The outdoor industry (still) has a diversity problem

A 2016 survey report by the Outdoor Foundation found that of the 142 million Americans who participated in outdoor activities, a whopping 74 percent were Caucasian.
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Whether you’re checking out an advertisement for an outdoor retailer or you're out on a trail yourself, chances are the people you encounter reflect that statistic: white, fit, and seemingly "outdoorsy" by nature. Rarely are black, brown or even queer people seen, and some people in the outdoors industry think it’s time we change that.

The first step: Pinpoint the barriers to access.

When minority survey respondents were asked to list reasons why they felt excluded, everything from the high cost of outdoor gear and recreation to a lack of transportation and a "fear of being hurt by others,” were cited.

Personal safety is a barrier to outdoor access for those in the LGBT community, especially.

"Even in 2017, spaces are often not safe for queer folks," says Elyse Rylander, founder and executive director of OUT There Adventures, a non-profit adventure education organization that engages queer youth. Outreach is especially difficult, Rylander says, since so few queer folks are even represented in outdoor media.

It’s also a barrier for other minority groups. "About nine years ago, I started to do more outdoor things like running and biking," explains Alicia Hurle in a recent RootsRated Media podcast. She's a trip leader for Outdoor Afro, a nationwide nonprofit network dedicated to connecting communities of color with outdoor recreation opportunities.

“As a person of color, one consideration is always, ‘Is this a safe place to go?’”

Assuring these communities that public lands are safe for them to enjoy begins with making them feel welcome to explore them. That’s exactly what groups such as Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors, which organizes outdoor excursions for the Latino community, are committed to doing. Partnering with one of these organizations is one way that marketers can open the door to conversation and a better understanding of these markets in general.

The changing face of America.

The dramatic shifts in our nation’s demographics are key to point out here. By 2042 whites will no longer comprise the majority of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and research shows millennials are generally more tolerant and accepting than their parents about issues that involve minority groups, indicating a shift in the general social conscious, too. Even interracial marriages are at record levels. In short, our once majority white nation is morphing into a mosaic of colors.

In addition to demographics, it’s important to remember that in reality, "people of color have deep ancestral and cultural connections to the outdoors," says Kim Barrett, program coordinator of cityWILD, a Denver nonprofit that engages at-risk youth with outdoor experiential learning opportunities. In order to make our industry more inclusive, it’s crucial to honor those dynamic connections. “Our outdoors history includes both painful and beautiful memories, but we are resilient beyond belief.”

Minorities have a different relationship with the great outdoors.

Many minority groups are motivated by the notion of experiencing the outdoors with family and friends. Their culture is social and family-focused by nature (see how we did that there?), and that extends to the outdoors. "I grew up going to Saturday picnics at a Florida state park where my Cuban family would join a slew of others under a giant pavilion," says Ana Connery, RootsRated B2B Editor and co-host of the RootsRated Media podcast. “We grilled and ate potluck style, and pretty much spent the whole day exploring the park. The parents were there to socialize under the shade of the giant banyan trees, while us kids rode bikes, explored trails and played games in the woods.”

The Outdoor Foundation survey found that African Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders, specifically, were motivated by the idea of enjoying nature with friends and family (58 and 57 percent, respectively, compared to Caucasians’ 40 percent).

If you’re a marketer, understanding this social relationship that diverse communities have with the outdoors is key. These markets aren’t necessarily drawn to the solitude that nature can provide nor are they seeking bucket-list thrills scaling mountains (the most popular outdoor activities for the groups cited above were trail running/hiking, BMX, road and mountain biking). But show a group of friends or families bonding while biking alongside incredible views and you just might get their attention.

Invite diverse groups to join your team.

If you want to make your marketing accessible to a more diverse audience, one of the most important steps is to get people of color and diverse backgrounds involved in the process of marketing to people of color and diverse backgrounds. Marketing campaigns begin long before ads and promos make it into the world, and it’s important to welcome people from diverse backgrounds into the room to pitch ideas and plan marketing strategies from the beginning. For a better, more comprehensive and inclusive point of view, craft a strategy with their involvement from the get-go.

Just don’t make it a one-off.

"Everyone has to start somewhere," says Ambreen Tariq, founder of Brown people Camping, adding that it feels disingenuous when a brand clearly hasn’t thought through its diversity strategy. As a top social media influencer of color in the industry, she receives many partnership requests and opportunities from outdoor brands, but they all seem to have the same message: “We love what you’re doing, can we send you some gear and have you wear it and post about it?”

While that may score a brand a nice review or social media post, it’s likely going to be a one-time deal.

Marketers need to think beyond next week or even next quarter and consider the big picture.

What are your company’s long-term goals? How are you evolving your brand to serve the diversifying outdoor audience? What kind of company do you want to be 5, 10, 20 years from now? Are you willing to lead this charge, or at least support it? Are you creating compelling content that will speak to diverse audiences?

When approached by brands, Tariq says her first response is usually, "Do you have long-term goals? It can’t be a one-off initiative; I want [the diversity conversation] to become normative," she says, pointing to REI’s recent Force of Nature initiative as an example of a successful campaign that not only reached out to women, but also included women of all ages and backgrounds, in an effort to lure them into signing up for the company’s various classes.

Says Rylander, "Sometimes to empower a group, we simply need to be more affirming and better allies."

Finally, read the comments.

It’s important to engage with those who voice their questions and concerns — especially when addressing complex and nuanced issues like the lack of a minority presence in the outdoor industry.

Embracing diversity isn’t a ballot initiative that needs a certain number of votes to pass, says Tariq. "I want people to start believing that diversity is important in the outdoors, so it’s really important to read and hear any complaints or opposition."

This effort requires connecting and empowering people of color, even when you don’t like what they have to say, as well as connecting with allies who share the mission of increasing access for all to public lands.

Because at the end of the day, isn’t that everyone’s mission?

Originally written by RootsRated Media.



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