My career in outdoor adventure began in 1989, shortly after I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in anthropology. I took a minimum-wage job at the local gear shop, Recreational Equipment, Inc. At that time, there were about a dozen REI stores nationwide, gas was 97 cents a gallon, and my tuition was $850 a year. With a rent-controlled apartment near Telegraph Avenue, I felt like I had it made. I drove a Suzuki Samurai 4x4 with a gear rack mounted on the spare tire. With friends from work, I skied in Lake Tahoe and hiked all over the Sierra. I learned to climb in Yosemite. I raced triathlons and marathons. Life was good.
As an African American man in my early twenties, I defied convention to become a successful outdoor professional. In 1992, I landed a job at the North Face as an independent sales rep for a territory in the upper Midwest. Calling on shops in Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis, St. Louis, Des Moines, Sioux Falls, and Fargo, I was the face of the brand in these cities for almost five years, and I went on to work for a number of other outdoor companies. Along the way, I encouraged people of color to participate in the activities I loved while pushing brands to grow their business by reaching out to people they’d long ignored. More often than not, my efforts were thwarted by dismissive senior executives. “James,” they’d say, “that’s just not our market.”
This assumption was rooted in the dominant cultural narrative about who enjoys adventure. Gear catalogs, advertising campaigns, films, and articles in magazines like Outside typically presented the outdoors as a place for white people, most of them men. At the turn of the millennium, I decided to do something about this, pivoting from sales to journalism. I wrote about the achievements of people like the buffalo soldiers, African American members of the U.S. Cavalry who started patrolling Yosemite in the 1890s as some of our first national park rangers, and Sophia Danenberg’s historic 2006 Mount Everest climb, when she became the first black American to reach the summit. The more I looked around, the more obvious it became that the world of adventure was—has always been—far more diverse than we’d been led to believe. The stories of people of color, Native Americans, those with disabilities, and members of the LGBTQ community just weren’t being shared widely in the outdoor community.
Finally, that’s changing. But not because the outdoor media and the outdoor industry woke up. What happened is that underrepresented groups took control of the narrative. Utilizing digital platforms, they’re speaking for themselves. Organizations like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, and Out There Adventures have begun stripping away the presumption of a white, male, heterosexual experience. Even more importantly, by unapologetically presenting their unique points of view, they’ve shined a light on a rich heritage of adventure and environmental stewardship that has been there for generations.
Many of these change makers are just getting started, their endeavors evolving as they adjust strategies and reassess goals. As they run, ride, paddle, ski, and climb throughout our nation’s public lands, they manifest a profound sense of belonging. Collectively, they are at the forefront of a rising national movement toward an inclusive outdoor community. They are the changing face of the outdoors. Here, in their own words, are some of their stories.
Photo: (from left) Ayesha McGowan, Knox Robinson, Shelma Jun, Krystle Ramos, Mikhail Martin