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Changing the Default


Changing the Default

A prospectus addressing the inequalities and inaccessibilities in the outdoor industry.


The outdoor recreation industry is growing rapidly and still relatively new. For decades people have been finding joy in nature and the thrills it has to offer. These recreational opportunities have historically been seized primarily by the white upper middle class, often leaving out people of color and the lower class. While many outdoor educators and leaders are trying to open the metaphorical doors into nature to this disadvantaged community, there is an incredible lack of educational resources regarding race, gender, identity, and class in regards to their access to the outdoors. Many of us who are already involved and deeply connected to outdoor recreation have had enough privilege to be able to access the resources we’ve needed to grow as leaders and educators within the industry.


Outdoor recreation runs in my family and I recognize the advantages I’ve had, which has inspired me to reach out to those who are unfamiliar with this field or feel as though they don’t belong. I have worked as an outdoor educator for two years with the Outdoor Program at Portland State and have become more aware of the lack of diversity in participants, but especially in the eductors. Through research I did on my own time, I became aware of how hard it was to find information on the inequalities in the outdoors and that educators lacked the resources to learn more. My thesis proposes a comprehensive book for educators on America’s history of inequalities in the outdoors and a guide towards being more inclusive. The book will discuss land use, media portrayals of the outdoors, microaggressions, and the intersectionality between race, gender, and class.


The goal of the book is to provide a way for educators to understand and recognize problematic behaviors we’ve all been a part of and how we can grow from them and create a more inclusive environment. The book will show the importance of intersectionality within the outdoor industry, as there is no way to look at race without adding gender and class to the equation.



The audience for this book is going to be catering to current or potential outdoor educators, as a way to provide a resource for them to learn about communities that they might not have had experiences with. This demographic tends to be white and upper-class with a limited understanding of intersectionality, especially within the field of the outdoors. While not all outdoor educators fit into this demographic, the book is catered to any outdoor educator regardless of their race, gender, or class.

This book is primarily driven by a wide variety of secondary research, as many of the books and journals primarily discuss singular issues, with a lack of intersectionality. Many of the resources cover the issues surrounding race, showing how the outdoor industry is primarily white. This tends to be the largest critique of the outdoor industry, that it’s a “white person’s activity.” While there are people of color in the outdoors, according to data collected in the 2016 Outdoor Participation Report, 73% of outdoor participants were white, followed by 10% Hispanic, 9% African American, 6% Asian and 2% identifying as another race (Outdoor Participation Report, 2016). These statistics were similarly reflected in my own survey with 87.78% of respondents identifying as white, followed by 6.6% Asian/Pacific Islander, 3.3% Hispanic, and 1.1% African American. My own survey had 90 respondents and spanned across the United States and a variety of class, gender, and age. This statistic is something that spans across almost all surveys and studies done, and it is not a hard statistic to notice.


This is shown very clearly in media portrayals of the outdoor industry. While there is nothing stopping people of color from jumping into the field, it is hard to picture yourself in a position where no one looks like you. James Edward Mills wrote about his experience as a black man in the outdoor field, and while he says he’s never felt out of place he says he “can’t help but wonder how different the experience might be if there were more people in the profession that looked like [him].”(Mills, 2014) Carolyn Finney also mentions that in Vanity Fair’s May 2006 issue, titled the “Green Issue,” that out of sixty-three photos highlighting well known eco-activists, environmental organizations and celebrities that are known for their environmental advocacy, there were only photos of two African Americans and one African (Finney, 2006). How are young people of color supposed to see themselves in the outdoor industry if no one being advertised looks like them? While we can’t immediately change the diversity of outdoor educators, we can work towards making those in the field already more aware of the problem, more educated on how to discuss these inequalities and more open to the changing face of the outdoors.


As someone who has been heavily involved in the outdoors for over two decades, I will be the first to admit I wasn’t aware of this problem until I became an educator and had the issue pointed out to me. This is something I was able to be unaware of because of my own privilege, a privilege that many in the outdoor industry have. This privilege only becomes a fault when people are unaware of it. In my survey, I asked participants if they felt their access to, or experiences in the outdoors were affected by their race, gender, or class. Every response that answered “no” was white and middle to upper class. Some even discussed the specific privileges they have, one participant, who identified as white and upper class, said that their “family had the ability to buy or rent specific materials, the opportunity to take a day off from work to go to a mountain, and the car to get [them] there.” This is an important acknowledgement to make, as the first step to helping others is to understand your own privilege, which is a challenging thing to do.


Addressing this privilege comes with an awareness of one’s own race, gender, class, and ability. For many, class is overlooked in the discussion of inequality in the outdoors, despite it being potentially the largest factor for participation. In 2016, about 66% of participants made over $50,000 a year (Outdoor Participation Report, 2016). While many parks are free or have a low entrance fee, it is often forgotten how much money goes into preparation,  buying the gear, permits, car, gas, etc. to be able to participate. Not only is it money going out, it’s also not money coming in. One response echoed throughout a variety of respondents in my survey was that they couldn’t afford to take time off of work. In Outdoor Industry’s survey, 21% said their reason for not being involved in the outdoors was due to family responsibilities, while 18% felt that outdoor equipment is too expensive, and 10% felt that the places for outdoor recreation were too expensive (Outdoor Participation Report, 2016). This is a serious problem for those who want to get involved in the outdoors, but lack the resources.


On the contrary to this, many who are revered in the outdoors are living what’s called the “dirtbag lifestyle,” living in a van or traveling with little money in order to pursue their passions and activities. Mills mentions that this may have “little appeal to the emerging black professionals who might be the first in their families to attend college” (Mills, 2014). This history is an important thing to understand as an outdoor educator that everyone’s goals and relationships to the outdoors may be different. In my own conversations with people, many are hesitant to become involved in the outdoors because it’s something their family has viewed as dirty or scary because they or their families have had negative experiences in it. The goal of outdoor educators is to change this perception and give participants the tools they need to feel comfortable in the new environment. The tools needed vary from person to person, for example in the south after the Civil War there were places in rural areas known as “‘sundown towns’ where African Americans were warned to leave before dark or else be killed” (Karlson, 2018). This information is important for educators and participants to know, in order to understand each other. We are who we are because of our history and it’s not something that should be forgotten.


My research will tie all of these themes and others together to continue with the advocacy for intersectionality in the outdoors. Outdoor educators should be able to have access to this information and not have to do such extensive and time consuming research to understand it. The book I hope to write will bring all of this research and information to one place and make it accessible to everyone. Many journals and books out there are academic and can be challenging to understand without higher education in that area. My thesis will use inclusive language and include definitions of words and phrases that may seem complex or uncommon. This research should not only be available but accessible.