What We Can Learn from the Camber Outdoors Fiasco
The organization’s equity pledge ignored the work of Teresa Baker and many others striving to make the outdoor industry more inclusive. So we asked a dozen of them how to move forward.
When confronted with problems, Teresa Baker seeks solutions.
The founder of the African American Nature and Parks Experience recognized a need for increased work around issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the outdoor industry, so she sprang to action. Inspired by similar efforts in other industries, Baker began working on a pledge in early 2018 that would create a framework of accountability for CEOs, who would receive mentoring and develop an action plan for more equitable hiring practices, workplace training, and marketing strategies.
In spring 2018, Baker approached Deanne Buck, then the executive director of Camber Outdoors, to suggest partnering on a pledge or updating Camber’s existing CEO Pledge to explicitly include people of color. The existing one focused solely on women and had already faced pushback for not approaching the work with an intersectional lens. Baker says that Buck told her Camber’s membership was “not ready to take on racial diversity.” (Buck, who stepped down from her Camber post last month, did not respond to interview requests.)
Undeterred, Baker and Chris Perkins, formerly of the outdoor leadership festival SHIFT, launched the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, hosted by Diversify Outdoors, at Outdoor Retailer in July 2018. It was a surprise, then, when Buck took the stage during January’s OR show to announce Camber’s new CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge, a revision of its original initiative that she said was the “first of its kind” to address broad issues of DEI in the outdoor industry.
When Jaylyn Gough, founder of Native Womens Wilderness, heard about the announcement while at the show, she was shocked. Gough, who is Navajo, serves on the steering committee for Baker’s pledge. “It was like, OK, we now know where we stand in the industry,” she says. “It felt like all of our hard work was just completely plowed over.”
While Buck apologized for using the “first of its kind” language, other criticism emerged. Some industry stakeholders felt that an organization with a mostly white staff shouldn’t claim to lead DEI efforts in the industry and saw Camber’s pledge as co-opting Baker’s work.
Others felt its content was disingenuous. The wording of Camber’s new pledge isn’t terribly different from the original; DEI is discussed in broad strokes, and there are still no explicit references to race, ethnicity, or other identifiers that can lead to marginalization in the workplace. This was a red flag for Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin and Ava Holliday, founding partners of the Avarna Group consulting firm. When they offer guidance to organizations on what they call JEDI work (they include justice as a component of DEI), they are very intentional about using specific language to define issues and name the actions organizations will take. Rajagopal-Durbin doesn’t see evidence of that here. “It felt like nothing had changed, and it was just literally repackaged as an equity pledge.”
The backlash gained momentum as conversation spread across social media. Some of the most vocal critics, including Melanin Base Camp and Diversify Outdoors founder Danielle Williams, were accused of bullying when they called for Buck to step down. “That is not surprising in an industry that isn’t accustomed to accountability, that recoils at the suggestion,” says Williams. “They are deeply perturbed by the concept of marginalized people, mostly women of color doing unpaid work, having a voice that is disproportionate to our level of funding. Who are we to tell powerful white people how they should run their majority white nonprofit?”
Buck resigned in mid-February. In a press release, she indicated that this had been planned the previous summer, when Camber expanded its equity mission beyond gender (the organization was founded in 1996 as the Outdoor Industries Women’s Coalition, or OIWC), but that it was fast-tracked amid the controversy. Board member Diana Seung, former executive vice president of merchandising at Backcountry.com, was announced as Buck’s interim replacement.
Seung is receptive to concerns about the organization’s path moving forward. “We failed to recognize our contribution to—and part in—the reinforcement of inequitable systems. We were complicit in exclusion,” she says. “We needed to hear the criticism and feedback around how our approach ignored the voices, experiences, and contributions of people of color and communities who have not had a seat at the table.”
“Sometimes mistakes are leapfrog moments as much as they are recognitions of failure,” says Sue Rechner, president of Merrell, who has pushed issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront during her nearly two-year tenure at the company. “I think the industry needs to use this moment, and the energy surrounding this moment, to unify and solve the problem.”
In that spirit, we interviewed a dozen industry stakeholders to find out what they’d like to see moving forward. Here’s what they had to say.
Every organization should examine its internal culture to identify blind spots and room for growth. This includes hiring consultants to provide training on topics like unconscious bias and guidance on achieving DEI work across its operations, including within its supply chain and during product development.
Organizations should also examine their motives for pursuing DEI efforts. Marinel M. de Jesus runs Peak Explorations, a guiding company that advocates for a more responsible and inclusive trekking industry. She created a survey about workplace discrimination in the outdoor industry. She also serves in Camber’s Workplace Equity Working Group, a think tank that’s developing a voluntary set of DEI guidelines for the industry, and she’s on the steering committee for Baker’s pledge.
As part of her responsibilities for the latter, de Jesus offers guidance and mentorship to pledge signatories. This includes presenting a list of 15 questions that ask, among other things, why diversity, equity, and inclusion matter to the organization, why they haven’t yet taken action, and how doing this work might impact their organization. Her goal is to help them learn to approach the work of DEI more intentionally. “I think we need to go back to the basics and start with ourselves,” she says. “If you actually know your personal connection to it, then it makes it more important for you to do the work.”
In addition, Rechner says that companies need to “create paths and save places for diverse groups of people,” not only to promote jobs but to offer leadership advancements.
Christian Weaver, founder of Eastwoods Brand, a gear and apparel company that spotlights indigenous design, believes this requires a proactive approach. “I work in Native communities 90 percent of the time, and a lot of the jobs that are [generally available to] these communities aren’t jobs that you would see in the outdoor space,” says Weaver, who is an enrolled member of the Shinnecock Nation. “We have to go to people, share opportunities, and be willing to invest in communities.”
Look Beyond the Bottom Line
When writer and educator Amanda Jameson joined Camber as its program manager for DEI, she was excited at the prospect of collaborating with others already doing similar work across the industry. Instead, Jameson found that DEI was viewed as a business strategy, and her suggestions for pursuing it more deeply went unheeded.
Jameson, who resigned in response to Camber’s handling of its pledge, considers this a missed opportunity. “I think the organization needs to reevaluate its priorities because they do sit at the intersection of social justice and business,” she says. “And in some ways, I don’t know that the mission can be accomplished within a purely business framework.”
Rajagopal-Durbin says that every company should recognize the importance of DEI work beyond its impact on the bottom line. “The work of equity is not just about diversifying, it’s thinking about power dynamics, thinking about values, talking about barriers, and dismantling them,” she says. “Unless the industry is able to shift from that sort of myopic transactional business case to a more values-driven business case, I think they’re going to keep hitting walls in terms of actually making change.”
Proceed with Humility
Like Jameson, Elizabeth Train was excited to join Camber in expanding its equity efforts. She discovered the organization during a networking event in 2005 while it was still OIWC. She was new to the bike industry at the time, and was so inspired by the experience of meeting other women, especially those in leadership roles within the outdoor industry, that she began volunteering for the organization. Train later worked as a brand strategist, and OIWC hired her agency to help it rebrand as Camber in 2015. When a marketing position opened up within the organization, she jumped at the opportunity.
Train arrived at her new job armed with ideas—but like Jameson, she felt they went unheard. She says that Camber positioned itself as a leader in DEI, instead of operating with what she terms a “curiosity” about the work. “Just because you’ve been in the industry for a long time doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing it right,” Train says. “The companies that are constantly questioning how they’re doing things, and keeping themselves accountable and honest, are the ones that are making the biggest change.”
Holliday suggests that doing the latter simply requires reframing. “Camber has an opportunity to shift from seeing itself as the organization that is leading all of these efforts to the organization that is convening all of these efforts,” she says. “They have a lot of connections, financial support, and name recognition, so they can use that cultural capital to convene a whole bunch of people who are really deep in doing the work.”
Amplify Work That’s Already Being Done
“I think people are really bad at listening,” says Vasu Sojitra, an adaptive athlete and program director for Eagle Mount Bozeman, a nonprofit that provides outdoor recreation for people with disabilities and cancer. He also serves on the steering committee for Baker’s pledge and cofounded Earthtone Outside, an organization that promotes equity in Montana’s outdoors.
Sojitra suggests that companies listen to and learn from marginalized communities. “Especially black, indigenous, women of color, and nonbinary folks of color—they’re the ones really affected by silencing,” he says. “I definitely don’t know everything about race, racism, and ableism, but there are educated folks out there that do know a lot, and I try to reach out as much as possible to learn about those resources.”
Beyond just listening, companies should also actively support the work already happening in these communities. “Reach out to grassroots-diversity, equity, and inclusion organizations,” says Williams of Diversify Outdoors. “Instead of asking them how to make your own organization more diverse, try asking what you can do to amplify their work.”
Elyse Rylander, partner at the Avarna Group and founder of Out There Adventures and the LGBTQ Outdoor Summit, says that her most effective partnerships have happened when others seek to support her efforts instead of using the connection to draw attention to themselves. “That authenticity piece is something that needs to be figured out with every new relationship, just like it is when we have new friends or partners,” she says. “There’s no one size fits all—but it needs to be a key component of the work.”
Rylander, Williams, and others also emphasize that it’s important to pay people for their time and expertise, especially given the work’s personal toll. “What a lot of people don’t understand is this is extreme emotional labor for us,” says Gough. “We don’t get a break. We don’t get to turn it off.”
Get Comfortable with Discomfort
De Jesus is unsure whether she’ll remain in Camber’s Workplace Equity Working Group, because she feels that the group continues to avoid crucial topics. “If we want to talk about discrimination and race, we need to actually specify those words, even though they’re uncomfortable,” she says. “The majority of the people in that group were very uncomfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Seung recognizes that Camber will need to embrace this discomfort. “We believe we can help make positive change, but we definitely have blind spots. This work is challenging, and we recognize that we need help and are committed to earning trust by proceeding respectfully, learning from our mistakes, and taking action to improve,” she says. “Simply abandoning the effort would not advance the cause.”
For now, Camber will continue with its existing initiatives, including the Workplace Equity Working Group and the CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge, which it’s not planning to revise further. It will also retain a DEI consultant and seek more input from impacted communities on how best to proceed with the work of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
There will be other missteps on the road to creating a more diverse, equitable, and inclusive outdoor industry, but this shouldn’t hinder future efforts. “Progress can be imperfect,” says Merrell’s Rechner. “The good news is the conversation is happening. I really encourage everybody to lean in.”
As for Baker, she’s been in conversation with Camber’s board of directors since January’s announcement and hopes that it can come to an agreement on combining the two pledges. She’d also like to see the Outdoor Industry Association support a gathering of CEOs, perhaps during a future OR show, to discuss a collective path forward in regards to DEI work in the industry.
Whether or not those things happen, Baker will keep looking for solutions. “I don’t have all the answers. I’m still searching myself as to how we do this. But I think we do it by genuinely coming to the table with ideas,” she says. “I’m just ready to move forward with the work, because after all of this, the work remains.”