In May of 2014 I received a private message via Facebook. It was the summer after Expedition Denali and I was in the final stages of writing the book that would become The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. Stories of the first African-American climbing team to attempt a summit of Denali, the highest peak in North America, had been widely reported in the news. And many of the climbers upon their safe return home had begun a national speaking tour in the hopes inspiring, in particular, young people of color across the country to pursue their interests in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation. Having helped to expand the discussion of diversity in the natural world by writing several magazine and newspaper articles I had earned a bit of notoriety on this issue. And every once in a while someone would reach out for a word of advice.
“I work at an expeditionary learning school in St. Paul, MN,” Ed Lysne wrote to me. “We try to do a lot of outdoor stuff with our youth. Unfortunately, they don’t always ‘buy into it….’ However we have started a special outdoor program for 12 teen African American males, which I am overseeing. (I am white FYI) On one recent outing, one of our boys said ” black people just aren’t MADE for the outdoors!” How would you respond to that? I told him I knew of some African American Mountaineers. Would you be willing to visit our school?”
Like most people, even I have a hard time believing that one’s race or ethnicity would preclude them from participating in outdoor activities. Having enjoyed both a life-long passion and professional career as a person who loves the outdoors I still find it difficult to fathom how anyone would presume that just because they are a person of color they inherently “aren’t made for the outdoors”. Despite having such a foolish notion suggested to me from the time I was very young I have actively defied this all-to-common misconception through practical means by just getting out there and doing my thing as a climber, cyclist, skier, photographer and storyteller who just happens to be black. But through the course of my adventuring and at points of engagement with the general public I have come to realize a sad and disappointing fact. There is indeed a deep divide between those who spend time in nature and those who do not that tragically falls sharply along racial lines. Though it defies logic or even common sense the Adventure Gap that I describe in my book of the same tile is a real phenomenon that will only continue to grow larger if we choose to ignore it.
There is little progress to be made in trying to understand how the adventure gap came to be. Though I can postulate theories around our history of slavery, post-reconstruction racial oppression, institutionalized segregation and discriminating practices in employment and residential housing, I believe at this point there is no purpose to be served in assigning blame. What we must do however is understand that for whatever reason the adventure gap exists and we need to do what we can to shrink and ultimately close it. Toward that end I have sought out and shared many examples of African-America women and men who have severed the interests of environmental conservation or just pure adventure in the hopes of demonstrating to our youth that they have history, heritage and legacy in the natural world. And as such they also possess the obligation to protect and preserve nature for future generations.
Over the past several weeks I have been invited to share the story of Expedition Denali at middle schools, high schools, universities and gatherings of professional outdoor educators and their students. Presenting my book as well as the film I co-produced called An American Ascent I’ve welcomed the questions and comments of young people who share my interest in creating a conservation movement that matches the diversity of their campuses and the U.S. population as a whole. Though I can put into historical context the narrative of minority participation in outdoor activities it is the responsibility of today’s youth to make modern environmental activism socially and culturally relevant to the interests of their fellow students and peers.
At Dartmouth College especially I found that students are actively seeking out ways to welcome and engage their minority classmates into campus organizations where they are typically under represented. Michaela Caplan, vice president of the Dartmouth Outing Club, wrote in an op-ed that she hopes to create a sub-organization that addresses the interests of people of color similar to a group started in the 1990s to serve the needs of female students called Women In The Wilderness or WIW.
“A serious discussion about starting a mentorship program for all new members of the DOC has begun, so that no one will enter a meeting without a familiar presence there to greet them,” Caplan wrote in her campus newspaper The Dartmouth. “The current thinking about the new member club is that, like WIW, it would also lead trips available to all Dartmouth students, but the leaders in this DOC will be POC and/or international students. At least five minority students who have extensive wilderness experience (mostly outside of the DOC) have expressed interest in and excitement about becoming leaders.”
Caplan and other student organizers across the country recognize the importance of creating a cultural environment where all of those interested in participating are made to feel welcome. The customs and traditions of past racial segregation endure into the present day to create unconscientious barriers that suggest to people of color that they should opt out of activities they have every right to enjoy. Sadly the face of outdoor recreation has become institutionalized to reflect almost exclusively the values and priorities of the mainstream population, which Caplan describes as “white, heterosexual, (and) upper middle class”. With few role models or visible examples of fellow community members successfully spending time in nature, compounded by the impression that they don’t belong many of her minority classmates will seek other forms of recreation. And though she too is reluctant to assign any blame for these circumstance of culture she insists now that we are aware that they exist we must do what we can to make things right.
“There is no personal fault innate here,” Caplan wrote. “A failure to recognize is not a malicious or even an active undertaking, but once this inertial reality is recognized and brought to the forefront, a failure to change becomes insidious.”
We must not assume that everyone feels welcome in our wild places. And those of us who aim to encourage others, particularly young people to enjoy the outdoors will have to go out of our way to create opportunities and share narratives that celebrate our common legacy of environmental protection and stewardship. In order for future generations to preserve the natural world that many of us love today we have to be willing instill that same passion in others, particularly those in our society least likely to experience it.
Through the course of my travels in recent weeks I was invited to present my book and our film on Expedition Denali in St. Paul, Minnesota. First in a series of speakers in the Design for Equity Residency sponsored by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation I was graciously welcomed by a large crowd of supporters eager to learn how they might help to make the outdoors more accessible to everyone. In the audience was Ed Lysne who asked if I would come out the following morning to speak to his students at the Open World Learning Community, a charter school where he teaches outdoor education.
“The boys would really like to meet you,” he said.
The next day I sat in a circle with 12 young men who enthusiastically expressed to me their excitement for the many programs that had introduced them to nature. Their lessons in outdoor classrooms brought with them a better understanding of not only their role in environmental protection but also the joy of playing and learning outside as a normal part of their school day. Among these students was an African-American youth named Maleik, who Lysne told me had once said, “black people just aren’t MADE for the outdoors!” Now a mentor to his younger classmates Maleik takes great pride in sharing photographs and stories of his adventures camping and hiking throughout his home state of Minnesota. “Alright,” he said self-consciously. “It is pretty cool.”
And just like that, the adventure gap starts to shrink.
Please share your questions and comments regarding diversity in outdoor recreation and environmental conservation in the comments below or write to firstname.lastname@example.org
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