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The outdoors are so white. Here’s how Lena Waithe and Jimmy Chin could change that

The outdoor industry has historically ignored people of color. The North Face is launching a council to improve access and equity.

The outdoors are so white. Here’s how Lena Waithe and Jimmy Chin could change that
[Photos: Rich Fury/Getty Images (Waithe), Brent N. Clarke/WireImage/Getty Images (Chin)]
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Who do you picture when you imagine a mountain climber? A backcountry skier? A world-class cyclist? Over the last century, the most common images associated with the outdoors, adventure, and exploration have been disproportionately white.

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The issue of diversity in the outdoor industry isn’t new, but over the last year companies operating in this space have been forced to reckon with their approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion—not just inside their own walls, but in how they portray outdoor enthusiasts in their advertising and the partners they choose to work with.

Last week, the North Face announced that Oscar-winning director Jimmy Chin and Emmy-winning writer and actor Lena Waithe will lead its Explore Council. Created last fall, the council will advise the company on providing opportunities for diverse communities, improving access to underserved communities, and broadening the very definition of exploration.

Chin is an obvious choice, as he’s been a long-time brand ambassador for the North Face, and his climbing film Free Solo (codirected with Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi) won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Eric Raymond, the North Face’s director of social impact and advocacy, says the company is looking at Waithe to be a voice from outside the traditional outdoor industry. “As we’re working to open the aperture around outdoor exploration to increase representation, Lena’s experience in Hollywood is incredibly valuable,” says Raymond. “She brings a unique perspective on how to impact culture, create opportunities, and tell stories.”

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In establishing the Explore Council, the North Face cited research showing that people of color have far less access to parks and outdoor spaces. The parks system and outdoor industry, like many others, is facing its own history with systemic racism. Myron Floyd, dean of the College of Natural Resources at North Carolina State University and a member of the Explore Council, has noted that segregation was common in outdoor recreation agencies, including the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Park System. “The underlying rationale for creating parks was this idea of U.S. nationalism, to promote the American identity, and the American identity was primarily white, male and young,” Floyd told NC State.

Early American conservationists had a history of racist ideology. Madison Grant founded organizations dedicated to preserving American bison and the California redwoods, but in 1916 he wrote the book The Passing of the Great Race, or The Racial Basis of European History, warning of “Nordic” peoples’ decline. Gifford Pinchot was the first head of the U.S. Forest Service but was also a delegate to the first and second International Eugenics Congress, in 1912 and 1921. John Muir, one of the pioneering figures in the environmental movement and the founder of the Sierra Club, had a deep history of racist and exclusionary views. “The way we created the wilderness areas we now rightly prize was racist,” Stanford historian Richard White told the Associated Press.

Those views set the stage for today. While people of color make up nearly 40% of America’s population, they account for just 30% of outdoor recreation, according to a 2018 study, which also found that “between 2008-2012, 95% of National Forest and Wilderness visitors were white.” In 2011, scholar Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: African Americans and the Great Outdoors, looked at 44 issues of Outside magazine between 1991 and 2001 and found that, of 4,602 published pictures in both ads and editorial, only 103 were of African Americans.

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Outdoor brands have been criticized for not acting as urgently on issues of diversity and representation as they do on climate change and conservation. Last June, chair of the Burton board Donna Carpenter published a blog post lamenting her own company’s lack of progress, with a commitment to improve. REI has collaborated with organizations such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, the Venture Out Project, and Unlikely Hikers, as well as working on the image of the outdoors in films such as Brotherhood of Skiing and Do Better Together. REI is also working on new guidelines for its partners to make sure there is diverse representation across race, age, gender identity and expression, body size, and disability; it has told its partners it expects them to have controls that protect against cultural appropriation.

For the North Face, as one of the outdoor industry’s most visible brands, bringing some Hollywood spotlight to the Explore Council aims to put these efforts into overdrive. The council also includes wildlife ecologist and National Geographic Explorer Rae Wynn-Grant, and board secretary for the Alaska Wilderness League and president and cofounder of Data for Indigenous Justice Jody Potts. As part of its efforts, the company committed $7 million to help improve equity in the outdoors.

“It’s been said that you cannot be what you cannot see,” says Raymond. “Representation is a key pillar to supporting an inclusive outdoors. And while representation has been a focal point of the North Face for years, it’s a process of continual improvement.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity.

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