Outside Business Journal

Outdoors for All: Why Diversity Matters to the Outdoor Industry

Black and brown people are conspicuously absent in our parks, forests, trails, and rivers, as well as in the aisles of our industry's trade shows and offices, says author James Mills. Here, he offers insights as to why it's vitally important to add more color to the natural world, and 5 things you can do to grow diversity

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Under my feet, the inflatable stand-up paddle board felt unsteady. The rushing water of the Colorado River took some getting used to as I marveled at the sheer walls of towering sandstone all around me. I feathered the blade of my paddle in sculling strokes to hold my position as the five boats in our party took up their positions behind me and we made ready to get underway.

It was the third morning of a 16-day whitewater rafting adventure though the Grand Canyon. Five boatmen, nine other passengers, and I had already settled into that steady rhythm of expedition travel. Though this was my first trip through this great natural wonder, the experience felt very familiar to me after more than two decades in the outdoor industry. In the company of old friends and a few new ones, we found comfort in our common love of nature. But it came as no surprise to me when our trip leader made a casual observation.

“You know, after 35 trips through the Grand Canyon,” he said from his boat, “you’re the first African-American I have ever been with.”

National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson welcomes visitors to Yosemite. (Photo: James Edward Mills)

I’ve heard similar comments many times before. Once again, the words gave rise to a sad reality. Though non-Hispanic black Americans, like me, represent 12.3 percent of the U.S. population, our number among visitors to National Parks and other wilderness recreation areas is only 4 to 7 percent, according to a National Park Service study. Like many of the social disparities in our country, such as rates of high school and college graduation, the availability of affordable health care, fair housing practices, and gainful employment, limited access to the outdoors still falls squarely along racial and economic lines. The cultural circumstances of past discrimination that so often separate the American people today have also created a gap between those who spend time in nature for the purposes of pure adventure and those who don’t. And in the face of a growing number of black and brown consumers entering the marketplace, this adventure gap represents a potential problem for those in the business of outdoor recreation.

“As it is currently defined, the traditional outdoor industry does not have an ethnically diverse customer base or employee base or potentially even a participant base,” said Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, co-founder of the Avarna Group, a consulting firm that specializes in diversity and inclusion. “Diversity is actually an opportunity to take advantage of this up and coming demographic in the United States. Because the outdoor industry isn’t really focused on creating an inclusive environment in the business itself and within each organization, they’re really going to lose out on that opportunity.”

What Adventure Gap?

Throughout my long career in outdoor recreation, I have noticed there is indeed a profound lack of participation among the many different ethnic groups that make up the American population. Black and brown people are conspicuously absent in our parks, forests, trails, and rivers, as well as in the aisles of our industry’s trade shows and offices. And if this trend continues, as the population grows to favor a non-white majority, which the U.S. Census Bureau predicts will occur in the year 2042, it’s plausible to conclude that outdoor industry products and services will become irrelevant to most Americans.

But the Adventure Gap that I describe in a book of the same title is not the daunting problem that it seems to be. Instead, like many great undertakings of the adventurous men and women of our industry who climb high mountains and paddle raging rivers around the world, the effort to expose a higher percentage of the U.S. population to the wonders of outdoor recreation is in fact an exciting professional challenge. Things are indeed changing.

Steven Shobe, left, with NOLS instructor James “KG” Kagambi at Denali’s 7K Camp. Kagambi, a native of Kenya, was the first black African to summit Denali in 1989. (Photo: Hudson Henry Photography)

“There’s tons of research that shows that increased diversity and inclusion creates more innovation, creativity and creative problem solving and can result in a more robust bottom line,” said Ava Holliday, co-founder of the Avarna Group. “There’s also the social case which is tied to the business case. D & I (Diversity & Inclusion) encourages sustainability by creating a more positive organizational culture.”

The Diversity and Inclusion Opportunity

The divisive nature of race in the United States makes discussions of diversity and inclusion very difficult. Having worked for several different companies in the outdoor industry, I have found that the topic is often overlooked or deliberately avoided. But if the business of outdoor recreation is going to remain culturally relevant to a changing population, it’s essential for our survival to seize the opportunity to make substantive changes. Creating a more diverse and inclusive work environment helps to improve employee retention and limit turnover, Holiday said. The strength of this more stable professional atmosphere can help to establish and maintain an emerging demographic of minority youth who will one day lead our nation. “Those are our next environmental stewards,” she said. “So we want to make sure that those folks are engaging in the environment in ways that make sense to them.”

In 2013, while working with the National Outdoor Leadership School, Rajagopal-Durbin spearheaded the creation of a project to promote diversity and inclusion in outdoor recreation. In the hopes of encouraging more people of color to enter NOLS as students, faculty and staff, she organized the first team of African-American climbers to attempt a summit of the highest peak in North America.

Called Expedition Denali, this program aimed to introduce a new group of role models to share their experiences within the black community in cities and towns across the country. After returning safely from the mountain, members of the team connected with audiences on college campuses, at high schools, in neighborhood centers and churches in order to reach those people we don’t often see in outdoors. Although the expedition itself was unsuccessful (the team was forced to retreat from their summit attempt due to an electrical storm at 19,000 feet), their personal stories of adventure offered a sincere and authentic message of encouragement meant to welcome anyone with the interest or inclination to enjoy spending time outside. For NOLS, the purpose of Expedition Denali was to address the very real possibility that without diversity and inclusion, the institution would become irrelevant.

“What it means to be irrelevant is that we shrink and shrink until we cease to exist as a school,” Rajagopal-Durbin once told me. And today NOLS continues to actively reach out to and engage underrepresented members of the population to attend courses and train to become guides, or at the very least lifelong stewards of the environment.

Climbers Adina Scott and Scott Brisco lace up their boots for the approach to Denali BaseCamp at the start of Expedition Denali. (Photo: James Edward Mills)

In recent years a few companies in the outdoor industry have recognized the importance of becoming more inclusive. Footwear manufacturer Keen, for example, is a sponsor of Outdoor Afro, a nationally syndicated community based in Oakland, California, that introduces African American families to nature.

“I don’t care who you are, spending time in the outdoors can be very, very scary, especially if it’s something that your family didn’t do,” said David Munk, marketing director of events and sponsorships at Keen. “Supporting organizations like Outdoor Afro helps us to educate everyone.”

By working in partnership with institutions that address the needs of specific ethnic groups, outdoor companies can tap into vital resources that may create the cultural changes they desire. Through a thoughtful exchange of ideas on how best to connect and communicate with these underserved communities, manufacturers and retailers can build relationships in authentic and meaningful ways.

“I think we need to stop talking about it in doomsday terms. We need to talk about it more as opportunities,” said Rue Mapp, founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro. “I don’t care how many black people are in this country percentage-wise. We (African-Americans) will remain on the cutting edge of influence, really cracking the code on culture shifts in several different domains. We’ve seen it happen repeatedly in the arts and in sports, and I think the outdoor industry can benefit from that potential for positive influence.”

Expedition Denali climber Rosemary Saal having a 1 a.m. breakfast at the 14K Camp before an alpine-start for the summit. (Photo: Hudson Henry Photography)

Reports issued in 2016 by the performance management company Nielsen suggest that black and Latino consumers represent the best opportunities for growth across the U.S. economy. Both groups include a bourgeoning youth population that is thoroughly engaged through social media and electronic communications technology. Each command more than $1 trillion in market purchasing power. The outdoor industry could claim at least a small percentage of that.

“But this all seems so foreign and exotic so that even when it’s staring you in the face you don’t know what to do with it,” said Jose Gonzalez, founder of Latino Outdoors. “Businesses in the outdoor industry are in danger of thinking that they have to develop niche marketing, when in reality they have to think about how (outdoor recreation) fits into the mainstream. Multicultural Latinos are part of the main stream. You can’t think about how you’re going to market to Latinos. The question is how is your marketing in general inclusive of Latinos.”

D & I experts agree. At the core of any effort to make the outdoor industry more diverse and inclusive must be conscientious programs of communication and outreach meant to make the active lifestyle an intrinsic part of our culture across all racial and ethnic lines. Laura Swapp, director, public affairs and next-gen marketing at REI says that engaging communities of color is a board level priority.

“Rather than being a transactional growth strategy, it is a central part of our philosophy about the outdoors and our responsibility to present the lifestyle we believe so passionately in to this generation and the next,” she said in an email exchange. “Organizations like Latino Outdoors and Outdoor Afro represent opportunities to learn how outdoor engagement is nuanced inside multicultural communities and how we can be most relevant as a co-op to all our members—current and future.”

After more than two weeks of rafting through the Grand Canyon, I saw only one other person of color. I was pleased to see an African-American hiker had made his way to the campsite at Phantom Ranch. Though hardly a sign of progress, his presence there is an encouraging indication of what might be possible if only the outdoor industry would do more to welcome black and brown people to experience the natural world beyond the adventure gap.

But it’s important to remember that diversity and inclusion is not limited to race and ethnicity. The outdoor industry can benefit as well by reaching out more directly to people with disabilities, members of the LBGT community and veterans. But these efforts must also be part of thoughtful strategies of communication that require the outlay of both human resources and financial capital. However, in the long run, the investment will pay off. When encouraging all of our customers to recreate outside, there are many opportunities to extend a hand of welcome so that few will doubt that the outdoors is indeed for everyone.

5 Things You Can Do to Promote Diversity in the Outdoors

  • Embrace it! The population is changing. Emerging demographics offer new opportunities to grow the outdoor business in many as yet untapped markets. Get excited!
  • Look for new market opportunities. Organizations that serve the interests of specific communities have great potential for engagement. Form relationships with their leaders and discover unique ways to meet their needs.
  • Model diversity. Management and employees should reflect the communities we most want to reach. Actively seek, recruit, and develop talent from a variety of different applicant pools. Challenge your assumptions of where you might find the best candidates.
  • Create an inclusive environment. Use marketing materials, images, language, and points of engagement that are attractive to a broad audience. Avoid exclusive jargon, terminology, or cultural references that might alienate newcomers.
  • Devise multiple approaches. Diversity and inclusion cannot be created with a single action. It requires an ongoing commitment to make a business or institution welcoming and safe for everyone.