Snow sports brands like Trew, Flylow, and Line Skis have recognized the lack of affordability and lowered the price points of entry level gear accordingly. Gear shops and mountain towns all over the U.S. host ski and snowboard swaps annually, selling and trading hand-me-down equipment. Brooklyn Boulders offers day passes, reasonably priced classes, and affordable rental gear at their urban center climbing gyms. Hiking and trail running are essential free at the entry level. And, while having the newest, most expensive gear might mean something to the materialistic few, a beat up pair of Kinkos and dirty old ski pants are status symbols in some circles, the signs of the most important part of outdoor recreation–a passion for adventure.
As stewards of the industry and ardent outdoors people, we’ve got to do more than point our finger at this issue. We are not perfect–not even close–and there is a lot of work to be done to achieve gender equality and a representation of diversity within the outdoor community and its media. We need look for the programs, brands, and people creating change and champion their efforts. The most important thing to remember is that the outdoors reveals the best parts of us. Mother Nature does not recognize gender, race, ability level, sexual preference, or any other “identifier” we use to compartmentalize and categorize ourselves. Skiing, climbing, mountain biking, or any other outdoor activity is not a white male sport. These are passions available and inclusive to everyone. We need to show more people their opportunity to experience them. The Denali Foundation’s Amy Parulis sums it up best. “Nature is free,” she says. “It welcomes everyone.”
Photos by Joe Gardner, SmAil Ka, and Sandis Helvigs.