Where do we go from here on the journey toward DEI in the outdoor industry?

Just when the outdoor recreation industry seemed to be making serious progress on the complex issues of racial diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), the best efforts of a leading advocacy organization were stopped dead in their tracks. Despite its good intentions the initiative created by Camber Outdoors called the CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge ironically failed from the moment it was formally introduced by neglecting the very thing it was designed to do: Bring people together.

Described as the “first of its kind,” the Equity Pledge was meant to obligate the commitment of senior executives at more than 60 outdoor industry companies to address the interests of under-represented minorities as part of doing business. But the spirit of the document ignored the work begun by grassroots activists within the same communities the outdoor industry now aims to reach. Not only did Camber fail to ask people of color (POC) for assistance with the creation of its program, it co-opted the previous work of activist Teresa Baker, similarly titled the Outdoor CEO Diversity Pledge.

With virtually no direct engagement of the many outdoor-facing affinity groups, whose members include people across a broad spectrum of racial and cultural identities, Camber made a critical error that resulted in a lot of hurt feelings, professional embarrassment, and—ultimately—the resignation of its executive director Deanne Buck.

The racially charged nature of the topic makes companies nervous to commit to action

Now that a bit of the dust has settled from the swirl of controversy a month ago, it’s possible to take a look around the cultural landscape of the outdoor industry and see where we might go from here.

A lot of angry rhetoric on social media and calls for Buck to step down sent ripples of genuine fear throughout the business community. Intimidated by the emotional sensitivity of this very complex issue, several outdoor industry companies have become skittish to start communicating with both employees and customers on DEI for fear of making a blunder. Many are afraid that they, too, might make an inadvertent mistake and suffer the same fate—public outcry and backlash— as Camber.

One marketing manager of a major outdoor brand, who asked not to be named for this story, expressed profound reservations to even discuss it. “We feel we have not made enough headway or tangible progress to be credible in the conversation,” the manager said.

As Camber Outdoors continues to advocate for equitable workplaces under the direction of interim Executive Director Diana Seung, the Equity Pledge is still in effect. At the same time, Baker’s Diversity Pledge is growing—there are currently 34 signatories (11 have signed in the last month).

Many in the industry want to take direct action and work toward substantive compliance with whichever of the two pledges they have signed. Most, however, aren’t exactly sure how to proceed.

But rather than looking back over the events of the past month to discover what went wrong, those who are dedicated to moving DEI efforts forward hope to create and practice more effective ways to bring the industry together toward a common goal, an outdoor recreation community where everyone is welcome to participate.

“I want unity more than anything. I want to do away with this ‘that-side-verses-this-side’ conversation,” said Baker. “What I want is for us to understand that we all care about these outdoor spaces and as such I think the more people at the table around the conversation on the protection of these outdoor spaces the better.”

The two diversity pledges are different, but similar, and can co-exist

In principle, the two pledges have a great deal in common, but they’re also slightly different. Camber’s Equity Pledge emphasizes the priorities of professional organizations who tend to resist external regulation, Baker’s Diversity Pledge encourages direct engagement with the POC community and suggests a more transparent wholistic approach.

Neither document contradicts the other. Therefore, it’s possible that both could exist in tandem as guiding practices for companies to employ.

“In an ideal world we wouldn’t need any pledge,” said Seung. “However, the reality is that every company is at a different stage in their DEI maturity. I love Teresa’s pledge because it’s all-encompassing and challenges CEOs and organizations to focus on DEI efforts across the workplace, marketing, participation, and more. However, signing up for all of that can be intimidating for some organizations. I celebrate those CEOs who have signed her pledge but recognize it’s not for everyone.

“Our CEO Outdoor Equity Pledge focuses primarily on the workplace, which for many CEOs is a great stepping stone from the gender equity focus we had before. I think both pledges need to exist so that we can get as many people invested in this work to have the conversations around equity in the outdoors.”

A path forward to a more inclusive outdoor industry

As the U.S. population grows through the 21st century, it will soon shift to favor a non-white majority. It is anticipated that by the year 2045 most American citizens and residents will be people of color. If outdoor recreation is going to remain culturally relevant as this change occurs, many believe that the outdoor industry must change with it. “The way we do that is connecting these communities of color to these outdoor spaces,” Baker said. “And I think the outdoor industry can play a huge role in that.”

As the collective voice for many different businesses and institutions, the Outdoor Industry Association is the most likely professional group to actuate efforts to encourage DEI nationwide. Baker believes OIA can lead its member companies toward a professional environment that reflects the diversity of the population as a whole.

“I don’t want to apply pressure to OIA, but they have a lot of freaking power. They need to do something at this point to help us come together,” she said. “Not fix it, because it’s not their job to fix it. But I think it’s their job to find a way to get us all talking.”

Though traditionally focused on economic issues and regulations of the federal government, OIA has a vested interest in expanding the outdoor community to include more people of color, along with other under-represented segments of the population.

To date, OIA has left the job of workplace equity to Camber Outdoors and hopes to inspire its members to honor the principles of the Equity Pledge as well as Baker’s Diversity Pledge.

Gareth Martins, marketing manager at OIA, said all efforts to achieve DEI should be encouraged. “There are no wrong answers on this journey. Any attempt to forge forward and start figuring this out is ultimately good for any brand,” he said. “But we can’t do this from a perspective of fear. I think it would be a good task for OIA to provide messaging and guidance for our member companies on why they should take this journey.”

What exactly does progress in DEI look like?

Organizations that support the interests of the outdoor POC community are eager to help. Danielle Williams is the founder of Melanin Base Camp, a social media network that encourages people of color to enjoy the natural world. Her website DiversifyOutdoors.com is the online home of Baker’s Diversity Pledge. With an eye toward changing the cultural landscape of the outdoor industry Williams has a clear vision of how the path of progress might be different. Throughout the outdoor industry she wants to see broader representation in professional settings.

“Progress looks like paying fat, queer, and POC talent and photographers industry rates. Progress looks like diversifying boards of directors and empowering black, brown and indigenous folks within outdoor organizations,” she said. “Progress is recruiting MBAs from HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) and changing your organizational culture to ensure your company is a place where diverse people and diverse ideas can thrive. Progress looks like refusing to work with ad agencies, PR firms and media production companies that do not reflect the diversity of your customers.”

With this kind of input, Camber is getting a good idea of where its efforts need to improve. Seung said recent conversations around the industry have prompted her organization to recognize its complicity in the same problems it had hoped to correct.

“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,” Seung said. “We are moving forward and dedicated to doing the equity work required to help drive positive change with eyes wide open.”

Working together on DEI is critical: Everyone has a part to play

But with much work still ahead, some suggest that the responsibility of diversifying the outdoor industry cannot fall exclusively upon a single institution. Lise Aangeenbrug is the executive director of the Outdoor Foundation (OF), OIA’s philanthropic wing. Charged with the mission engaging young people and their families to become stewards of the natural environment, she knows, like Camber, her organization can’t do the work of DEI alone.

“The industry needs to see this as a continuum of work that’s all related and fits together,” Aangeenbrug said. “I work on the side of getting kids and families outdoors and creating diversity, but in my mind that doesn't work unless there's also internships, recruiting, and marketing. The foundation cannot solve this problem. None of us can. What the foundation can do is work on a piece of it. But the industry really needs to embrace a much larger view of this.”

One way OF is embracing its piece of the challenge is the Thrive Outside pilot program, launching in at least four cities across the country later this summer. The initiative aims to support local networks of youth development agencies, schools, and outdoor adventure groups such as the YMCA or the Boys & Girls Club and provide repeatable experiences that can reinforce an interest in the outdoors that’s culturally relevant to that community. The Outdoor Foundation has received about $2 million contributed by OIA member companies to make this happen.

“Our plan is to scale up over time to 16 places where we make the investment. I think it's important to note that we’re not doing the work. We're fueling it with funding from the outdoor industry,” Aangeenbrug said. “This isn't going to overnight-change the diversity of who goes outside, but it can bring attention and dollars to the issue. And really get communities to see the benefits of kids and families getting outside.”

Direct engagement opportunities within under-represented communities can serve to raise awareness for the values of outdoor recreation. Over time, with the help of affinity groups like Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Brothers of Climbing, Unlikely Hikers, and others the outdoor industry can inspire a new generation of enthusiasts that reflect the changing face of the American public. By working through partners on the ground who have solid relationships with the communities they aim to reach, companies are also creating a diverse pool of potential job applicants POC job applicants, individuals with authentic experiences that may emerge from these groups.

The changing face of the industry

Major players in the industry like The North Face are preparing to welcome this new demographic of employee candidates into their workforce. Reggie Miller, Senior Director of Global Inclusion and Diversity at the VF Corporation said he looks forward to hiring from a different pool of job applicants in the future.

“We have publicly announced our commitment to achieving gender parity at the director level and above by 2030, and 25 percent representation for people of color in the U.S. by that same year. By reaching these goals, we will inevitably develop a workforce that looks more diverse than we do today,” Miller said. “But again, we aren’t doing this for the optics; we’re doing it because our workforce should reflect the diversity of the global consumer populations we serve.”

Though many companies are inspired to do the work of DEI, it’s never easy to know where to begin. Despite its size and market presence across the nation even a retailer like REI struggles to better represent the interests of its customers and employees.

“Part of the inherent challenge in diversity efforts is that there’s no single ‘right way,’” said Laura Swapp, REI’s director of experiences marketing. "But we can’t get stuck. Eventually you have to pick a path and move, knowing the path will always change.”

Perhaps with a better understanding of how its efforts can more proactively serve under-represented communities in the outdoor industry, Camber, OIA, OF and other organizations can start designing programs and systems that are responsive to the ever changing landscape of our cultural reality.

But any journey begins by taking that first step. For some, signing one of the two CEO Equity/Diversity pledges is a good place start. By formally declaring a commitment to changing their business practices companies, they can steer themselves in the right direction, but moving this intention forward may require some professional help.

Angelou Ezeilo is the founder and CEO of the Greening Youth Foundation, a nonprofit that prepares young people of color for professional careers in federal bureaus of land management as well as private sector outdoor industry companies.

In order to avoid an embarrassing failure that might discourage or inhibit forward progress, she suggests starting slowly with manageable goals. Ezeilo recommends first making small internal changes, such as creating programs for cultural sensitivity training. With a working understanding of offensive behaviors or the potential for unintended micro-aggressions, companies can define an inclusive workplace.

Senior management has to model good professional etiquette as an example of the corporate culture from the top down. And whenever possible, veteran employees should act as mentors to help guide the careers of new hires from different backgrounds, so that they are not only made to feel welcome but given the tools and opportunities they need to be successful in the organization.

But this kind of institutional change will take a lot of time and effort. As a first step on the journey of DEI in the outdoor industry companies both large and small can begin by creating an environment where everyone is happy to come to work.

“You’ve got to start somewhere, so start quietly at first,” Ezeilo said. “Authentically do the work on this thing that you’re creating and make sure before you take it out to the public or to social media that you've got a majority of the major kinks worked out. Then grow it from there.”

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