Can We Render the Outdoors Truly Inclusive?

An equity consultant discusses how we might undo stereotypes and truly diversify

By S. Ali

July 22, 2020


Photo by stockstudioX/iStock

When I arrived on Ohio University's campus as a freshman 12 years ago, the Appalachian mountain range was a visual feast. I was immediately drawn to the trails. But while out, I would only occasionally pass another Black or brown person. In subsequent years, I would learn that this was the way of the outdoors—even when I was hiking in good company, that company was most often white. After I graduated, I found myself hopping mountain towns, which, despite changing altitudes, elevation, and landscapes, remained otherwise as undiversified as those first trails I trekked. 

The current climate, marked by protests and collective demand for racial and socioeconomic equality, has me reflecting on the outdoor-adventure sector’s relationship to inclusion. We do not often equate nature with sociopolitical structures, but as all of America and much of the world reckon with a shift in perspective, we must reexamine that space where we’re all, theoretically at least, most welcome. 

As an outdoor enthusiast and diversity and equity consultant, I’m especially interested in two aspects: changing the narrative about who gets to represent the outdoors, which I do by continuously exercising my affinity for occupying and enjoying these spaces; and sparking conversations about BIPOC representation on trails and in gateway communities. The second speaks to the fear and precautions that BIPOC people must take to ensure their safety outdoors, as we are few in number. We’ve always taken precautions; however, the dangerous rhetoric of these times beg for more calculated measures. 

Here are some starting points for true inclusivity.

Abandoning Stereotypes, Making Room for Equity

Black people don’t climb. Africans do not ski. That’s white-people behavior. I have been hearing all this most of my life. I used to think it was just an African preconception—Somalian culture does not conceive of adventure travel in westerners’ same context. (This is not to say we do not have our own version of enjoying the outdoors; it has more to do with our variant definition of “leisure pursuit.”) 

To better understand how we can dispel such stereotypes, we must first unpack why they exist in the first place. I recently had a conversation with a Black outdoors enthusiast and wildlife biologist who remarked on how socioeconomic forces have been changing the way we access the outdoors. For instance, increased interest in wildlife and nature excursions, he noted, have accounted for state park entry fees to rise in recent years. In practical terms, this makes sense—the more foot traffic, the more employees and maintenance needed. But examined on the equity meter, of course, such costs affect accessibility. As a nomad and solo adventurer, I’ve certainly been affected by such cost increases. For families and older folks on fixed incomes, these factors can put too great a financial strain on planning an outdoor nature excursion. In a similar vein, people who work blue-collar jobs standing on their feet all day may be less inclined to embark on long hikes in their leisure time.

The stark and widening economic divide in America reinforces as much across the board. The reasons why COVID-19 disproportionately affects BIPOC communities are no different than why many people of color cannot afford adventure outdoors. There is no conscious discrimination in this regard—the less fortunate are simply left out of the equation. For this reason, I do not believe we can talk about inclusivity without addressing equity. 

The reasons why COVID-19 disproportionately affects BIPOC communities are no different than why many people of color cannot afford adventure outdoors.

To make the outdoors more inclusive, we must all ask ourselves how we are contributing to widening the gap of economic privilege. To that end, how far should the monetization of outdoor spaces go? We need to take into account that the outdoors are for everyone, that taking solace in nature provides a mental and emotional salve, especially during these uncertain times. Perpetuating stereotypes that subscribe to the narrative that excludes BIPOC communities are hurtful. Consider, for instance, the young kids who aspire to become zoologists or park rangers. Or the city native who wants to learn more about sustainable agriculture by way of immersion.

Confronting White Supremacy

In my diversity work, I have spoken to both hiking clubs and nonprofits that focus on forestry and economic development. However, the case I make for inclusivity and equity in the outdoors is often met with well-intentioned curiosity that borders on befuddlement. These mostly white organizations often put white people in diversity roles, which, for BIPOC who enjoy the great outdoors, can simply reinforce notions of representation. In a way, there’s established understanding that nature is neutral ground. It is in the outdoors, after all, that people of all backgrounds have long gathered, foraged for food, and built shelter. There’s a unique camaraderie that exists among those enjoying the same mountain air. However, I think this—the pretense that everyone is there to enjoy the outdoors, and that that commonality alone is enough—engenders a comfort and passivity in the adventure/outdoors sector. So, important conversations often do not happen. 

This mountain air may not care for cell reception, but still, we must not become so enamored with the silence to be savored in nature that we forget all about the movements happening within our jobs and inside our government buildings and homes. Black Lives Matter is not exclusive to the streets. Society is currently waking up to something that many white people have never considered—systemic racism—and I fear that the outdoors is even more removed from this conversation. When it comes to hot buttons, the emphasis in outdoor spaces tends to be on climate, public land, and physical experiences. 

But consider that equality can be gauged even as we hike to our favorite summits. What do we see as we gaze out over communities? What can we learn from these overviews? What can we interrogate about where white supremacy and economic inequality lurk? Whenever I have a conversation about this topic with my white friends and colleagues, the same question comes up: “Do we have to make it about race? It's the outdoors; we don’t have racism here.” This negates the reason for inclusivity altogether. 

The question itself is a testament to the change necessary—if I am a white person who lives among white people, who hikes and travels with white people, it becomes a non-issue by virtue of my perspective. When this analogy is teased and stretched, it can manifest into a “by us, for us” mentality. We know how dangerous and divisive this rhetoric can be. I enjoy the outdoors too much to let such ill-advised rhetoric determine how myself and others like me take up space on the same land. Let’s cultivate and foster a working perspective through which we can all head up to the same summit without feeling the need to assert our freedom in the process.

There’s a unique camaraderie that exists among those enjoying the same mountain air. However, I think this—the pretense that everyone is there to enjoy the outdoors, and that that commonality alone is enough—engenders a comfort and passivity in the adventure/outdoors sector.

Addressing Adventure Communities’ Representation

I remember walking around my new home, a small northern Vermont town, recently, and being able to count the number of BIPOC on one hand. There is a romantic notion that these places that serve as bridges to the mountains and forests we adore, with their ski resorts and eclectic outdoor gear shops, are destinations in and of themselves. Whenever I would see an influx of BIPOC, I knew they were visitors. This creates a natural dissonance that inaccurately insinuates that gateway towns are only inhabited by whites. I could live in such a place for years and still have people ask whether I “just relocated here.” These inquisitive encounters emphasize a more nuanced point—we cannot talk about diversifying outdoor adventure without addressing the lack of diversity in gateway towns. 

As mentioned, I have lived in a few of these towns. Each season, I would watch tourists fill the streets and the trails. As I pored over mountain magazines seeking information on trailheads, where to snowshoe, and the best place to go bouldering, all I saw, for a long time, were joyful white faces playing in the snow or kayaking on scenic lakes. 

Fortunately, I have seen a shift in the way organizations and companies market outdoor adventure in the past few years. It is becoming economically advantageous to display brand ambassadors that reflect more diversity. Moreover, social media marketing has further enabled this change by creating a space in which consumers can, in a democratic sense, speak to this visceral need for inclusivity, and reinforce the fact that people from all walks of life enjoy the outdoors. It feels good to see reality begin to match the high-definition images we see on Instagram. 

Pledge to get outdoors and to promote access to nature. No matter where you live, everyone deserves to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, and benefit from a connection to nature.

Still, gateway towns themselves are rarely diverse. Even locals in progressive regions who boast about the need for more inclusive communities often fail to realize the truth of this narrative. There remains a disconnect between those who are passing through and those who stay. 

I have witnessed local initiatives that call on locals to consider discussions about what inclusivity may look like; not for the economy, but for the vitality of the community. This is a good start. When BIPOC come for a visit and feel they belong, they are encouraged to continue visiting. Some may even purchase vacation homes. I have seen this scenario play out in New England and other regions. It speaks to the fact that representation should extend beyond who we see in a catalog—that normalization is always more sustainable than implementation.