31 Jul Outdoor Retailer ~ From A Moment To A Movement
On Day Zero of the 2018 Outdoor Retailer Summer Market I strolled around the Colorado Convention Center. As exhibitors set up their booths in advance of the four-day trade show I began plotting a course of travel to traverse a path from one end the sprawling structure to the other. As I made my way to the front of the building I was excited to see a crew of familiar faces. My friend Rue Mapp had just arrived with a few leaders of her empowerment group known as Outdoor Afro. “There he is,” she said drawing me in for a warm hug. “It’s so good to see you!”
I returned the embrace with a big smile, truly happy to be in the presence of friends who share a common mission. For more than a decade now Rue and I, along with many others, have been working to bring more people of color into the world outdoor recreation. In recent years we have made some serious progress. And lately with dozens of magazine articles, podcasts, YouTube videos and national television spots featuring Black and Brown people engaged in outdoor activities across the country and around world, we’ve watched the face of adventure change right before our very eyes.
“You must be really excited about your cover story,” Rue said beaming. A lengthy reporting project I produced had graced the front page of Outside Magazine. Featuring a photograph of aspiring professional cyclist Ayesha McGowan the cover of the May 2018 issue sparked a firestorm of excitement across the emerging community of outdoor enthusiasts who are people of color. Since its release in April I had received hundreds of compliments and notes of congratulations on this story that profiled 12 athletes and activists who are making the outdoors more accessible to all people regardless of their race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation or disability. As Rue herself was featured in the story I sincerely appreciated her apparent enthusiasm even so many weeks after the story had run its course on the newsstands. But I was a bit taken aback by this renewed excitement. That’s when she pointed over my shoulder, prompting me to take a look at something behind me on the show floor I had yet to see.
In that moment I turned around to see a 5-foot tall enlargement of our Outside Magazine cover. There with Ayesha’s glorious Afro was the headline, which read “The New Faces of Adventure”. After the initial shock faded a bit I realized this image was at the entryway to the main show floor. It was the first thing you saw as you walked into the exhibit space. I only missed it before because I came in from the back of the hall. I stood there in that first moment with my mouth agape and then, squealing like a kid on Christmas morning at his first glimpse of all the presents under the tree, I danced around in circles pumping my fists in the air. “Yes! Yes! Yes!” I screamed. “This means everything!” I got more than a little choked up. #guycry
Representation truly matters. Having attended the Outdoor Retailer Show since 1993 I’ve waited 25 years for the industry to acknowledge all that people of color bring to the business of outdoor recreation. Seeing this image that demonstrates such a profound spirit of athletic strength and confidence I was impressed by the notion that the outward expression of adventure is indeed changing to include the faces of so many we have long overlooked in stories and in the pages of popular magazines. I stood there and watched as that moment became a movement.
In the days that followed I continued to watch and marveled as so many people of color made their presence known at the Outdoor Retailer Show, some for the first time. Ambreen Tariq, a self described “proud SouthAsian Muslim American” is the founder of Brown People Camping and a member of the Merrell Footwear ambassador team. “It was such a profound experience for me to meet in person so many advocates and allies I’ve come to know digitally for the varied and incredible work they’re doing to further our movement of outdoors diversity,” she wrote to me on Instagram. “It felt like a family reunion for family members who were meeting each other for the first time. It was powerful and inspirational to say the least.”
The shared experience of breaking barriers was inspiring to see. Along with Ambreen on the Merrell team are ultra-runner Mirna Valerio, AKA “The Mirnavator”, and Jenny Brusso the founder of Unlikely Hikers. Their work to encourage women of varying body types to venture out into the natural world is helping to normalize the presence of all kinds of people in the outdoors. Many different events at OR this year expanded the horizons of attendees who may have in the past found it difficult to find their place in this very complex and often intimidating environment.
“For me attending Spark 2020 and Pitchfest (by Camber Outdoors) on Sunday changed the way I viewed OR,” said Bethany Lebewitz, founder of Brown Girls Climb. Program offerings that welcomed the professional participation of people from all backgrounds across the cultural spectrum helped her feel far more comfortable and welcome at OR than ever before. “I walked into the space on Monday greeted by Ayesha McGowan on the cover of Outside and I was embraced by friends from across the US who are using their creativity to plant seeds into some of the most critical points in the industry,” Bethany said. “For me, these two events transformed how I saw myself amongst this crowd. I am not just a spectator or a spectacle. I’m here because I own a business. We possess agency and ingenuity and our ideas can shape the way the industry develops. We (Brown Girls Climb) plan on being a big part of that formation and I hope others are encouraged to do the same.”
That sense of support and encouragement seemed to resonate throughout every corner of the convention center. On Day 2 I had the pleasure of moderating a panel discussion at the North Face booth on the first all Black American team of climbers to summit Africa’s highest peak, Mount Kilimanjaro. With teammates Chaya Harris and Leandra Taylor we discussed the preparation and the purpose behind this remarkable achievement. Unfortunately the third member of the panel Brittany Leavitt was unable to participate because she was stuck in transit while changing planes at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. She had to watch the conversation over Facebook Live. Yet Brittany was still greatly inspired by the words of her fellow climbers. “We see these types of panels all the time major mountaineers telling their stories, which can tend to be unrelatable or the goal seems so far out of reach,” she said afterward. “Having the team tell their stories from the high and lows really showed everyone that they could explore this mountain. We don’t really call ourselves mountaineers. Just people who like to climb mountains.”
Creating spaces for people of color within the Outdoor Industry was a central theme throughout the week. Teresa Baker, founder of African-American National Parks Experience, spent two days walking the aisles in the hopes engaging manufacturers in the complex issues of diversity, equity and inclusion. She worked at getting the senior executives of several companies to create lasting cultural change within their organizations by signing on to a commitment she calls The Pledge. This document, which I reported on recently in SNEWS, encourages companies to reach out to people of color in hiring, product development, direct marketing and social media. Teresa hopes that companies like Marmot, Vasque and Merrell can help to connect black and brown consumers with the outdoors.
“They supply us with the gear, with the equipment that we need to get into these outdoor spaces,” Teresa said in an interview. “So what better medium than the outdoor industry to help us fight for these spaces.”
The collective wisdom of making the outdoors more accessible to every demographic of the American public is now a national movement gaining momentum. Working in conjunction with several different environmental protection groups, the Next 100 Coalition sponsored a major event to celebrate the rising tide of diversity in the outdoor industry. Called Elevate Conservation: Outdoors For All the gathering hosted several speakers and more than 200 attendees dedicated to expanding the constituency of people who love the natural world and aim to protect it. As the master of ceremonies Latino Outdoors founder José Gonzalez welcomed to the microphone presenters that included Davis Filfred with the Bears Ears Commission, Luz Ortega with Environmental Learning for Kids (ELK) and Big City Mountaineers, Molly Cuffe, Director of Global Communications at Smartwool,
Robbie Bond with Kids Speak for Parks, Latino Outdoors leader Cristal Cisneros, Bob Randall of the Colorado Dept of Natural Resources and Carolyn Finney, author of the book Black Faces, White Spaces. With this distinguished panel of passionate activists José set the stage for a riveting presentation of the high level thinking behind this community of environmental leaders.
“To be on this path of bumpy progress, it’s part of the work as I’ve tried to embody this equity and inclusion work, feeling the places not designed for me in mind initially but now we’re working to shape and flex them for ourselves and others. I was able to provide some access as others have done for me,” Jose said in an exchange on Facebook. “It was fun, exhausting, trying… it was OR. Connecting with community was important to me, as this place and work is challenging enough as it is. To be on stage for Elevate Conservation and see and feel all of it was something truly special.”
I have literally attended the Outdoor Retailer Show for a quarter century. After 25 years of wishing and hoping I am now witnessing the transformation of this industry I have sincerely loved for much of my life. Even as companies like REI and The North Face formally declare their commitments to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the business of outdoor recreation, I am far more impressed and inspired by the many people of color who turned out this year to represent for themselves as the change they most want to see in the world.
As Carolyn Finney gave her keynote address during the Elevate Conservation event she affirmed once and for all my belief that our community has become far more than an assortment of black and brown faces appearing randomly in spaces once reserved only for those who are white. Today we are a movement. In her closing remarks she held up a copy of the May 2018 issue of Outside Magazine, the one with Ayesha McGowin on it’s cover. “For the first time, I saw a face that looked like mine,” Carolyn said. “And that means everything.”