“Black people don’t do that.” There are many blockers to creating diversity in the outdoor industry, and this is one I have heard all my life. But this is perhaps the core blocker, and it plays a role in many of the others.
We all know there are blockers to creating diversity in the outdoors, such as accessibility, i.e., getting to and being able to afford outdoor pursuits. Another is the outdoors culture being affected by systematic racism and resignation. Then there’s the old adage, “It’s just always been this way.” Another is the question of how do rural operations reach more diverse, often city-based populations.
Every grand undertaking has blockers, and creating a more inclusive, diverse, physically and emotionally safe, and welcoming outdoors is no exception.
There is another blocker that doesn’t get as much attention, though. It is a deeper conversation than making the outdoor industry one in which people flourish. It can, to some, feel like a scarier conversation, because it looks at challenging our own beliefs. Challenging our own cultural norms. Challenging our very identities. And that applies both to aerial adventure operators and to members of diverse communities.
WHERE CHANGE BEGINS
We have the opportunity to take a look at ourselves and our industry and decide what it is that we really want to do, and not just what we believe we should or shouldn’t do or are capable of. Challenging one’s own cultural narrative and norms can be frightening, because it’s who we believe ourselves to be.
Try this little test:
Fill in the blank. “I am a____.”
Woman. Man. Catholic. Black. White. Jewish. POC. Mom. Sister. Uncle. Caregiver. Brother. Operator. Guide. Outdoor professional. Facilitator. Builder. Trainer. We have belief systems centered around these identities. For the outdoors to become more diverse, we must ask ourselves a valuable question: Despite what I’ve been brought up to believe is true about me, and what I’ve decided is possible, what do I actually want?
We get our beliefs from many places: our parents, our friends on the playground, our media sources, our town, city, state, country, religion, our culture. We are belief machines. Then we choose, consciously or not, how we live, act, and engage with others, all based on those beliefs. We put ourselves in our own self-defined boxes or bubbles and live our lives from there.
In industry terms, we can think of our beliefs as our Standard Operating Procedures. The rules upon which everything else is built. When we challenge these beliefs and really look at what’s underneath and where we want to go, we can truly start to create change in our industry.
GROWING UP BLACK
I know from personal experience how challenging this process can be. I am an African-American born and raised in Roxbury Boston, which was then a low-income area in a primarily Black neighborhood. My brother and I had more experience reading the MBTA subway system maps than topographical ones, and trees were few and far between.
I was brought up with a very strong cultural center. While living in the city, I attended an all-Black parochial school whose philosophy was based on Nguzo Saba, the Swahili word for ‘’seven principles.’’ We studied the seven principles: unity (umoja), self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima), cooperative economics (ujamaa), purpose (nia), creativity (kuumba), and faith (imani). These were principles that I knew and heard on a daily basis.
Then, at age 8, we transplanted to a town with little to no racial diversity, with miles between houses, and two other families in town that looked like us in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. My new surroundings challenged my cultural beliefs, and that experience had a profound impact on me.
In the country, I saw the seven principles in a new light. I saw them on a challenge course as a 10-year-old at a YMCA summer camp, where I got my start in the outdoor adventure world. And again as a 20-something adventure education facilitator of youth and college programs, and again as the canopy tour manager for an industry leader.
Now, I strive to re-create those values over and over again in my new line of consulting work to make the outdoor industry more diverse, inclusive, equitable, and accessible.
YOUR PEOPLE DON’T DO THAT
Despite going to an amazing summer camp that had a diverse staff in an otherwise racially desolate town, and during the many times that my parents attempted to get my brother and I outside, I heard “Black people don’t do that” repeatedly—from family members and others, including a kid in my 4th grade class. When it came to swimming, hiking, backpacking—it was too dirty, messy, and “out there with the bugs,” as my Mom would say. The advertisements I saw in magazines sent the same message: People going on amazing outdoor adventures never looked like me.
Without being fully aware of it, I developed the narrative that it was weird to want to be outside—I wasn’t meant to be in the outdoors because I am Black. Because I am a woman. Because ad nauseum.
Luckily for me, I made a choice to go against what was understood or expected and decided to go for it anyway. I adored being out in the wide spaces after being in the city. Outside, it didn’t matter that I had curly hair, or full lips, or was the only one that looked like me. I was going to climb anything that stood still long enough.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has some version of this.
“Women don’t do that job.”
“That’s white people stuff.”
“That’s a man’s sport.”
BURSTING PAST OUR LIMITS
Everyone has his or her own cultural beliefs about the outdoors, and those often limit what we allow ourselves to experience. Occasionally, though, we burst past those limits and decide to take a leap into the unknown—oftentimes thrilled by what we find. Whether it be on a challenge course, on a whitewater raft trip, backpacking with friends, or on a ski mountain, many of us have had that moment of discovery where we realize what we’ve been brought up to believe about the outdoors—and ourselves—may not be true.
We see it so much in the programs we run. Think of the kid on the challenge course or the adult on the zip line who just know they can’t step off of the platform into thin air—and then prove to themselves that they can. Building diversity in the outdoors requires that same leap of faith from us.
If I had chosen to live from the narrative and norms associated with a young, cisgender, Black female, I would not be doing the work I am today. It takes effort to challenge what we believe to be true about ourselves. The outdoor industry can be as accessible and welcoming as ever, but it’s up to the people in it to say, “Maybe instead of what I’ve made up about myself, here’s what can be true for me.”
Creating diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors is an industry-wide issue. We all get to look at it as professionals and ask, “How we can be more welcoming and inclusive? How may we better serve and provide access?” We can look at how to increase representation in our leadership. We can have scholarship programs, and funding to make the industry approachable and affordable. We can create programs that allow folks of varying backgrounds and life situations access to the outdoors early on in life so that they may see, in their most formative years, a new way from the outset. And, yes, we also can do the work of eradicating systemic racism in our industry and country.
The final piece, and perhaps the most valuable, is encouraging others to take a look at the self-defined limiting beliefs that keep them from engaging in the outdoors. (Spoiler alert: This self-awareness can also work for many other aspects of our lives.)
Then, after we do all that, we as an outdoor industry can be ready. We can be an industry that is focused, clear, and giving. We can have our ducks in a row and our industry ready to receive those folks who have the audacity and the courage to make the jump, despite their beliefs.
CHANGING THE INDUSTRY MINDSET
Here’s an example of the challenges we face. A client of mine saw a huge upswell in participation from local drive-to areas as a result of the pandemic. Folks were hungry to do something—anything—outside of their homes. This included guests from a city-centered life who wanted to enjoy the outdoors and engage in outdoor recreation, and an atypical swell of racially and ethnically diverse guests. The river and surrounding parks saw more tubers and hikers of color and of varying socioeconomic statuses than in recent years.
The upswell created tension in the community for several reasons, including a shortage of resources. From parking spots to trash pickup, the community struggled to minimize the impact of the increased population.
Clash of cultures. More notably, the influx of people of color and different socioeconomic statuses created some tension due to a clash of cultures. It was a game of “rural vs. urban.” The cultural assumptions and outdoor awareness of both groups was seen as dissonant. There was an unspoken expectation that “those people” should know to clean up after themselves or that parking outside of access areas is prohibited.
What we discovered in all of this is that sometimes we, as operators, have difficulty in dealing with different cultures. It’s easy to feel annoyed when guests don’t conduct themselves the way we expect them to. It is important to understand that our guests may simply lack the cultural experience to “know the ropes,” and that our expectations about acceptable behaviors are too limited. It is we who get to expand our horizons. If we accept these ideas, stewardship and outreach can replace annoyance and struggle.
What we are seeing in our industry now more than ever is an influx of folks who are finally deciding that, despite their own narratives, the outdoors is a place for them. Unfortunately, what we are also seeing is an industry and community that is not yet ready to receive them. Any number of solutions exist to make our industry more accessible: Leave No Trace training, outdoor liaison internships, river accessibility curriculum for the general population, etc.
TAKE A LOOK WITHIN
Challenging our beliefs. But the really difficult work comes in looking at ourselves as both participants and providers, and looking at the beliefs we are living out of.
Have people of color just decided not to be a part of the outdoors out of habit—just an automatic reaction based on beliefs? Have we, as operators, decided that we don’t have the bandwidth or resources to take on diversity work based on our habitual decision-making process? Can we look at the issue from an open and aware place of wanting to create an outdoors for everyone?
It’s time for all of us to take a look.
Inclusion starts with us. So, the challenge here is industry wide. How to make the industry more accessible? How do we create systems of support and inclusion for folks who make the jump from other ways of living to engaging in outdoor recreation and adventure? As operators and owners, imagine what would be possible for our industry and businesses if we all examined our own beliefs, identified self-limiting narratives within ourselves and in our company culture, and came up with actionable systems to remove those blockers from our outdoor paradigm. I challenge each of you reading this to do that.
It is also a very personal challenge for each and every one of us. A challenge that involves us looking at our cultural norms, our self-definitions, our limiting beliefs and conversations, and then deciding what it is that we actually want. The standard operating procedures we live by are all just the seas and oceans and rivers that we swim in. At any moment, the tides and currents can shift, and we can choose something new. It’s up to us to do the work.
We, as an industry, are well on our way. Many of us are doing the soul searching as companies on how to be more inclusive. I’ve seen many businesses in the waves of transformation around how to approach their white-ness, their male-ness, their privilege, and the exclusive paradigms within the institution itself. It’s a bold new adventure to approach the sometimes-tough conversation about making the outdoors a more welcoming and diverse space.
Luckily, there are some guides along the way—folks that are working every day to come up with new systems and ideas to take action and move the needle. We get to reevaluate and redesign the systems and beliefs we have all been operating from, so that we make it easy for new populations to engage with the outdoor industry, and for us to retain them.
It is within us that the real work begins, though. It starts with letting go of beliefs that do not serve us or others. Only through the work of challenging our beliefs can we begin to create a more diverse, inclusive, welcoming, and accessible outdoor industry. And world.