On the last day of the 2017 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market I stood thumbing the screen of my iPhone. My 2:45 appointment was running a bit late, so I waited patiently killing time like a teenager slouched over my Twitter feed in front of The North Face booth. Looking up as he approached I caught the attention of Gear Junkie editor Sean McCoy. He strode over to ask me a question.
“We’re still trying to give away the last of our Best-In-Show Awards,” he said. “What was the most exciting thing you saw on the floor this year?”
After 25 years in the outdoor industry I’ve seen a lot of cool things at OR. First as a manufacturers’ sales rep and now for more than a decade as a journalist I have a knack for spotting emerging treads in the business. Though I haven’t written much in the way of gear reviews in a long while I was flattered that he would ask. There were many cool things I saw this year at Outdoor Retailer, but gear wasn’t all I had in mind.
Of course I was thrilled to see the new scanning technology from Superfeet. A new system to be installed in specialty retail stores across the country will make a footwear product recommendation from stock on hand and gather measurement data to create a custom footbed built on a 3-D printer. Amazing! A fuel cell device from the company Hydra-Light powers flashlights and lanterns while charging electronic devices from the energy of salt water. A slick new design of collapsible sunglasses from Popticals folds high quality lenses into a tidy little package and comes with a sturdy hard case. Wolverine has a new boot called the Vortex that features a slip-resistant rubber sole from Vibram called Arctic Grip. And an innovative variety of synthetic down insolation called Marmot Featherless has the same loft and drape of natural plumage.
As usual, there was no shortage of cutting-edge products on display at the show in Salt Lake City, Utah. It’s hard not to be impressed or even inspired by the amazing new technologies designed for the sole purpose of encouraging people to spend time in the outdoors. But for years now what has always been missing is a broader representation of the American public. The outdoor industry continues to be profoundly lacking in the racial and cultural diversity that is emerging in so many other sectors of our economy and society at large. The absence of people of color can be observed not just among those who attend OR, but in the marketing and editorial outreach to segments of the population that we don’t typically see in the world of outdoor recreation. But on the show floor this year I was excited to see, however, that this reality seems to be changing for the better.
To put it simply I noticed that there were more black and brown people walking the aisles of the Salt Palace. I was pleased to see friends and colleagues like Rue Mapp the founder of Outdoor Afro and José Gonzales of Latino Outdoors. The sport climbing phenom Kai Lightner was on the scene signing autographs on posters baring his image at the Adidas Outdoor booth. But there were also dozens of folks I didn’t recognize wearing badges identifying them as retailer buyers, non-profits, exhibitors and like me working media.
Having attended Outdoor Retailer since 1992 I can attest to the general observation that people of color are not widely represented in our tribe of outdoor enthusiasts and professionals. Two decades ago as an African-American working for a major apparel and equipment brand I likely turned more than a few heads. Like the introduction of a new waterproof/breathable fabric or a four-season tent design I was likely looked upon with some degree curiosity, apprehension and weariness. Though I was not the only person of color to attend Outdoor Retailer I was definitely one of the very few. But just as products like Gore-Tex or Primaloft were allowed to prove themselves through outstanding performance in the field under harsh conditions in hostile environments I was given every opportunity to demonstrate my talents and abilities as a professional in the outdoor industry. And today there are many more people in the business who look like me.
But more significant than the shear number non-white attendees this year is the sincere willingness of industry individuals and institutions to explore the prospects and opportunities to make the outdoors ever more diverse and inclusive. As we face the realities of a warming planet and the political insecurity of our public lands there are many now who believe as I do that we must do more to expand our community and include a broader cross-section of the American people.
For several years now a group of industry regulars has gathered for a bi-annual meeting during OR at J. Wong’s Asian Bistro directly across the street from the Salt Palace Convention Center. Called the Inclusivity Luncheon we frequently joke ironically that the event is by invitation only. To be frank a guest list and limited seating helps to keep costs to a minimum. Anyone interested in diversity in the outdoor business is welcome to attend. Twice each year we meet to discuss how we might make the outdoor industry more inclusive.
“We have to figure out a way to make our efforts look like America or we’re not going to win,” said Christian Beckwith, director of the Shift Festival in Jackson Wyoming, at our summer luncheon. “I can’t do this unless it’s all of us. What we’re trying to do is get as many people engaged in this effort as possible. We need right and we need left. And we need white and we need brown. We need everyone to make this work.”
Perhaps the urgency of climate change is prompting more industry insiders to take action. Some simply recognize that diversity and inclusion are integral parts of any successful and sustainable community. At the 2016 Shift conference Beckwith assemble a group of young people from diverse backgrounds across the county to share their experiences as youth of color in outdoor recreation. Called the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) he invited several members of this cohort to attend OR and discuss their work. Michael Davis Jr. is an African-American trip leader based in Seattle with the YMCA’S Boys Outdoor Leadership Development Program.
“I do my best to be an ambassador for people of color,” Davis said in an email exchange. “Showing people of color how wonderful the outdoors are and to the majority (white males) that I am just as competent and driven to succeed in the outdoors as you if not more driven.”
Hoping to inspire a new generation of young people in his community to embrace the outdoors Davis aims to encourage the industry to be more direct in its marketing and messaging to new consumers as well those considering careers.
“Meeting folks where they are at is huge to drawing in new demographics,” he said “Showing new professionals of color that they will be in leadership roles one day is vital. Being transparent with cultural concerns and having people of color in leadership roles create role models for new users and professionals.”
For those of you just joining the discussion I will respectfully ask that you reserve your shock and moral outrage. You are mistaken in the belief that outdoor recreation is somehow immune to the racial divides that permeate every other aspect of American life. I and several colleagues have written extensively on this issue for many years, so please let’s not rehash old arguments that have long since been put to rest.
The efforts of Davis and others notwithstanding, I will gladly concede that people of color are not consciously subjected to discrimination, nor are we actively prevented from participating in any aspect of the outdoor business. Spending time in nature is indeed a personal choice that anyone is free to enjoy or not by virtue of their own interests and inclinations. But as an industry I believe that we have failed to reach out to and engage under-represented communities in culturally relevant and socially meaningful ways. It is not enough to merely declare that everyone is welcome in the outdoors. I believe that if we are truly going to become a diverse and inclusive industry we must be more proactive and explicit in our invitations to people of color to become involved.
Even if we decided that diversity is important, however, we have to make sure that we are engaging communities of color for the right reasons.
“ I worry that ‘diversity’ has become too vague to hold any real meaning,” said ELP participant Michelle Piñon. “My experience at OR this past year largely reaffirmed my fears that most companies embark on quests for ‘diversity’ without truly asking themselves why. This aimlessness, unfortunately, is immensely discouraging to me as one of the few POC in most outdoor spaces. Far too often, I feel as though my mere presence is celebrated (“yay! a brown person!”) while my voice, my story, my experiences as (a) Latina from East LA who spends every spare moment now in wild places, isn’t valued. I wish this would change, but I’m not terribly optimistic.”
Piñon is the Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator for Latino Outdoors, a grassroots organization that promotes outside activities. Based in Seattle she also develops outdoor leadership curriculum for the Washington Trails Association. Through her efforts Piñon has introduced hundred of Latino families to the natural world. And though she understand the necessity to address the cultural interests and values of those she most wants to reach she does not shrink from the obligation to assess the motivation of conservation groups, land management agencies and commercial enterprises that aim to become more inclusive.
“Do we want to diversify our workforce and user group because it feels good – because everyone else is doing it – or because it’s essential for the survival of our industry and the places we hold sacred?,” Piñon asks. “I believe that until we have this difficult conversation, we can’t have authentic relationships with people of color. Unless we understand how activism, resource depletion and environmental conservation are interconnected, we’ll keep wandering around aimlessly. It’s a hard task, true, but anything worth doing is always difficult.”
The challenge of course lies in overcoming very sensitive social issues. Most Americans today find it hard to discuss matters of race because it’s not only difficult, it’s painful. Confronting the inequities of the past often means having to dredge up memories or circumstances we are less than proud of. So we tend to ignore them. But let’s not forget that every inch of American soil was taken from First Nation Tribes who were not only displaced but systematically eradicated in acts of genocide worst than the Holocaust. Once established many of our National Parks were racially segregated, despite the role of the Buffalo Soldiers, African-American members of the U.S. Cavalry who at the turn of the last century were among our first park and forest rangers. Rather than cower from the shame of our past it is critical that we own and embrace our national legacy in its entirety. We must welcome and encourage the contributions of all those who aim to celebrate the heritage of the great outdoors.
I for one acknowledge that the Buffalo Soldiers whom I revere as heroes were also complicit in the slaughter of Native Americans during the western expansion of the late 1800s. The privileges of leisure and recreation that I enjoy today in the outdoors were made possible by both the sacrifices and the atrocities of my ancestors. But with this privilege comes the obligation to exercise gratitude and humility in the enduring preservation of the land that enriches my spirit and makes possible my livelihood as an outdoor professional. I believe that it is my responsibility to make the outdoors more accessible to everyone.
In front of the North Face booth Sean McCoy stood waiting as I pondered his question. Shaking off my revery in what probably appeared to be indicision I rattled off my top five picks for Best-In-Show. The gear that makes us safe and comfortable in the outdoors works equally well for everyone. The mountains and rivers don’t discriminate nor does altitude, gravity or the cold. So neither should we. The most exciting thing I saw at the 2017 Outdoor Retailer Winter Market was more people of color. Their presense indicates that we are making progress toward a professional environment where everyone is welcome. In the future I look forward to their inclusion on the pages of catalogs, in magazine articles, on corporate boards and summit victory photos. As this new generation of millennials finds its place in the industry as designers, marketing agents, photographers, executives and adventure athletes I hope that they will learn to share their passion for the outdoors in words, images and deeds that will resonate with all the American people. Though there is still much work ahead in our efforts to make this business more diverse and inclusive the future holds the promise of youth who aim to make our world a better place than they found it.
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