Outside Business Journal

The Challenges of Inclusivity: Representation, Not Tokenism

True inclusivity takes movement on both sides: people of color developing their leadership skills and outdoor brands giving them the runway

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Four women of color clad in climbing gear and heavy backpacks beam at the camera: The image (above) represents far more than a moment among friends. The women had just earned their Single Pitch Instructor (SPI) certifications from the American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA), a small but important step in the advancement of women and people of color in adventure sports.

“I never saw myself stepping into the outdoor industry as a professional,” said newly certified instructor Genevive Walker. “It was never something I thought I could do. But this opportunity to get my SPI certification is about getting my foot in the door and seeing if I can go further.”

This authentic representation—of marginalized people gainfully employed because of their skills and merits—is what the industry needs to become truly diverse, equitable, and inclusive.

Many brands post token expressions of diversity (think: magazine ads, short films, and athlete profiles), or invite people from marginalized groups to speak in panel discussions at events like Outdoor Retailer. But this alone doesn’t bring more women, people of color, the differently abled, and folks from the LBGTQIA+ community into the business and culture of outdoor recreation. Doing that requires more than just showing black and brown faces on social media.

To avoid tokenism, the industry needs to actually recruit and hire people of underrepresented backgrounds across all types of roles. Oftentimes, companies fall back on the excuse that they can’t find qualified applicants—but that’s usually because they’re not looking hard enough, or in the right places.

Getting the Skills

Through their own initiative, people of color and other marginalized communities are acquiring the expertise they need to take on more prominent roles across the outdoor industry.

Organized by the affinity group Brown Girls Climb, the SPI course is one example. Thanks to the course’s specialized instructor training, these women are now better equipped to become professional guides—and therefore leaders—in the white male-dominated world of climbing.

“Brown Girls Climb came into this realizing that we had to step up our game,” said Bethany Lebewitz, one of the group’s co-founders. “As an organization trying to shift the culture of outdoor recreation, we realized that shift is going to require people of color and queer and adaptive climbers in leadership roles.”

Other affinity groups, such as Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, and Flash Foxy, also provide leadership training.

Qualified applicants are out there. Now, it’s up to senior executives to meet potential employees halfway.

The “Human” in Human Resources

Tokenism happens when companies and event organizers don’t do enough to promote hiring of those newly qualified applicants (like posting jobs in places where people of color are likely to see them), or limit their diversity initiatives to hiring without looking at the big picture.

“Companies need to make cultural changes from top to bottom,” said Monserrat Matehuala, the membership and communications associate at the AMGA.

For new employees to be successful and thrive, human resources managers need to look for workplace biases they might not be aware of. This is particularly true in towns like Jackson, Wyoming, or Boulder, Colorado, where most residents are white and socially mobile; those who don’t fit into the mold face added challenges that make cultural integration difficult. A black woman, for example, might have trouble finding a place to get her hair done. Or there may be no church community that suits her religious values. These things may seem small, but they add up, and they matter to a person’s well-being.

Creating safe environments sometimes means letting people stay rooted in their communities and work remotely, said Matehuala: Ultimately, “If folks aren’t prioritizing the mental health and physical well-being of their employees, they’re not as invested as they say they are.”

Through professional training, people of marginalized communities, like those four new SPI instructors, are acquiring the skills they need to make it in the outdoor industry. All they ask is to be granted the same opportunities as anyone else with the same qualifications.