Calling All Outsiders
By: Jaime Chong
On October 22nd, 2016, the North Cascades Institute held the annual Northwest Youth Leadership Summit (NWYLS) at The Mountaineers’ facility in Seattle. I was asked as a part of the Natural Leaders Network, to a) be a Summit Guide for the youth participants, and b) co-facilitate a breakout session on the topic of diversity and inclusion in the environmental movement.
When I met the members of my summit group, I encouraged them to share the backstories of what sparked their passion to work in the outdoors, where they’d like to go, and what they’d like to gain from the NWYLS. I was genuinely impressed and excited to be able to hang out with such driven teenagers with a fresh perspective on the field of outdoor leadership.
A few of us grads/alumni facilitated a conversation on diversity and inclusion in the environmental movement. We asked participants, ranging from high schoolers to parks rangers, from graduate students to advocacy group board members, what diversity, inclusion and equity meant to them. We also prompted a conversation regarding the challenges we face in the movement. One of the first comments stuck out to me, and remained a prevalent focal point in the discussion: “The outdoor industry.”
As a former employee of an outdoor retailer, this response came as no surprise. I’ll be honest, I didn’t think about this issue much before, because I was happy to be there and an active part of the scene. I was around wonderfully inspiring people who shared a love for the outdoors and pushed me to push myself. Since having left that job to attend graduate school, I’ve been thinking more about how my experience working there has influenced the work I currently do, and what I can do as an outdoor leader/educator. My goal in this field is to break down barriers and obstacles that people may face to connect with nature. Based on the response and my reflection on the people I work with, what I see as a trending barrier are preconceived stereotypes or assumptions, on everyone’s part.
The outdoor industry gears up the people who are already living the outsider life. They are already out in the mountains, the water, and deep in the woods. This is reflected in advertising. For the born and raised city slicker who is on the brink of a new and active lifestyle, or maybe a new hobby, does this industry seem inviting to all? Not really. The image of people going “into the wild” is of a hardcore elite, with pricey and flattering clothing, special skills that make it seem like they are capable of talking to nature’s elements, and an intimidating set of muscles. Not only is the outdoor industry limiting themselves to a small demographic, but we, city slickers, also have this assumption that we need to have a jawline and abdominal muscles as chiseled as the rocks we want to climb in order to fit the mould.
Beyond the walls of the outdoor industry, assumptions and stereotypes are also pervasive in the field of environmental studies. For example, many of the participants at the summit, asked me about the Urban Environmental Education graduate program that I’m currently in. I’ve been explaining the urbanization of the environmental education field for months now, and I am trying my darndest to find a succinct and comprehensible way to articulate one of my greatest passions. It’s hard transferring the verbose I use with my academic peers, to those who never formally studied environmental education and social justice issues. It’s also hard to find a balance between advocating for what I feel strongly about, and not forcing my worldview to a community that may not want to be imposed upon.
That’s just it though. What I’m trying to do, as an urban environmental educator, is reach-out in a relatable way to the diverse crowd we see on a regular basis, and do so with cultural sensitivity. To include those who get their nature-fixing by walk or cycle commuting, who get in touch with wildlife by watching Planet Earth, getting people who sit under their local trees and finding a way for them to climb it. I’m trying to find ways to be inclusive in our messaging so that we can connect with everyone to some degree. As a young, Asian, 5’0 ft tall, twenty-seven year old, female, who has never owned a car and only wears ill-fitting hand-me downs, I’m breaking down the stereotypes of your typical “outdoorsman” by first, talking about it, and then following through on our goals to diversify the environmental movement through equitable opportunities.
Jamie Chong is an alumni of the Urban Environmental Education program.