What Happened at the SHIFT Festival?
A public condemnation of the SHIFT Festival's attempts to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion is indicative of broader issues in the outdoor industry
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Sarah Shimazaki, a 27-year-old communications strategist from Oakland, California, first heard about the Emerging Leaders Program (ELP) on Instagram. The program, which trains a culturally diverse group of young outdoor leaders, is run by the Center for Jackson Hole, a nonprofit commonly known as SHIFT after its conference, the SHIFT Festival. Founded in 2013, SHIFT aims to bolster the coalition of stakeholders working to protect public lands. It names fragmentation and lack of diversity as major threats to the movement’s success. Through the annual SHIFT Festival and the ELP, three days of preparatory activities before the event, the organization aims to advance and revitalize the conservation movement and elevate underrepresented voices to join the conversation.
On SHIFT’s website, Shimazaki saw photos of people of color, read that cultural relevance was one of the organization’s main pillars, and that it was committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the outdoor industry. She thought the ELP would be a great opportunity to be recognized for her work and meet others who understood the importance of including race, gender, and sexual orientation in conversations about the outdoors. She applied and was accepted. (Afterwards, the Center for Jackson Hole also contracted Shimazaki to lead a storytelling workshop during the ELP, for which she was paid.)
Yet when she arrived in Jackson, Wyoming, in October 2018, Shimazaki found an environment that was less than welcoming. She expected her fellow ELP cohort members and SHIFT staff to have a baseline understanding of DEI issues. Instead, she says that people of color, who made up more than half of the cohort, were asked to educate white participants about race. She remembers being asked continually by other participants why race was included in conversations about public lands. “It felt like we had to justify our existence in that space,” she says.
She and other people of color also experienced microaggressions and, in some cases, open hostility. She felt her voice was silenced, except when her stories could be used to benefit the organization, such as speaking on panels in front of conference-goers and donors. For example, during what Shimazaki describes as a trust-building activity during ELP programming, participants were asked to discuss the question “What do you need to feel seen, heard, and validated?” Shimazaki recalls being in a group with another woman of color, two white men, and a white woman. As they discussed the question, she noticed that the men, who were charged with taking notes, didn’t write down her contributions or the contributions of the other women in the group. Yet when it came time to choose a representative to present the group’s findings, they nominated Shimazaki. “Looking back, it was a clear example of what we went through, where it felt like people weren’t hearing us and we were being silenced,” she says. “When it came time to actually put someone in front to represent the group, you point to the people of color to be tokens, the face of your project, campaign, or organization, but that person did not have an equal say in the final product,” she says.
Shimazaki wasn’t alone in her experience. Jasmine Stammes, who works for a national environmental nonprofit, was one of two black women in the 2018 ELP program. In two public letters, she described experiencing her first panic attack when Christian Beckwith, SHIFT’s executive director, who was then in charge of the ELP, mentioned he had no formal DEI training when participants asked him about it during the program. She says the panic attack was the result of days of repeated negative experiences—participants’ offhand comments questioning the inclusion of race in conversations and the event proceedings, unanticipated requests for emotional labor by people of color, an unfair share of leading panels, and the misgendering of individuals.
On November 5, 2018, 17 people—12 of that year’s ELP participants, one 2017 ELP alum, two former SHIFT employees, and two 2017 SHIFT attendees—sent a letter to the organization’s board of directors recounting the unsafe environment and the harm they experienced as a result of their participation in Center for Jackson Hole programs and called for Beckwith’s resignation. This group believes that the organization’s pattern of structural and leadership shortcomings can be traced back to Beckwith. In their letter they wrote: “ELP is in its third year and Mr. Beckwith has failed repeatedly to make the necessary changes to meet the goals of the program, despite generous feedback from both previous and current participants.”
The Center for Jackson Hole’s board confirmed receipt of the letter on November 6 and sent an official response on December 21 that acknowledged the serious nature of the group’s experiences and outlined a series of planned changes, such as requiring DEI training for all staff and board members, including Beckwith, restructuring the program’s leadership and curriculum, and placing Beckwith on a performance-improvement plan. The board also noted that it stood by Beckwith, saying that the ELP exists thanks to Beckwith’s “vision, tenacity and passion,” and adding that it is one of the few programs to bring together leaders from various industries to influence conservation and outdoor-industry conversations. The board said that it had received a number of letters in support of Beckwith. (Full disclosure: Outside contributor Frederick Reimers is a board member.) The letter was the last communication between the board and the group of 17.
“Looking back, it was a clear example of what we went through, where it felt like people weren’t hearing us and we were being silenced,” Shimazaki says.
While Beckwith remains executive director, he no longer oversees the ELP. In February, the board appointed Morgan Green, an Oakland-based pediatrician and 2018 ELP participant, as the new ELP director. Green says the hostility during the ELP and SHIFT Festival went both ways, and that there were many opportunities for participants to speak up and voice frustrations in a constructive manner. In March, he created an advisory council comprised of ELP alumni to incorporate their feedback into future programming. But the group of detractors didn’t feel the response was adequate.
Then, in early April, as the application period for the 2019 ELP closed, the dispute went public. The group of 17 launched a campaign—#WontTakeSHIFTAnymore (WTSA)—and began sharing its stories on Instagram. The group felt a responsibility to inform future participants and ensure they didn’t “inherit the same systems of oppression,” says Bam Mendiola, one of the co-organizers, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. “We know we’re not the first and we won’t be the last to be tokenized in the name of DEI,” they say.
SHIFT addressed the controversy in an April 12 newsletter and published an apology from Beckwith and a letter from its board of directors, sharing the organization’s side of the events. In June, they also published an FAQ page on their site, outlining their perspective on what happened.
The dispute has rippled through the broader outdoor community. In April, the Teton Science Schools, a nonprofit education organization that helps facilitate the ELP, decided not to renew its contract with SHIFT. It concluded that its relationship with the Center for Jackson Hole “does not support an inclusive and productive learning environment for participants.” Three ELP alums who had been appointed to SHIFT’s board of directors in the spring resigned in April. Not long after, the coalition also sent a letter to the Jackson Hole Travel and Tourism Board, a major sponsor of the SHIFT Festival, urging it to stop funding from the conference. In May, the Travel and Tourism Board reiterated its full support of SHIFT.
As the conversation has spread, accusations have flown in both directions. Both sides have accused the other of bullying and “weaponizing” their words.
The Center for Jackson Hole says that, in hindsight, there were things it could have been done better but participants were prepped with pre-SHIFT conference calls and given ample opportunities during the program to voice frustrations and opt out of activities such as panels. The board says there were also “factors out of our control” for why the program went awry. Specifically, it claims that certain participants arrived in Jackson with an agenda to disrupt the program and the SHIFT Festival. Board chair Len Necefer, who’s a member of the Navajo Nation, said he did his best to triage the situation, along with other board and staff members.
Necefer also says that attempts to reach out to some members of the WTSA coalition were rebuffed. He and fellow board members were told they weren’t capable of holding a safe space or moving the conversation forward. Some asked not to be contacted, so the board chose to respect their privacy, except when called out directly on social media. (Mendiola denies this, saying that board members did not follow up with them as promised.)
Some members of the WTSA coalition felt their complaints fell on deaf ears. “We were hoping that as victims of racial violence, we would be believed and protected,” says Mendiola. Some felt the board’s response left no avenue for further communication or any mechanism to hold SHIFT accountable for the promised changes, and that SHIFT was painting the coalition as a group of angry disrupters in its public statements. For example, in a statement published on SHIFT’s blog, the board wrote: “We feel it’s critical to establish an important precedent for others who might contemplate similar work, but who, upon learning of our experiences, are dissuaded from doing so for fear that their actions could be framed, out of the larger context, in a way that is fundamentally wrong.”
For people in the outdoor industry, the dispute has raised concerns. Ashley Reis, an assistant professor of environmental studies at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where she teaches about equity in the outdoors, wrote a letter in support of the WTSA group in April. She sees a fundamental conflict at play. “Beckwith’s foremost concern is the conservation movement,” she says. “If you are concerned with DEI, you have to prioritize the lived experiences of individuals from vulnerable communities. The framework he’s set up isn’t compatible with that.”
At the center of an increasingly complicated debate is the question: Did SHIFT misrepresent its commitment to DEI?
In the description of its core elements in the organization’s brochure, SHIFT states: “DEI is not a tangential issue we address. It’s part of our perspective, and fundamental component of how we approach our work.” Yet in the recent rush to embrace DEI, organizations like SHIFT have stumbled as they navigate this new terrain without a map or framework in place.
“When you ask, ‘Are you doing DEI work?’ they say, ‘Yes, we’re doing it. We don’t think that anyone should be left out. We care about black and brown people. We care about immigrants.’ But they don’t realize how far they have to go to do this work effectively,” says S. Leigh Thompson, a DEI consultant not involved in the SHIFT dispute.
Earlier this year, Camber Outdoors stirred up a similar debate when its equity pledge co-opted the work of Teresa Baker, founder of the African American Nature and Parks Experience, and others who have laid the groundwork for a more inclusive outdoor industry. Camber’s missteps and the current SHIFT standoff intensified long-standing divisions in the outdoor industry and questions about how to approach DEI work. “This SHIFT experience ignited these things. But having worked as a Native American in the outdoor industry, these fault lines have been there for quite a while. It’s not like they just appeared,” says Necefer.
Organizations need to build a culture where critical feedback is welcomed, even craved, rather than seen as a punishment.
Part of the challenge of DEI work stems from the fact that there’s no standardized curriculum or one-size-fits-all approach, nor should there be, Thompson says. Many organizations and leaders embrace diversity first, especially those just getting started. It’s a visible and tangible concept. They may recruit people of color to join their board of directors, speak on panels, or join the staff to change the physical makeup of who’s represented.
But gathering a diverse group of people in a room isn’t enough. Leaders need to change the organizational culture to support marginalized voices and curb underlying injustices that may continue to occur. “If you still have a place that’s really upholding white, cis, heteronormative culture, and then you have a bunch of people now immersed in that toxicity but don’t have the power yet to institutionally change the environment,” it can cause harm, Thompson says. “I think that might be what we’re seeing at SHIFT.”
Thompson says there’s no universal approach to DEI, but there are key foundational frameworks, and it’s essential to focus on the equity part of the equation. It focuses on “trying to undo the effects of oppression, bias, bigotry, and discrimination on marginalized people,” he says. “It’s the practice and result of fairness.” However, he notes that most organizations aren’t yet ready to center on equity.
Organizations need to examine how they present themselves and the impact of their actions, regardless of the intent, says Thompson. If organizations continually lean on people of color to teach and share their stories, they may be exploiting those individuals’ trauma for educational purposes. If people of color and those from other marginalized identities enter an environment they believe is safe, there’s a potential for significant damage when the organization doesn’t protect them. “The harm can be greater if you’re not prepared for it,” says Thompson.
Necefer says SHIFT is a conservation organization. “DEI has been an important piece of all the work we do, but it’s not our expertise,” he says. Still, he acknowledges that SHIFT needs to discuss how it approaches DEI. SHIFT hired a DEI consultant for a one-day training session for all staff and board members in April. Beckwith began ongoing formal DEI training in December.
SHIFT is moving forward with preparations for the 2019 ELP program and conference, which will take place in October. Green plans to conduct more formal conversations with applicants so both parties can determine if the program is a good fit. He’s standardizing interview questions, sticking with questions about work, and steering clear of anything that’s too personal (like a family member’s battle with a terminal illness) or could be perceived as extractive (like a person’s specific experience based on their race or gender identity). He’s revamping the ELP curriculum and building in structured tools and opportunities to allow people to opt in or out of conversations.
Yet, with the dispute stalled, it’s not clear what’s next for the WTSA coalition.
Shimazaki says she’d like to see SHIFT take a year off from the ELP and investigate all the factors that caused harm to her cohort. She’d like to see SHIFT engage an outside mediator to broker communications. Necefer hopes “the individuals that feel harmed by the situation are able to have dialogue.” He also sees a broader discussion on how people and organizations in the industry engage in and resolve conflict.
Thompson thinks this is a learning opportunity, albeit one at the expense of marginalized people. “How do we call people in versus call people out is one of the big questions,” he says. And when harm is done, organizations must consider restorative justice, practices that resolve conflict in a cooperative and constructive way, where those harmed feel justice has been served and offenders take responsibility for their actions.
He says that organizations need to build a culture where critical feedback is welcomed, even craved, rather than seen as a punishment, and where people actively seek mentorship and equity coaching—before conflicts arise.