Sitting across from an elderly gentleman mid-morning on a Tuesday at my local bookstore, I thumbed through a climbing magazine, wistfully adding future projects to my ongoing list of potential climbs. Then I picked up a mountain bike magazine. My recent move back to Minnesota has left me craving summer adrenaline as I’m now thousands of miles from the Pacific Ocean’s south swells that have filled my last two summers.
While both publications were stuffed with exquisite images from exotic locations it was hard not to notice the lack of diversity in terms of subjects featured in both the advertisements and editorial. This wasn’t unique to climbing or mountain biking: I also flipped through a fly-fishing magazine, a snowboard magazine, and the most popular outdoor magazine on the planet and it was all the same story: mostly affluent white people enjoying activities that are traditionally considered to be participated in by white people, marketed to white people by other white people.
Outdoor sports are mostly enjoyed by affluent people, given the high cost of entry to many of them and the undeniable link between race and class in our country. So it’s no wonder that for decades, outdoor sports and outdoor sports media has lacked diversity. However, as our global consciousness grows and the link between race, privilege, and opportunity becomes a more mainstream idea, the effort to make the outdoors a more inclusive place should be the responsibility of those that are already privileged enough to enjoy said sports and activities in the first place.
The outdoors has always been linked with a desire for inclusivity. Outdoor advocates preach diligently about connecting more people with the outdoors to bolster both awareness and education. But most of the initiatives fall short of inclusivity when it comes to racial diversity. This has an impact on communities of color, when potential participants don’t identify with the subjects of films, editorial, and advertisement that is aimed at growing the “outdoor community” it can project a sentiment of exclusiveness, an exclusiveness based on socioeconomic factors.
“I feel like in the black community there’s like this misconception, ‘oh black people don’t do that, only white people do this,’” explains Mikhail Martin, one of the founders of Brothers of Climbing, in a recent short film about his endeavours in the climbing world. He continues “they have every right to believe that, because their outlet to the world is what you see on the TV and on the internet, and if you don’t see any black people or people of color climbing you’re not going to think you can do it.”
REI, the brand that produced the short film, has been producing more content focusing on communities of color and female athletes, the first marketing initiative in the outdoor space to be more racially inclusive by a major outdoor brand. While these efforts are surely noticed by the communities they focus on and are hopefully drawing some attention to the issue of inclusivity, one has to wonder what type of changes are taking place at REI to make both their corporate culture and the community at large more diverse? While inclusive marketing campaigns are surely a great first step, making systematic change in the industry will be as vitally important in making the outdoors a more inclusive and diverse place. As of 2013, people of color still only comprised around 16 percent of REI’s total workforce.
While participation is an important part of diversifying outdoor media, there are other factors at play. When an industry is short on diversity it can often co-op moments that have been carried out by marginalized communities, ultimately steamrolling those that have actually been on the ground fighting day in and day out for positive change. A clear example of this was the recent effort by the outdoor industry to protect Bears Ears and designate it as a national monument. When President Obama made the decision to protect Bears Ears, the outdoor industry and many participants virtually celebrated what was spun as a well-fought victory for the outdoors community, even though indigenous groups that have been working for 80 years to get the land designated as a national monument were actually responsible for the victory.
Writer Georgie Abel recently explained in an in-depth article on the subject that protecting Bears Ears really had little to do with outdoor recreation and was a Native American movement since the beginning. Most of the outdoor industry including the Access Fund didn’t publicly support the monument until days before Obama signed the initiative into law. However, outdoor media, athletes, and brands took part in a social media frenzy that centred on their own environmental activism, and in doing so eliminated indigenous efforts from their narrative.
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By making the outdoors a more diverse place, we will not only see inclusion from communities that have been left out by our industry, but we will also be more cognizant of our missteps as we will have a greater collective consciousness. Hopefully, allowing us an industry to take on issues that resonate with the outdoor community in a non-harmful way. As outdoor advocates we should be willing to approach social issues with the same respect, thoughtfulness, and drive that we approach environmental issues.
Diversity in the outdoors is on a steady incline, but this once again is not through a collective effort by the industry to be more inclusive, it is through the effort of people from communities of color taking the challenge on themselves. Organizations like GirlTrek, The Service Board, and Brothers Of Climbing are diligently working to advocate for people of color in the outdoors. This has been possible through their own social media initiatives and efforts to build community, as they are still continually underrepresented in more mainstream media outlets.
For an industry that is looking for ways to grow and that is continually preaching about inclusion, a good first step would be to create media that is more inclusive. We can’t sit on our hands and allow communities of color to do all of the work and then celebrate in our collective diversity. It’s our responsibility to be as active in making cultural change as we are in our outdoor pursuits. We can’t expect people to feel included or welcome in outdoors spaces when they are so vastly underrepresented in our culture. The outdoors is a place where everyone, regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, religion, or age should feel welcome, and it is our responsibility as both an industry and participants to step up to the plate and make sure that it happens.