Op-Ed: After the Camber Equity Pledge Blowup

This week saw heated public outcry over the organization's false claim of being the first to get outdoor brands to commit to inclusivity. Let's use this opportunity to enact real change.

On the left: Diversify Outdoors's Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge. On the right: Camber's CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge. (Irene Davila/Unsplash; Courtesy Diversify Outdoors; Courtesy Camber Outdoors)
Photo: Irene Davila/Unsplash; Courtesy Diversify Outdoors; Courtesy Camber Outdoors the pledge

Late last week, a nonprofit organization originally established to advocate for women in the outdoor industry did a seemingly wondrous thing. Camber Outdoors announced an expansion of its CEO Pledge, a gender-equity initiative launched in 2015, to include equity, inclusion, and diversity. More than 50 industry brands, including powerhouses like REI and Patagonia, have signed on to the covenant, renamed the CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge, which Camber initially touted as the “first of its kind.” 

But here’s the rub: a group of people and organizations of color launched the similarly named Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge in July 2018. The Trail Posse, a nonprofit media entity that I founded, is a member of this pledge’s steering committee.

Camber Outdoors and several of its eventual signatories declined to work with us, but we have 28 brands on board, the most recognizable being Marmot, which was the first to commit. These companies are each working with a member of our steering committee to establish actions on workforce diversity and representation in media, marketing, and with brand ambassadors. The companies agreed to be held accountable for those actions.

The steering committee is unpaid. We have no umbrella organization or funding behind us. We are connected by our mutual blackness or brownness, our passion for the outdoors, and our drive to elevate access and equity. We are trying to negotiate space in a world that, frankly, mostly indicates it doesn’t want us.

The initiative by Camber Outdoors and its allies did not make us feel any differently. It launched on February 1, the first day of Black History Month. With great fanfare, they created the optic of a large group of white-led outdoor brands signaling a preference to follow a white-led organization on diversity instead of an alliance of organizations of color organized by a black woman, Teresa Baker of the African American National Park Event.

From the outside, it might be tempting to dismiss this latest tempest as a mere dustup between trekking-pole-wielding tree huggers. But the outdoor industry generates annual consumer spending of $887 billion and 7.6 million American jobs, according to the latest projections by the Outdoor Industry Association. The sector accounted for 2.2 percent ($412 billion) of the 2016 U.S. gross domestic product, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis.

With so much at stake, it’s no wonder the space is fraught with conflict over equity and inclusion. But because outdoor brands are private, it’s difficult to gauge just how lacking in diversity they really are.

The conservation and environmental sector is most similar to the outdoor industry in its employment and leadership—and its numbers are dismal. According to a 2018 report by Green 2.0, an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity in environmental organizations, foundations, and government agencies, nonwhites comprise 26 percent of full-time foundation staff, 4 percent of senior staff, and 21 percent of foundation board members. Those numbers actually could be underselling the racial divide since they are based on self-reported data. Outdoor-industry insiders will admit that the lack of diversity in its companies is likely far worse. And that lack of diversity can lead to bad decisions and misguided actions.

Responding to the outcry, Camber Outdoors issued a statement on February 4 in which its executive director, Deanne Buck, apologized for characterizing its initiative as “first of its kind.” But in that same press release, Camber still described itself the “first and only authority… advancing opportunities… for everyone” in the outdoors.

Amanda Jameson, a black long-distance hiker, was among those who found Camber’s apology disingenuous. Jameson is one of three women of color who work for Camber—at least until her last day later this month. She resigned her position as program manager on Monday.

“If you’re an organization that is interested in change and some authentic negotiation, some authentic diversity, and some authentic being in that discomfort, it’s important to be clear,” Jameson told me. “It’s important to be open. Certainly, in [Camber’s] response to this particular issue, that’s not what I’ve seen.”

The apparent hollowness of the gesture left outdoor advocates of color with the familiar gut punches of appropriation, erasure, and lack of self-determination that stung our ancestors, on whose shoulders we stand. They were the recipients of this country’s original sins as it slaked its thirst for claiming and cleansing public lands and establishing a culture of recreation that values solitude, respite, and inaccessibility. We find these appeals at odds with our immigrants’ culture of extended family, our historical ghettoization, and our wont for congregation because of safety and social reasons.

As we have been pointing out for centuries, we are outside, of course, but even in its glorious light, we seldom feel seen.

“Privilege has the privilege of not seeing itself,” said Carolyn Finney, an author, cultural geographer, and member of the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge steering committee. “I believe actually that [the Camber pledge] was a big risk, but they don’t see it. The risk is losing all of us folks of color who they deem to care about and say they want to help elevate and include. So either they don’t care, or they are just so clueless.”

Many in the outdoor industry seem to hold onto the false notion that there is a dearth of nonwhite candidates to hire, models of color to feature in ads and catalogs, and minority consumers who want to buy gear. This persistent people-of-color-are-not-outside narrative is reinforced by statistics such as those showing low visitation to national parks (about 22 percent of visitors are nonwhite) or low participation rates by nonwhite groups in some outdoor activities like bird-watching (7 percent, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). But a lot of us feel like we don’t count because we aren’t properly counted. Some of our immigrant tongues don’t have equivalent terms for words like camping or trailhead that make up the American lexicon for outdoor recreation. For others, our history in this country has conditioned us to believe that we don’t look or act like outdoors people, so we might call “out for a walk” what a white person would readily identify as a hike.

Finney, the author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, reviewed issues of Outside magazine published between 2001–1991 and found that only 103 of the magazine’s 4,602 pictures of people contained African Americans. She says that while things have improved since then, underrepresentation remains significant. John Robinson, a black former Forest Service biologist and a longtime birding advocate, says the self-perpetuating nonwhite scarcity in certain outdoor activities results from what he calls the “Don’t Loop”: People of color don’t (insert activity) because people don’t engage in an activity in which they don’t see people like themselves.

The question is: How is this loop disrupted?

In a big way, it just was.

Our history tells us that conflict usually is required to catalyze meaningful change. While the Camber pledge didn’t involve snarling dogs or battering batons, it was the public exposure of the kind of appropriation and erasure that takes place all the time in the darkened corners of what I call the “organized outdoors”—recreation, conservation, and environmentalism, as defined by the U.S. mainstream. This time it was greeted with significant backlash.

The Don’t Loop can be further disrupted by marked improvement in representation of nonwhites in the industry workforce, marketing and advertising, and ambassadorships. The usual industry ploys—inviting people of color to serve on panels, sharing our social-media posts, and plying us with high-margin gear that provides the illusion of value—are inauthentic avenues to claiming commitment to diversity by association.

Recruiting, hiring, onboarding, and retaining people of color requires real commitment, real work, and real resources. More than just the right thing to do, equity and inclusion should be viewed as business imperatives, a survival strategy in the face of rapidly changing demographics in this country. The alternative, in which people of color create our own outdoor companies to serve our growing communities, would not offer a bright future for legacy brands.

Glenn Nelson founded the Trail Posse to cover the intersection of race and the outdoors.

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