Beyond Preaching to the Choir: Accountability for White Leaders in the Outdoor Industry

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Written by: Emily Teitsworth

In early 2019, Camber Outdoors, a network dedicated to advancing gender inclusion in the outdoor industry, announced an exciting new initiative. They launched the CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge at the Outdoor Retailer Snow Show (irony alert), promoting the Pledge as the “first-of-its-kind” to a mostly white audience, and featuring mostly white outdoor industry leaders. The Pledge’s stated intention was to improve Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts within outdoor companies and to more directly engage people of color. 

The trouble was, there already was an Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, launched in 2018 by Teresa Baker, founder of the African American Nature & Parks Experience. Baker’s innovative work pushed CEOs in the industry to commit to taking measurable steps to improve equity and inclusion practices in their companies and organizations. This pledge centered people of color and was led by a woman of color, and it had launched at least a year earlier. Camber Outdoors could have signed on to and promoted the original Pledge. Instead they decided to launch their own effort, branding their own work as trailblazing and erasing the contributions of a pioneering industry leader.

Just this week, SHIFT JH, another white-led national voice in the outdoor DEI conversation, made news for all the wrong reasons. After tokenizing, marginalizing, and traumatizing experiences at SHIFT JH’s 2018 festival, 17 former participants and staff wrote to the Board of Directors last fall to insist that the organization’s executive director, a white man who was involved in many of the participants’ negative experiences, step down. Only now has SHIFT JH responded publicly, sharing an apology from their executive director, and half-heartedly noting that he “continues to undertake trainings” about DEI.

Time will tell if community pressure will lead to the resignation of the SHIFT JH executive director, as it eventually did for Camber Outdoors (it should). The hashtag #wonttakeshiftanymore is already spreading, and calls for him to step down continue to intensify. Both incidents encapsulate the missteps of an industry wrestling clumsily with its exclusion of people of color and other marginalized voices. As these recent events demonstrate, the mostly-white leadership of the outdoor industry is largely unequipped and unwilling to address access and inclusion without traumatizing our supposed beneficiaries in the process.

So why do white leaders in the outdoor industry refuse to face the consequences of our harmful actions? Why do we always get a second, and even a tenth, chance at redemption? Why do we agree to apologize but refuse to resign? The truth is, it’s easy to support equity and inclusion efforts as long as they don’t require you to make personal sacrifices. When you’ve spent your life “opting in” to the hard work of social justice, it’s hard to imagine that most people don’t have the privilege of “opting out.”

Lionizing the heroic efforts of white saviors working to uplift the “less fortunate” among us has long been the standard way of telling stories about marginalized people while still centering white culture. But the outdoor industry should have moved past this myopic perspective years ago. And yet even when we’re doing the right thing, giving up control and sharing resources, we’re still using our access to promote ourselves and shield “our people” and ourselves from real consequences.

If you’re a white person in a position of leadership in our field, there are many resources out there to help you become a better leader, ally, and accomplice in ending white supremacy in the outdoor industry. You can even use the GirlVentures website as a place to start. We don’t have all the answers, but we invite you to join us on this path.

As a white Executive Director in this field, it’s my responsibility to build an organizational culture that centers equity and inclusion, and to make space for others to lead. On May 17th, I’ll host a participatory session on the role of white leadership in advancing DEI at the annual Children & Nature Network Conference in Oakland. As a signatory of Teresa Baker’s Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge, I’m committed to doing my part to foster what she calls relationships of “support, empathy and understanding” within our field. And if I can’t fulfill that pledge, I’ll step down. No online petition or national campaign required.