How Outdoor Companies Can Back Up Their DEI Pledges
Professional climber Kai Lightner maps out how the outdoor community can build successful diversity and inclusion initiatives
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In 2016, I attended an American Alpine Club gala with leaders of the outdoor community. One conversation I had there has stuck with me since. A friendly, soft-spoken woman walked up to my mom and me and started talking about diversity initiatives in rock climbing and outdoor recreation. She was confused about why they’re necessary. “The outdoors is free and open,” she insisted. “Anyone can choose to go outside and participate in activities. Minorities simply choose not to participate. Why should we pour money into efforts to convince them otherwise?” A gentleman standing nearby overheard this and decided to join in with his two cents. “Rock-climbing walls are popping up at recreation centers and Boys and Girls Clubs everywhere,” he said. “There is really no need for additional initiatives. Minorities are getting opportunities to enjoy rock climbing.” After listening to their comments, my mom and I gave each other a sideways glance and simultaneously took a deep breath. We then proceeded to offer them a lengthy explanation of participation gaps; they didn’t find it convincing.
Unfortunately, these sentiments are shared by many people in our community. Following the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, and the ensuing wave of protests, the outdoor industry is reckoning with its huge diversity gap—and questioning how inclusive the outdoors truly is for people of color. In response, numerous companies have released statements expressing their commitment to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). If companies are serious about accomplishing these goals, it’s crucial that they first understand the common reasons that fuel the participation gap so they can tailor initiatives accordingly.
The first key factor is how comfortable we feel in various outdoor environments. Many people of color are mentally conditioned at a young age to navigate society in specific ways to stay safe. I was six when I first had “the talk.” My best friend, Mason, who was white, lived three houses down, and being kids, instead of walking down the street, we would hop the fences to get to each other’s homes. One day while we were outside playing, my mother called Mason’s mom and told me to come home immediately. As I approached the house, I saw my mother sitting on the stairs of our front porch. She tried to smile while leading me inside the house, but I could see that her eyes were red and puffy. She’d received a concerning phone call from a neighbor about me hopping fences, which meant it was time for us to have a discussion I would never forget.
Many people of color are mentally conditioned at a young age to navigate society in specific ways to stay safe.
She started the conversation by telling me how much she loved me, and saying that I needed to trust everything that she was going to tell me, even if I didn’t understand. She then proceeded to tell me about various incidents involving young Black kids who had been murdered or incarcerated for reasons I couldn’t comprehend. With tears streaming down her face, she pulled out her computer and started showing me news stories of kids that looked just like me. I remember asking whether she was telling me I could not trust white people. “No,” she said. “I am telling you that some people will judge and mistreat you just because of the color of your skin. Most often, you will not know whether the person you are interacting with is a bad person until it is too late. If you want to stay safe, there is a certain way you must always act. If you and your white friends do the same thing, the consequences for you could be much more dire.”
As a six-year-old, I was confused; the intensity of the moment was overwhelming. At the time, I didn’t understand how simply playing with my friend earlier that day had led to this conversation. During the years that followed, these discussions became more regular. They ultimately prepared me for my first racial-profiling incident at age 12: During a gas-station stop to use the bathroom, I’d gazed at the huge candy section as I walked down the aisle, and the store owner met me outside the restroom as I exited. He accused me of stealing and forcibly searched me. Despite being physically violated, I knew to stay calm, not fight back, and run to safety as soon as I could. By the time I was 18, I had become fully adjusted to the idea that my reality would always be different than some of my friends, and maintained a mental checklist of things to remember for my own protection.
These experiences are not unique to me. Most African Americans are exposed to this harsh reality at a similar age, if not younger. Understanding this mindset is key to implementing effective DEI initiatives. If African Americans, for example, are already apprehensive in a society where we make up 13 percent of the population, it should be understandable that we are hesitant to be a part of a community where we represent as little as 1 percent of participants. James Edward Mills, author of The Adventure Gap, put it best: “It’s not enough to say that the outdoors is free and open for everyone to enjoy. Of course it is! But after four centuries of racial oppression and discrimination that systematically made Black Americans fear for their physical safety, we must also make sure that we create a natural environment where people of color can not only feel welcome but encouraged to become active participants as outdoor enthusiasts and stewards dedicated to the protection of the land.”
Any outdoor diversity and inclusion initiative must include coordinated efforts to help minorities feel welcome and safe venturing outdoors. This starts with educating outdoor-industry workers through DEI training, so they can better facilitate inclusive spaces for minorities in their companies and communities. We also need initiatives promoting this education for individual participants. In rock climbing, many popular crags are located in remote areas with regressive ideas about race. It is not uncommon for people in these communities to proudly display racist symbols on homes, businesses, and cars. Racism can even be found in guidebooks, as numerous climbs have names with racial undertones and racist slurs. If these communities make us feel marginalized, we’re not likely to return.
Despite being painfully aware of racial issues that could arise in a space that is almost entirely white, I never feared the sport of rock climbing. I attribute this to my mother always being nearby, helping me handle uncomfortable situations. My mom grew up in an inner-city, poverty-stricken community before earning a Ph.D. in applied mathematics. Her experience navigating such different environments made me comfortable trusting her instincts and her ability to keep me safe. However, this is an exception; many kids of color are not as fortunate to have a parent who is willing and able to follow them around the world, investing in their passion for an obscure sport that doesn’t offer a high-paying career path.
This brings me to the second significant component of the participation gap: cost. Minority communities are often located in inner cities, far from national parks and other public lands, and the price of gym passes, equipment, transportation to gyms, and mentorship programs are all typically steep. Companies can help by sponsoring initiatives to mitigate these expenses. This might include offering day passes at a reduced price for low-income individuals, or sponsoring DEI programs after school or during the summer to get more young people of color involved.
Memphis Rox Climbing Gym is one example of an organization that has integrated DEI into its business model. Located in a predominantly minority, low-income part of Memphis, Tennessee, this nonprofit climbing gym operates as a pillar for its community. Since it opened in 2018, it has provided daily initiatives like free meals, after-school programs, and mentorship for local kids. Memphis Rox also offers a pay-what-you-can cost structure that allows participants to offset normal gym fees with volunteer hours at the gym or a local charity. It has introduced almost 200,000 people to the sport and continues to cater to the community’s needs during this tumultuous time. For example, it recently implemented a clothing closet, where people could donate items to assist families affected by the pandemic. Businesses like Memphis Rox are a model for effectively increasing diversity in rock climbing.
Unfortunately, these organizations struggle to cultivate the consistent funding and corporate connections to sustain their programs. In talking with my sponsors and different organizations about their plans for DEI initiatives, I found that many of them wanted to facilitate the long-term changes society has been demanding—but they didn’t know how. One thing is clear: one-time donations are not going to cut it. A sustainable model has to be created that will establish long-lasting relationships between corporate businesses, grassroots DEI organizations, and community leaders seeking change in their neighborhoods. Following these conversations, in late July I decided to create a nonprofit called Climbing for Change, which aims to connect underserved communities with organizations eager to provide opportunities and diversify the outdoors.
The recent media coverage of the unjust killings of Black people has brought to light many systemic issues that minorities face within the outdoor industry and in our greater society. While we welcome the countless statements made by companies promising to combat systemic racism, there is still a lot of apprehension from people of color. We have seen statements of solidarity come and go with minimal follow-through. For diversity initiatives in the outdoor industry to be effective, we need sustainable solutions that will provide more access and gain the trust and support of minority communities. This requires the collective efforts of both companies and individuals within the outdoor industry to address the political, social, and socioeconomic factors that make the outdoors inaccessible for many. If we want the landscape of our community to mirror the diversity in our society, we have tremendous work to do to ensure inclusive spaces for us all.