Following the events of the last few weeks, I've seen an increased interest in diversity in the outdoors. In this post, I want to share my experience as a mixed race person in nature, my commitment to doing more and resources for you to learn more.
There seems to be an expectation that if you look a certain way, you have a strained relationship with nature or an 'overcoming the inner city odds' story. For me, this isn't accurate. I've had a love of the outdoors and nature since I was very small. My family would take me on walks, to the beach, on picnics and to National Trust properties. My grandfather was a keen twitcher and volunteer bird ringer, and would point out different birds and wildlife to me as we went. My mum and grandma would help me identify the trees. I remember romps in the local woods with my grandparents' Golden Retriever Leo – Leo passed away when I was seven, so that shows you how young I was when my love affair with nature began.
I've never felt out of place outdoors. It's never even crossed my mind that I would not be welcome there. It's so much a part of me that I cannot imagine being separated from it.
I grew up in Hampshire and, probably because of my early induction, I've never felt out of place outdoors. It's never even crossed my mind that I would not be welcome there. It's so much a part of me that I cannot imagine being separated from it.
Riding as child – I think I must be about 7 in this photo
I started horse riding when I was five and, as a teenager, I was lucky enough to have my own horse (I got a part-time job to help pay for his keep). I'd escape on evenings and weekends into the local Forestry Commission land on his back, often with my Sony Walkman cassette player (remember those?) blasting tunes into my headphones under the changing tree canopy. When I was overwhelmed at college, I would drive to the local ponds to watch the lapping water and calm myself down. At university, without a suitable nature outlet, I was lost and unhappy. But after uni, I went into a series of jobs that were by chance or fate located in countryside locations, I got a mountain bike and I got my dog.
You don't have a choice but to enjoy nature in all its forms and weathers when you have sole responsibility for a large, very bouncy, frustratingly smart Labradoodle. His favourite type of weather is rain and he is not happy when he has to walk in the same places over and over again. He waits by the car to make a point.
Exploring locally then branched out into exploring internationally – although it wasn't necessarily a smooth process (I wrote here about how I started solo travelling). Since then I've tried new things; I went canoeing on the Mississippi river; I liked climbing so much I qualified as an indoor instructor; I started to learn how to sail; I went wild swimming for the first time; I built a bamboo bike and have been trying out some country lane cycling; I have recently started trying to run semi-regularly (I really hate running).
At no point have I ever stopped to think that I shouldn't do these things, either as a woman or a mixed race individual. It wasn't until I entered the more formalised outdoor, adventure and sustainability communities a few years ago that I realised that I was apparently an anomaly.
At no point have I ever stopped to think that I shouldn't do these things, either as a woman or a mixed race individual. I recognise now that this is a sign of my privilege and my upbringing. I don't remember ever explicitly being told, but it's implied in my family that if you want to do something you can. You just need to work out how.
Diversity in UK outdoor and adventure communities
In the mountains in Morocco in 2016, on my first solo travel trip with strangers
It wasn't until I entered the more formalised outdoor, adventure and sustainability communities a few years ago that I realised that I was apparently an anomaly. I'd hit the scene as 'diversity' was becoming a buzzword, and it seemed like every event I attended was paying lip service to their commitment to tackle the lack of non-white faces in the room.
Event organisers would approach me and say, 'We'd love to see people like you attend'. I started to wonder if I was being given opportunities because I was highly qualified or because I was a tick box on their diversity checklist. In one situation, I was offered a discount based solely on my name – no other requirements to fulfil. In an effort to be more inclusive, they were actually 'othering' me – and I was completely comfortable with my place in the outdoors. It makes me wonder how terrifying this would be for someone new on the scene.
Solutions: the importance of role modelling
Just because we share a skin tone, doesn't mean that we don't go outdoors for the same reason. In my case, I don't have any reason not to.
The central problem is this. It is possible to talk in circles about diversity for extended periods of time without taking any solid action on it. This doesn't mean the groups involved are not committed, it just means that they do not know where to start. Part of this is that everyone is searching for the one solution and there is not one solution to increasing diversity. Just because we share a skin tone, doesn't mean that we don't go outdoors for the same reason. In my case, I don't have any reason not to. We all have different backgrounds, lived experiences and financial situations. That's why you'll find any BAME individual hesitate when asked to speak for everyone – we can't, we are all individuals even if we have some broad shared experiences.
However, there are some simple ways to get started that will work across the entire demographic. As offensive as I found being approached at the time, the event organisers were onto something. When I was studying for my masters, I chose to focus on 'women in leadership' for my dissertation topic. One of the big takeaways from my research was that role modelling is vital – in that particular scenario, you look for qualities in leaders that you have seen in leaders previously. That's why we need to take positive action to diversify leadership and show different types of leaders to break the cycle of loud white men in positions of power.
The challenge is that these individuals should not be put on stages because of the colour of their skin, their gender or their disability, they should be there because their achievements are just as great as their white, able-bodied counterparts.
It's also why you have to take action to encourage individuals that look 'different' to the stereotype to take part in outdoor sports, activities and expeditions, include them in outdoor advertisements and stand them in front of audiences. I wrote about this for Adventure Uncovered in 2018. The challenge is that these individuals should not be put on stages because of the colour of their skin, their gender or their disability, they should be there because their achievements are just as great as their white, able-bodied counterparts. Only then do we move from 'othering' to 'role modelling'.
I think right now we are somewhere on the spectrum between the two, and that's OK (research also shows that sometimes you have to use affirmative action to kick start real change – see the Rooney Rule, which does not require that you hire someone of a different race, just that they are included in the interview process. This boosted the number of minorities in coaching positions, even though there was no requirement to hire them). We just need to make sure we are moving in the right direction.
A note, let's remember why we are doing this...
It's important to increase diversity in the outdoors is because of all the numerous benefits the outdoors confers on the individuals involved, as well as on the protection of the environment as a whole (I also discuss this at length in the Adventure Uncovered article, so I won't repeat it again here.)
How can I help?
Recognising my privilege, for me, role modelling is something that I can help with immediately. I have already committed publicly on my Instagram to sharing more photographs of me in the outdoors and I plan to share more about inclusivity in the outdoors on this blog.
I'm also working out how I can support in the identification and overcoming of other barriers in the UK as a medium to long-term goal. I already have another project in the pipeline with Richard Matthews to improve accessibility to adventure and outdoor activities for all – we are excited to be developing that in the next few months. I am also hashing out some ideas on a related personal project. Over the coming weeks, months and years, I want to learn more and work to create more positive change. (If you have any ideas, projects or want to collaborate let me know!)
How can you learn more about diversity in the outdoors?
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