Road Diaries: A Message to the Outdoor Industry

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the movements happening around us and how the outdoor industry has responded. For some context, over the last five years, I’ve participated in the industry as an employee, outdoor adventurer, and affinity group organizer. Playing these roles has given me a lot of perspective and truthfully, I’ve begun to feel like we haven’t progressed much as an industry.

Being on the leadership team of an organization founded to create more opportunities for Black, Indigenous and Women of Color in the outdoors has both been a joy and has opened my eyes to just how behind we are as an industry, and how behind we’ll remain if we continue to sidestep the current asks. 

The call for diversity in the outdoors began with a need for visibility–requests to marketing teams to recognize that there is so much more than the image of the solo white male standing on a cliff to advertise product. And because companies have a desire to reach more audiences to sell more products, we’ve begun to see a shift in that image – a huge win, for sure. But today’s movements are about much more than visibilizing diversity. The movements are asking for shifts in power; for more diverse voices on boards and executive leadership teams; for changes in corporate cultures that are accepting of those new voices, instead of expecting complete assimilation. And for those currently in power to actively remove the barriers that have prevented those spaces from being diverse in the past.

My question and the question of many others is: are we seeing shifts in power structures and more inclusive corporate cultures? Because so often, it doesn’t look like it. 

If we want to truly see a more diverse and inclusive industry, we really need to start shifting existing power structures.

Instead, I constantly receive requests for my image and the images of my friends; I’m asked to be a brand ambassador, paid in gear, instead of utilizing the management and analysis skills I’ve learned over my 15-year career; we’re expected to talk about our struggle in a palatable way, one that’s on-brand and ensures consumer support; and when we are hired, it’s often because we’d be a great fit for this new, often unstructured and unsupported, DEI role within the organization.

Outdoor industry folks: wake up! Reflecting on this topic has me thinking of a few recent examples of instances that made me realize we’re not where we should be as an industry:

  • I sat in a room with a group of organizational leaders discussing what their next DEI strategic focus should be since they’d solved the “women in leadership” problem. When I asked how many of them had Black or Indigenous women on their executive teams, no one spoke up. PSA: There is still a “women in leadership” problem if your approach was not intersectional.
  • I had a conversation with a white colleague in a role lateral to mine and we got on the topic of the offers we’d received from our organization. In this conversation, I realized that the salary I’d had to negotiate for was $10,000 less than the offer my colleague had received up front. We have similar years of experience, in the same level role.
  • I attended a meeting to discuss a potential partnership with an outdoor organization. When I arrived, the executive director walked over to greet me. But instead of a normal American handshake, they were expecting me to perform this cool, ethnic handshake that neither one of us knew. So instead, we engaged in an awkward dance–me attempting to do a normal handshake and them, attempting to initiate more. Afterward, my colleagues expressed their confusion about the interaction. They’d received normal handshakes when entering the room. As the one Black person that attended the meeting, I can only assume the executive was operating from some stereotype about Black people and handshakes.
  • I had a phone conversation with an organizational executive that wanted members of my community to engage in an unpaid brand ambassador role. The exec proudly mentioned that 50% of the organization’s leadership team now consists of women. When asked about Black, Indigenous, and other people of color within the organization, I was told there are none in leadership or at corporate—the few on staff all work in the warehouse.

If we want to truly see a more diverse and inclusive industry, we really need to start shifting existing power structures. Whether that looks like establishing additional supports for up and coming innovators, changing the old way we’ve always recruited organizational leadership, or widening our view of the “talent pool” – I don’t know that there is one specific answer for all organizations. What I do know is, now that we know better, it’s time to do better.

There are many, many, many resources, written in so many formats, to help individuals and organizations begin to analyze how to do this better. But I’ve also included a few tips below:

  • Look outside of your network for talent – stop engaging in the “who do we know that would be great in this leadership role?” conversations and do the work of posting positions in areas known to attract a diverse pool of candidates.
  • Review job descriptions and remove exclusive language like “rockstar”, “guru” or gendered pronouns; evaluate and reduce the number of required skills; make sure candidates know that you’re committed to building a diverse workplace.
  • Hire leaders (preferably multiple leaders) that may not look like you or others within your organization – if supported, those people may offer different perspectives that could improve your organization.
  • Consider looking outside of the “passion pool” for applicants – a person with desirable skills who is later introduced to the company’s passion can grow to love it.
  • Pay your employees a living wage based on the work they will do, not based on your subjective idea of their worth – the latter method is guaranteed to create pay inequities within your organization.
  • Outside of COVID, consider making remote opportunities a permanent part of your hiring process and stick to it (e.g., prepare for what this means from a budget perspective).
  • Look both within and beyond the “outdoors” for corporate causes to embrace – consider using your influence as a tax-paying brand / organization to advocate for change in your location around policing practices, indigenous land rights, resources in lower income neighborhoods, etc.
  • Allow and encourage your employees to become active in issues they’re passionate about.
  • Support less traditional holidays by giving staff the day off, and don’t force employees to choose between them (e.g. MLK, Jr Day, Indigenous People’s Day).
  • If you establish DEI or other committees within your organization, tied to company goals, pay the employees that are selected for those committees. Important company initiatives should never be left to volunteers, and people should be paid for their time, energy and expertise.

All of this to say, I still think we can create change. I hope you do, too.

Sasha McGhee writes about her perspective on outdoor culture and more from her home on the road with her husband and their faithful feline friend. Follow their adventures at @threevancats. Photos by Ben Pingilley @ben.pingilley.

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