On the last day of the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market I received a message on Facebook. Walking briskly down one of bustling aisles of the Salt Palace I paused for a moment to read this text.
“Anything interesting come out of the diversity conversation?”
The question came from my friend and colleague Teresa Baker, founder of the African-American National Parks Event and an advocate for bringing more people of color into the world of outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. Without breaking stride I rattled off a quick reply.
“Only that smart dedicated people still don’t seem to get it.”
Trying not to convey too much of the cynicism that constantly pollutes my mind I had hoped to express some degree of optimism. But Teresa managed to clearly express what I could not.
“So, no,” she wrote. “Got it.”
That stopped me in my tracks. I stood there on the padded carpet as the streaming masses of show attendees flowed past me, pondering the notion that efforts to improve diversity and inclusion in the outdoor industry had indeed stalled. But recollections of the past week’s events buoyed my spirits to encourage me forward to continue this very important work.
Much of Teresa’s frustration, that I often share, is with the glacial pace at which the outdoor industry and federal agencies seem to proceed with addressing the interests of racial and ethnic minorities in the course of their work to protect and preserve public land. African-Americans and Hispanics remain woefully underrepresented in pay roles of companies who make adventure gear as well as visitation to local, state and national parks. Despite the growth of these emerging populations their presence in the conservation movement and the marketplace of recreation fails to reflect the changing face of the American people. But I must admit that after more than 20 years in the business I observed more people of color in attendance at the OR show than ever before and there are indeed many worthwhile conversations in progress to make our industry and the natural environment much more inclusive of all people. And that fills me with hope.
For example, Rue Map the founder of the advocacy group Outdoor Afro was elected to the board of the Outdoor Industry Association. As an African-American woman she stands to make many significant contributions to the broad discussion of diversity within the industry at the highest levels. And Christine Fanning, executive director of the Outdoor Foundation shared with me her plans to expand that organization’s efforts to engage young people on 60 university campuses including at least two historically black colleges Morehouse and Spelman. Progress is definitely happening.
On day three of the OR Show several industry professionals gathered for a meeting to discuss the importance of diversity and inclusion. We all got together across the street from the convention center at J. Wong’s Chinese Bistro to talk about our personal efforts to make our organizations and institutions more engaging and welcoming to a broader cross-section of the American public. And while we didn’t make any earth-shattering revelations in our efforts, we managed to acknowledge and affirm our collective work and perhaps forge alliances between groups who might join forces toward common goals.
Those who gathered at the event also recognized the D&I efforts of former OR Show director Kenji Haroutunian. An unwavering champion for the cause of making the outdoor industry more accessible to everyone he was awarded the first plaque honoring those who do the same. Named for Haroutunian the new annual prize is called “The Kenji”.
“I have always made diversity a priority,” he said to me over dinner after the show.
Moving forward into the future it’s not enough to simply increase our numbers of participants and employees. Diversity isn’t merely a calculus of relative percentages sparing white verses black and brown people. To be diverse and inclusive we must work as well to create environments where people of all backgrounds can be made to feel welcome and given every opportunity to be successful. By actively working toward cultural competency with programs and policies that are relevant to the social experiences of communities whose values and interests might be different from our own we can grow our constituency of supporters who will purchase our products, utilize our services and fight to protect the natural spaces that are at risk of destruction from over development and resource extraction.
With the expansion of diversity and inclusion across the outdoor industry we might not only grow our market, but also the number of people who will demand the preservation of our public land. As we rally our forces to prevent was has been described by the Outdoor Alliance, among others, as a “heist” of properties reverted from federal to state control and sold to the highest bidder an expansion of our network to include previously underutilized environmental advocates in the social justice movement could be the key to our long-term success.
Though we have indeed made a great deal of progress in diversity and inclusion in the outdoor industry we still have a long way to go. Just as the Outdoor Industry Women’s Collation has successfully enlisted the support of almost 30 company chief executive officers to address inequities of gender we need to take similar steps toward the issue of the race. The CEO Pledge, which was formally announced at OR, is a ground breaking commitment of the industry to meet the needs of women in the workplace. And if we could simply apply the same principles that the OIWC prescribes for women to create professional environments that are equally inclusive to people of color the industry might see marked improvement of our diversity.
- Establish benchmarks and metrics to measure and report annually on progress toward goals and objectives;
- Adopt recruiting practices that lead to more (racially)-balanced candidate pools for key positions;
- Provide, for (minority) employees, education, training, and mentoring programs targeted at positive career planning and advancement
But for any of this to gain traction we must first decide that diversity and inclusion are a priority. Just as climate change has its detractors there are those who believe that in our “post-racial” society the specific interests of minorities have been equitably settled. Indeed anyone is free to work or recreate anywhere they please. However if we fail to invite, engage and encourage more people of color into the outdoor industry and the conservation movement we will miss out on the fastest growing and most culturally significant segment of our population. If that happens our work at OR will become utterly irrelevant and the consequences of warming planet will directly impact us all.
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