Expanding the Discussion on Diversity in the Outdoors

Expanding the Discussion on Diversity in the Outdoors


Two articles came up on the radar this week on how communities of color engage with the outdoors. The first one, by the New York Times, titled “National Parks Try to Appeal to Minorities”, highlights a recent effort by the American Latino Heritage Fund to increase awareness and engagement by Latinos with the National Parks. This article echoes a series of other articles that have pointed out the challenges the National Parks System is facing with diversity in its recruitment and outreach.

Another article by The New Republic, titled “White People Love Hiking-Minorities Don’t-Here’s Why” was a bit of a humorous retort to the New York Times article—making a reference to the website Stuff White People Like. However, there are several statements that tend to reinforce some general assumptions and it does not point out more needed nuance and bridging opportunities in how communities of color engage with the outdoors. A take-away message is that the outdoors, or specifically hiking and camping, is a “white people thing” and that communities of color are not attracted to engaging with the outdoors in the same way with such fervor. While there is some validity in the assumptions, and valid barriers like economic costs are pointed out, there is an opportunity to expand on the discussion so as to not merely limit it to say it is primarily a de-facto cultural factor.

Taking both of these articles into account, but primarily the New Republic article, it is important to note three things—the issue of privilege, how we define outdoor engagement, and the efforts by advocates—to tease out more nuances and point out the work to do in order to move beyond reinforcing such generalities and to work towards a more inclusive engagement with the Outdoors.

To do more prefacing, it is also important to point out that in having these discussions, there are areas where there will be controversy and “issues” all around depending on the point of view and specific experiences different individuals and communities have had with each other. It should be healthy to “Engage the Tension”, to be comfortable with discomfort when we have these conversations with the interest of working toward a common good, a goal based on commonalities. If the intent is to simply separate and foster difference in a negative way, then that is a different issue. I say this fully aware and willing to explain why I am promoting the Latino Outdoors effort if some consider that an act of “exclusion”. Quite the opposite, it is meant as a starting connecting point of inclusion—on a path of inclusion for all.

There are genuine explanations why some individuals and communities do not like hiking, but that can be true of people of all backgrounds—and how such an activity is not representative of all engagement with the outdoors. When it comes to communities of color, it is fair to point out the statistics, the need, and the challenges. But just as fair is to point out the outreach efforts to increase diversity and the reasons why it matters.

The New Republic article used the statistics from the 2013 Outdoor Participation Report by the Outdoor Foundation—specifically that 70% of outdoor participants were Caucasian, higher but close to the 2010 US Census representation for “White”, which is around 63%, not including Latinos (who are classified as White). In the Census, African Americans are around 13% and Latinos/Hispanics are around 16%. The report does show the discrepancies compared to the US Census figures, as only 7% of Latinos engaged with the outdoors, compared to 11% of African Americans. But that is different from participation rate, for which it is lowest for African Americans while Latinos are on par with Whites. To partially counter the point that “minorities are not interested in the outdoors”, the report makes it clear that “not interested” is the number one reason for all demographics when it comes as an identifiable barrier to engaging the outdoors. Another point is that while hiking is an activity rated lower by Latinos and other groups, the report points out how “jogging and trail running” is the highest rated activity, along with exercise in general, as a reason to be outdoors—true for other demographic groups as well.

What some of these figures tell us point back to the points I wanted to make:

  • The role of privilege on norms and behaviors
  • Defining engagement with the outdoors
  • Highlighting efforts being done by advocates of increased diversity

On the first point, it is fair to stress that while it may not always be a question of race, sometimes one has to look at inequities not as racist practices but as systems of privilege.

One has to realize the effects that privilege, both white and institutional, can have on behaviors that make it seem like they are just innate cultural norms. One such example is that there is a history of public lands being formed as a practice of exclusion. First as they were acts of violence and public policy against Native Americans and then in similar fashion with the Hispano and Mexican communities in the Southwest after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Several public lands in the Southwest came from land grants that were essentially taken away from Hispano communities—referenced in the Chicano Land Grant Movement in the 1960’s.

That is not to hyper-analyze and layer too many historical references when trying to enjoy the beautiful vistas of Olympic National Park—but it should be important to point out how practices of exclusion against communities of color throughout history shape cultural norms that affirm that places largely visited by more affluent white communities are not areas that are intuitively welcoming to communities of color. There can be hints of that when visiting a National Park and sensing how welcoming the experience is depending on what are the norms —i.e. the clothing that may be “expected”, the activities and histories that are highlighted, the staff that is there. Sometimes there is no interest in the outdoors because of personal preference, but other times it is part of a historical and developing frame of not visualizing oneself, or one’s community in that setting. There are similar issues going on in the areas of STEM education, for example. For comparison’s sake, could we state that African Americans, Latinos, and women just are not interested in the sciences? Why, and what answers would develop?

It can be the case that some are “tired” of hearing of privilege or uncomfortable with having to deal with “issues of guilt”. There can be a fatigue in dealing with this and wanting to simply “move on”. That is fair. But that does not change outcomes, systems, or behaviors. I would also argue that the idea is not to keep someone in a state of guilt or hyper-vigilance about privilege—or in a more crude way, wary of “always having to be politically correct”. I think that is the wrong framing.

The question is really about intent of heart and mind—and how we engage with and process our actions and consequences. We all make mistakes and should strive to learn forward, while supporting each other in that process while we hold each other accountable. They are not exclusionary of each other. So as we recognize systems of privilege, we can ask ourselves how we are working together to address them as needed.

On the second point, it is a matter of how we define being in the outdoors and the different ways that it can be experienced—as well as how people can “grow into” liking the Outdoors.

I often refer to a spectrum of outdoor engagement, from being outside to backpacking in the wilderness. As I pointed out more in detail in this post, it is useful to tease out the differences when we talk about outside, outdoors, and the Outdoors.

Outside” simply means being outside, but which presents a range options. Communities of color ARE outside: in the city parks, working in agriculture, at the beach, etc. This is often with family as a focus and some recreational aspect.

Being in the “outdoors” can be an intermediary step for some communities or a brand new experience for others. This can involve really travelling to a new park or encountering a new set of experiences with new skills needed beyond the municipal park (i.e. first time to Yosemite, overnight camping, and day hike).

Outdoors” with a capital O, can be a different frame of mind and experiences that many of us in outdoor conservation take as a given set of values, and that can overlook what bridging opportunities and skills are needed to get communities to this stage—apart from the “if they just had the information and the equipment”. For example, visiting Yosemite is going to the outdoors. But hiking up Half Dome or backpacking one of the remote trails for a couple of days is being in the Outdoors. This may be out of reach for some communities because of time, experience, skills, or a welcoming environment.

On the third and final point, it is what was largely missing from the New Republic article—the examples of the communities and efforts that highlight the variety of ways that “minorities” engage with the outdoors.  There simply should have been more, rather than leaving too much of an impression that it is a blank zone out there. There are many stories to tell, and many individuals that can share them.

Here we can point out the work of OutdoorAfro and my own efforts with Latino Outdoors, which strive to highlight the many other individual and organizational efforts and programs working to diversify engagement with the Outdoors—including the work of the American Latino Heritage Fund highlighted in the New York Times article.  For future articles by other writers and publications, we welcome the opportunity to talk more about this, and continue to expand the discussion of the challenges and opportunities of increasing diversity in the outdoors, from enjoying a nature walk, a carne asada at the park, or a hike in the Outdoors.

Yes, we can point to cultural norms why many people of color do not engage with the outdoors. But it can be ever changing, with a growing opportunity to engage, filled with a variety of stories, and much more diversity than a simple lack of interest—with the call to move beyond the barriers into acting to address them.

One response to “Expanding the Discussion on Diversity in the Outdoors

  1. This is an informative and helpful article. Jose’s thorough research and honest and considerate delivery really illuminated this subject. I will be very interested to read any of his upcoming articles. I especially appreciated his point on what being inclusive means to him: “I say this fully aware and willing to explain why I am promoting the Latino Outdoors effort if some consider that an act of “exclusion”. Quite the opposite, it is meant as a starting connecting point of inclusion—on a path of inclusion for all.”
    Well done.

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