Image Is Everything ~ #FacesoftheOutdoors

A recent blog post described me as “a champion in the effort to bring more diversity to the outdoors.” As much as I appreciate the compliment, the statement appears as the cutline to a photograph at the head of an article that goes on never to mention anything that I might have done to earn the title of “champion”. The author never contacted me for a quote or even referenced a single one of the 800+ stories published on this blog or the scores of magazine articles, radio stories or podcasts I’ve created in more than a decade of professional journalism.

If a photograph of me rowing a whitewater raft on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon is all it takes to affirm my bonafides as a thought leader in the realm of diversity, equity and inclusion, it might be said that I have indeed arrived. I know from many years of experience, however, that it takes far more than a hero pose of a black dude in a life jacket on boat to undo four centuries of racial discrimination and systematic oppression. But it’s actually not a bad place to start.

Throughout my career in outdoor recreation I’ve come to understand that image is everything. The inspiring photographs we see in adventure magazines and action films in many ways helps to define what an outdoor enthusiast looks like. The faces of people we see engaged in work and play outside illustrates the persona of one who spends time in nature. For many who have yet to create a relationship with the natural world, the first step is to see themselves as part of it. In my work as a journalist and storyteller I’ve tried to create narratives and images that reflect the rich cultural diversity of the American people. I believe that if we can encourage people to imagine how they might one day experience the outdoors in ways that are personal relevant and meaningful we might also inspire them to protect it.

I recently posted a note on Facebook and Instagram inviting fans and followers to share images of themselves in the outdoors. To mark the 101st anniversary of the National Park Service I wanted to see pictures of people enjoying their public land. In an impromptu contest, I promised the contributor of the photograph hashed-tagged #facesoftheoutdoors  with the most “likes” an autographed copy of my book the Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. The winner, with 877 thumbs up is Nigel Golden of Amherst, Massachusetts.

“7-year old me knew that one day I wouldn’t have to live vicariously through other people’s adventures in the wilderness from watching TV – I’m doing it now for my dissertation in Denali National Park and Preserve, AK with arctic ground squirrels and climate change!” Nigel wrote in his post. “What 7-year-old me didn’t know was how difficult and exhausting this process would be as a Queer/POC (person of color) in majority white and heteronormative spaces. For me, being an #unlikelyhiker is showing that the outdoors is for EVERYBODY, and to lead by example by creating those inclusive spaces. I’ve made a seat for myself at the table, and you’re all welcome to come join! I hope in the meantime to impart to others, the freedom of being outdoors – there’s no need to police yourself! Practice leave no trace, BUT let the wilderness leave its trace on you!” -Nigel / @niggtastic

Reposted by my friends at UnLikelyHikers on Instagram, this image and caption by Nigel was exactly what I was looking for. By following his heart into a career and lifestyle that allows him to more profoundly experience the outdoors Nigel is far more of a champion for diversity, equity and inclusion than I can ever hope to be. But if through my work I can help to inspire more people like him to find their place in the world outside I will gladly accept the title. After all, it’s the least any one of us can do to protect and preserve the natural spaces we love.

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Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.