Back in the 1990s, Jimmy Chin was living the dirtbag dream. His home was an old Subaru Loyale, and he spent his days scaling Yosemite’s sheer rock faces and skiing the couloirs outside Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He was also frequently the only person of color on expeditions.
It’s an understatement to say that he’s accomplished a lot since then—racking up first ascents of summits around the world, producing a stunning portfolio of adventure photography, and, in 2019, winning an Academy Award for codirecting the documentary Free Solo.
Chin’s experience in the outdoor community has largely been a positive one, but he’s well aware that not everybody can say the same. So it wasn’t a hard sell when the North Face asked Chin, who has been sponsored by the company for 20 years, to colead its new Explore Fund Council. The Explore Fund itself has existed for more than a decade, providing grants to nonprofits to increase outdoor participation. The council expands on that mission by adding new voices and perspectives, and the company is committing a $7 million budget to increase support for the fund.
“The outdoors is such a great space for people from different backgrounds, races, and religions to come together and interact as human beings,” Chin says. “To find those places of intersection and connection is something that I’ve been able to experience, and I want to share that.”
The movement for racial justice in America that erupted last year also spurred a serious reckoning about bias in outdoor spaces, highlighting the work that needs to done to make our natural playgrounds more welcoming and inclusive. With that in mind, industry advocates and companies from Arc’teryx and REI to Tracksmith and Hoka are rolling up their sleeves, ready to ignite change that’s long overdue.
The Explore Fund Council is among the most ambitious of these efforts. Chin’s coleader is director and Emmy-winning actor Lena Waithe, a choice that shows how serious the North Face is about reaching a wider audience. Waithe has devoted her career to championing underrepresented artists and communities through her production company Hillman Grad. “The media rarely shows Black people being outdoors,” she says. “But there are absolutely Black people and other people of color who enjoy those spaces. Exploration can mean many different things to different people, but it’s all exploration.”
Bringing in people from outside the industry is essential to coming up with innovative solutions, Chin says. “Turning the outdoors into a broader cross section will require many different perspectives—whether it’s from athletes, filmmakers, or other collaborators,” he says. “When you have that many voices brought to the table, you can open up what the Explore Fund really is and where it can go.”
Advocacy work has been part of the North Face’s DNA since its inception over 50 years ago, including a call to action to address climate change in 2015, a partnership with Paradox Sports to launch the Adaptive Climbing Initiative in 2017, and sponsorship of the first American Mountain Guides Association women’s rock-climbing guide course that same year.
The council’s recommendations will help determine how the Explore Fund is distributed, with the majority of grants going to organizations in the United States and Europe. (The council’s remaining members will come on board this spring, and the first grants will be awarded in the fall.) The past year in particular “has proven the urgency to prioritize and amplify this work,” says Steve Lesnard, the North Face’s global vice president of marketing and product. “Now the Explore Fund will be focused entirely on addressing the barriers that prevent safe exploration and creating access for all.”
Of course, introducing meaningful change and bringing those who’ve traditionally been excluded into the fold requires more than just momentum and financial support. “I believe in leadership through action,” Chin says. “You lead by doing the heavy lifting.”
Part of that, Chin believes, is achieved through compassion—“a clear sense of empathy.” He adds: “To understand what the challenges are in terms of accessibility to the outdoors and why those barriers are there in the first place requires decentering ourselves.”
Which is an important reminder that while we don’t all head outdoors for the same reason, hopefully one of the reasons many of us choose to stay is that it’s becoming a community we’re proud to belong to.